In Yogi’s Uttar Pradesh, devout rowdies come first

Welcome to the dystopia in which 100,000-plus heritage trees and shrubs have to be felled to smooth the way for kanwariyas

Kanwariyas head back from Haridwar with huge truck-mounted column speakers
Kanwariyas head back from Haridwar with huge truck-mounted column speakers

Rashme Sehgal

Shiv ki baraat mein DJ nahi bajayenge toh kya shav yatra mein bajayenge? (If DJs don’t play at Shiv’s wedding procession, where will they play? At funerals?)” is how Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath justified kanwariyas (devotees of Shiva who go on the Kanwar yatra) travelling with DJs blasting music on loudspeakers along what was once a traditional pilgrimage path used to transport holy water from the Ganga to other cities.

Not only have decibel levels gone up manifold, the DJs are accompanied by women dancing with them on open trucks as they snake their way from Haridwar and Varanasi. So important are these kanwariyas for the ruling dispensation that helicopters are hired (on Adityanath’s instructions) to shower rose petals on them as they make their merry way, fed and feted every few yards.

During the last five years, their numbers have increased. Last year, the government calculated that there were over one crore kanwariyas using different routes: via Ponta Sahib down the 111 km stretch along the Upper Ganga Canal from Purkazi in Muzaffarnagar via Sardhana and Jani in Meerut to Muradnagar in Ghaziabad.

To ease the way for these crowds that surge down the highways, the state government has proposed that over 100,000 trees and shrubs planted along the Upper Ganga Canal be axed in order to widen the road built along the canal. This road widening exercise will cost the state exchequer over Rs 1,000 crore.

Two years ago, when the citizens of Meerut first heard of this project, there were widespread protests. Girish Shukla, who heads the Jagruk Nagrik association, started a ‘chipko’ movement where members gathered at Sardhana Teen Nahar ka Pul and hugged old sheesham and neem trees in order to highlight their importance for the environment.

“Seeing the response of the local public, the scheme was put off for a year but it has now been revived,” said Shukla.

Meerut-based intellectual Hari Joshi is horrified at this latest road widening project. “Why should so much importance be given to the kanwariyas? Religion must be kept in the private domain. Already, lakhs of ancient trees have been chopped to make way for highways and the Delhi–Meerut Regional Rapid Transit System (RRTS).

"The RRTS will have thousands of people pouring into the capital for work every morning and then returning home every evening. Scientists warn that in a period of climate change, a halt should be put on excessive travel. Our government is doing just the opposite.”

Another environmentalist also wondered why kanwariyas are being given so much importance: “They are largely a bunch of goons.” He went on to emphasise that “both the irrigation department and the forest department have failed to warn the state government that the Upper Ganga Canal is the source of agricultural prosperity for both Uttarakhand and UP.

"These kanwariyas throw waste and plastic bottles into the canal with impunity, mucking up the water, and impairing the functionality of small hydroelectric plants capable of generating about 33 MW if run at full capacity”.

Environmentalist Renu Paul points out that the Kanwar yatra lasts only 15 days, while the Upper Ganga Canal has developed its own ecosystem over the past 150 years. “This green and hitherto secluded patch is imperilled by the influx of such large numbers of people. Once the road is expanded, it will start being used for regular traffic movement.”

“It is such a beautiful place,” Paul adds. “There are picture postcard-like watermills, gates, old rest houses built on raised platforms surrounded by ancient trees. All this will go. What a terrible loss.’’

It is shocking how the forest department quietly acquiesces to every demand of the state government. PWD executive engineer Sanjay Pratap Singh, who is the nodal officer for this project, said, “The felling of trees will start initially in Meerut with the help of the forest department.” Justifying their action, a forest department official said that compensatory afforestation will take place in Lalitpur district, located 550 km from Ghaziabad.

Akash Vashishtha, a Ghaziabad-based environmentalist and lawyer, questioned the logic of carrying out compensatory afforestation in Lalitpur when Ghaziabad and its adjacent regions suffer from high levels of pollution and water shortage. “The trees along the Upper Ganga Canal are fully matured. Felling them will adversely impact local biodiversity and also displace wildlife,” he said.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) took suo motu cognisance of the decision and asked the district magistrates of the three affected districts and the UP forest department for detailed responses. The forest department stated that while 222.98 hectares of protected forest land were being cut down, the proposed compensatory reforestation would take place in non-forest land in Lalitpur, Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts, each located hundreds of kilometres from this region.

Instead of putting immediate brakes on the project, the NGT, during its sitting on 20 May, wanted to know what kind of road was proposed: a national highway, a state highway or any other type of road. They also asked that the basis for these classifications be produced.

The toothlessness of this action is enough to make one see red. What use are the environment ministry, the forest department and bodies like the NGT? Instead of working to protect our environment and water resources, they seem bent on destroying them.

As it is, our cities have become gigantic urban sprawls with tree cover stripped away to make way for multi-storeyed complexes that cut off natural wind-flows. Cement highways and asphalt parking lots, air conditioners and cars spewing out hot air, all add up to the ‘heat island effect’ which can increase urban temperatures by as much as 15ºC.

This is one of the main reasons why cities in north India have been recording all-time high temperatures. Trees are one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing urban heat. They provide shade. Water evaporating from their leaves can cool neighbourhoods by a few degrees even during the hottest parts of the day. Their leaves absorb and filter local air pollution.

Every school child knows this. And yet we have a government that is wilfully in denial. Between 2009 and 2023, India has diverted three lakh hectares of forest land for non-forest purposes, knowing fully well that compensatory afforestation does not work. In 2020–21 alone, around 30 lakh trees were cut for infrastructure projects.

A recent Danish nature sustainability study confirmed that India has lost six million fully grown trees. The few left standing in UP are now going to be hacked to fulfil the development fantasy of our rulers. This at a time when there are already multiple highways connecting Delhi to Haridwar. The kanwariyas are just an excuse. Most environmentalists believe infrastructure projects are being unleashed because they bring in mega bucks.

The Upper Ganga Canal provides water to a rich agricultural region. If it dries up, the loss will be irreplaceable.

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