Treating the Ganga as a cash cow
The Modi Government is ‘lying’ when it claims that most of the demands of Swami Sanand had been met, says India’s ‘Water Man’ Rajendra Singh
“Paanidari” (lordship of the water) over stretches of the Ganga had hit headlines 35 years ago. Like landlords (lords over land), it was alleged, Paanidars (lords of the water) were acquiring exclusive rights over different stretches of the river. They would pay a fee to the government by way of royalty and thereafter have controlling rights over fishing as well as use of the water in the particular stretch of the river.
Three and a half decades later, activists allege that the Modi government’s ambitious Namami Gange project treats the holy river as a cash cow to benefit private industry and interests. Commercialisation and privatisation of the river will be ecologically disastrous, they warn, and will adversely affect people in the long run.
While the UPA government had conceded the argument and stepped back by notifying the areas around the river Bhagirathi as an eco-sensitive zone in 2012 and thereby stalling the on-going projects, the Modi government is paying scant attention to environmental concerns, they say.
India’s longest river, with a length of 2,510 kilometres, flows through a fertile and densely populated area and is said to cover one-fourth of the country. While it is probably inevitable for private industry and hoteliers, etc. to take advantage of the river, former IIT Kanpur Professor GD Agarwal, known as Swami Sanand, had been fighting for a course correction for years. His over-three-month-long fast and finally his death in police custody, and the Prime Minister not replying to his letters, have revived the campaign and made it into a volatile issue.
“Nobody knew the Ganga better than him. He wanted the Ganga to get back its lost glory. Despite making tall promises, the government kept lying to him till the last day. They are lying even know, as they claim that “80 percent” of his demands have been met. None of his demands on the Ganga, that the BJP and RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat had personally promised in 2013, have been met,” says renowned water conservationist Rajendra Singh, who had known Agarwal for 40 years.
The Modi government has been actively pursuing another major electoral pledge, the ₹12,000-crore Char Dham All Highway Project, despite reservations from activists that significant portions of eco-sensitive, fragile habitats, would have to be disturbed to give way for the massive exercise
“Swamiji understood this government’s intentions well. He used to say naam mein mai, par karni hai Ganga se kamaai (They say Ganga is their mother, but they want to make profits out of the river).
Singh adds, “His only mistake was to trust Narendra Modi. Swamiji had been backstabbed by the BJP and the Prime Minister at every turn since 2014.”
In 2008, GD Agarwal went on a hunger strike against the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, demanding that three hydel projects, Bhairon Ghati (381 MW), Lohari Nagpala (600 MW) and Pala Maneri (480 MW), be stalled since they were severely affecting the ecology of the river.
Recalling a meeting with then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rajendra Singh claims that the Congress-led government was far more sympathetic to the Professor’s concerns.
“I still remember that meeting very vividly. We were explaining to Manmohanji the value of Ganga as cultural heritage, not just as any other river. We demanded that all the three projects on the Bhagirathi be stalled and the entire stretch be declared as an ecosensitive zone (ESZ),” he says.
Singh adds, “Manmohanji then asked us how much it would cost to stall all three hydel power projects. We gave him a conservative estimate of ₹600 crore. He had then exclaimed, ‘Does Ganga cost us only ₹600 crore?’
The former Prime Minister is learnt to have then summoned his Finance Minister (Pranab Mukherjee) and the Union Power Minister (Sushil Kumar Shinde) before agreeing to stall the projects and declare the Bhagirathi stretch as an Eco Sensitive Zone (ESZ).
Swami Sanand again went on a hunger strike in 2013 to demand that even the Alaknanda stretch be given the status of an eco-sensitive zone. This time around, the fast was triggered by the devastating Kedar Valley floods, and the dubious role of the Srinagar hydel project in exacerbating the flood situation.
UPA-2 was beleaguered and the publicity blitz by Modi’s PR machinery and the BJP’s aggression and corruption charges had made it a lame duck government. It was lurching from one crisis to another and that is when Narendra Modi stepped in.
Modi came to power next year, propelled into public limelight by catchy slogans. “Naa mujhe bheja gaya hai naa main aaya hoon. Maa Gange ne mujhe bulaya hai,” Modi had famously said in the months leading to May 2014.
“Swami Sanand was really upbeat about Modi. When the Namami Gange Mission was launched in 2016, with restoring Ganga’s aviral dhaara (flow) one of its objectives, he was very positive about the Modi government. But then he realised that Modi was all talk and no action. Invoking the Ganga was just an election rhetoric for him,” notes Singh.
Meanwhile, in 2016, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), after a round of 18 hearings, ruled that a significant destruction at the time of 2013 floods had been caused due to the Srinagar hydel project, constructed by Hyderabad-based GVK Group. The NGT ordered that GVK pay ₹9.2 crore as compensation and one lakh rupees each to every petitioner.
Almost 88 per cent of the electricity generated by the project is transported to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, and the remaining 12 per cent is given to Uttarakhand free of cost, as per the power-sharing agreement between the two states.
Ideally, the NGT ruling in 2016 should have made the BJP, in power at Centre, wary of going ahead with construction of more projects. However, in 2017, the newly-elected Trivendra Singh Rawat government in Uttarakhand urged the Centre to resume work on the three stalled, and other smaller, projects on the Bhagirathi Eco Sensitive Zone (BSEZ), which in effect would undo Swami Sanand’s hard fought victory to save the 100-km stretch of the Bhagirathi from Gomukh to Uttarkashi.
Overall, Rawat asked the Centre to get the all the “hurdles” cleared that were keeping some 33 hydel projects in Uttarakhand from taking off, many of them in the upper reaches of the Ganga.
“This government wants to build more hydel projects on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers. Swamiji, on the other hand, believed that they must be allowed to flow without any impediment, so that the adult Ganga remains healthy,” says Arun Tiwari, another long-time associate of GD Agarwal.
Tiwari, who has also written extensively on the Ganga, notes that private players are being increasingly involved in the dam construction activities.
As per government data, there are at least 37 hydel projects, proposed and in operation, on the Alaknanda river and its tributaries. The state of Uttarakhand has at least 98 such projects. Out of a total combined output of 3600 MW that these dams generate, at least 503 MW is generated by private players like the GVK Group.
Activists, including Singh and Tiwari, say that this share has been rising steadily over the last few years, as the BJP state government races to attain its aim of having a total of 336 hydel projects, which could generate over 27,000 MW of electricity, most of which would be given to neighbouring states at “throwaway” prices, more so if the BJP is in power in the other states as well.
According to data available with Uttarakhand Jal Vidhyut Nigam (UJVNL), Central Electricity Authority and other sources, private players are being given increasing preference in developing hydel projects in the state.
Just to talk about Alaknanda and Bhagirathi, the two Ganga tributaries for whom Swami Sanand laid down his life, nine of the 23 upcoming and ongoing projects, are in the private sector, despite reservations having been expressed by the NGT over the management of Srinagar hydel plant.
Several private sector companies, including P Chamoli Hydro Private Limited, Hima Urja Private Limited, Banala Stream Private Limited, Polyplex and Regency Aqua among others, have thrown their hat in the ring, abetted by a state and Central government driven purely by profit motives.
The Modi government has been actively pursuing another major electoral pledge, the ₹12,000-crore Char Dham All Highway Project, despite reservations from activists that significant portions of eco-sensitive, fragile habitats, would have to be disturbed to give way for the massive exercise.
“The highway road would kill off whatever is left of pristine Himalayan habitat surrounding the Ganga. Everyone understands that the upgraded road would bring in more pilgrims, make the char dhams more accessible and thus bring in more tourism revenue. More commercial establishments are already coming up,” says Ibrahim Khan, another associate of Swami Sanand.
Rajendra Singh quashes the government’s argument that the all-weather road is of strategic importance to the country, stating that the authorities would say whatever “Modi wanted them to say.”
“In April, they had already relaxed the BSEZ notification to allow infrastructure development, part of the all-highway project,” recalls Singh, adding that the earlier victory was being consistently diluted by the Modi government.
“Modi betrayed Swamiji on every front. We now will go to the people 2019 and tell them about how Modi has treated the Ganga and its ecology,” warned Singh, as he announced his plans for holding a Ganga Sadbhavna Yatra, which would start from Rajghat on October 23 and tour 30 cities along the banks of the Ganga.