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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22, Dated 02 June 2012

    Ganga Damned

    The government has planned 600 dams on the Ganga and its tributaries. So how can it be serious about saving the holy river, asks Brijesh Pandey

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    ONCE REGARDED as amrit (nectar), a river that sustained all forms of life, the Ganga is now threated by the very civilisation it once nurtured. Not only is the river being subjected to overwhelming human and industrial pollution, it is now being threatened by the construction of massive dams. These ill-conceived projects in its upper reaches are effectively throttling the Ganga at its very source, the Gaumukh. In some places, the dams are slowing the mighty river’s flow to a trickle. Dammed, diverted and overtapped, the most revered of Indian rivers is under grave threat.

    While raising the issue in Parliament on 15 May, Samajwadi Party MP Rewati Raman Singh made an impassioned plea for saving the Ganga from dams. “Having commissioned the Tehri dam as the irrigation and environment minister of Uttar Pradesh, I have no qualms in saying that it was the biggest mistake of my life,” he said. “The then Union environment minister Maneka Gandhi was opposed to this project, but we were somehow led to believe that the Tehri dam would generate 2,400 MW of electricity and irrigate 1.67 lakh hectares in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Nothing of this sort happened. Not even 400 MW of electricity is being generated. I’m reminded of the words of social reformer Madan Mohan Malviya, who had said that if we construct dams like this in the Himalayas, then the whole of north India will be destroyed. If nothing is done now by the government, we will soon start an agitation from Allahabad.”

    The Ganga is in serious danger from 600 dams that are either operational, under construction or proposed. These dams will not only obstruct the river’s natural flow and divert water into tunnels to power turbines, but will also have cascading effect on the livelihood of communities and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Downstream communities also face the danger of flash floods when water is released from the dams.

    Not only that, if all the ongoing and proposed hydroelectric projects in Uttarkashi are completed as proposed by the Centre and state governments, the Ganga will get diverted into tunnels just 14 km from its origin in Gangotri. The river will remain tunnelled continuously for 130 km up to Dharasu near Uttarkashi.

    Environmentalists say tunnelling of the river for such long stretches would result in loss of flora, fauna, fertile soil and minerals. They also feel that the government lacks the will to rid the Ganga of dams.

    River Under Siege

    Dams of varying sizes are either operational, under construction or proposed in Uttarakhand

    of Bhagirathi and 61 percent of Alaknanda will dry up if all the dams are built

    The 330 MW hydro project on the Alaknanda lies in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which houses the Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers. Both are inscribed as UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites

    dams on Bhagirathi and Alaknanda should be scrapped in order to protect Uttarakhand’s biodiversity, says the Wildlife Institute of India

    130 km
    of the river will remain tunnelled continuously if the proposed dams are constructed

    In 85 percent of the projects, alterations in capacity ranging from 22 percent to 329 percent were found, says CAG

    ACTING ON a Supreme Court directive in February 2009, the Ministry of environment and Forests (MoEF) commissioned two studies to IIT Roorkee and wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. The green brigade says the IIT Roorkee study is a recipe for disaster. Instead of assessing the danger to Ganga’s tributaries from existing hydropower projects, it bats for more.

    Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) accuses the report of having a pro-dam bias. Although in 2010 the Centre had decided that no hydropower projects will be built on the initial stretch of the Bhagirathi, the IIT Roorkee report lists hydropower projects on this stretch as under construction, and tries to build up a case for restarting work on these projects. “This is a fundamentally flawed study,” says Thakkar.

    He further stresses that the difference between the IIT Roorkee and WII reports is very stark. According to the WII report, which was made public on 16 April, a day before the third National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA)meeting, 34 dams on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda should be scrapped as they will cause irrevocable harm to the biodiversity in Uttarakhand. The hydroelectric projects are expected to generate 2,600 Mw of electricity. The big projects in the list include 530 MW Kotlibhel-2, 320 MW Kotlibhel-1B, 250 MW Tamak Lata, 381 MW Bhairon Ghati and 195 MW Kotlibhel-1A.

    In its interim report, the WII also said that out of the five projects they reviewed, three shouldn’t be allowed as they’d create a severe impact on the river’s biodiversity. One of the three projects is the 330 MW Srinagar hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda. “What is shocking is the MoEF’s approach,” says Thakkar. “The report says that the project should not be given clearance as it is located in the buffer zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, which houses the Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers, both included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. It also poses a serious threat to species like snow leopards and brown bears. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) rejected the Alaknanda project twice, once in May 2011 and again in October 2011, but surprisingly on 8 November 2011, the MoEF gave clearance to the project.”

    The report notes that stopping construction of dams is important to safeguard critically important habitats that support mammals such as wild goat, antelope and barking deer, and fish such as mahseer, snow trout and 16 other globally threatened fish species.

    In another damning report titled, ‘Performance Audit of Hydropower Development Through Private Sector Participation’, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) said that the Uttarakhand government had overlooked environmental concerns and was pushing the state towards a major environmental catastrophe by following an aggressive hydropower policy.

    Union environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan in Allahabad

    Ganga calling Union environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan in Allahabad

    Calling the Uttarakhand government’s policy of pursuing hydropower projects as “indiscriminate”, the report stated that 48 projects, with a total planned generation capacity of 2,423 MW, had been undertaken by Independent Power Producers (IPP) in the state from 1993 to 2006. However, till March 2009, only 10 percent of the projects with a generation capacity of 418 MW were complete and operational. Another area of concern is the inadequate pre-feasibility studies of projects, deficient project execution and absence of monitoring and evaluation of the projects by the Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), which is the nodal agency.

    The report also pointed to the power generation capacity enhancement after a project was sanctioned. In 85 percent of the projects, alterations in capacity ranging from 22 percent to 329 percent were found. Another grey area pointed out by CAG is the Uttarakhand hydropower policy that allows a private player to divert up to 90 percent of the river water to power the turbines, leaving just 10 percent to flow in the natural course against the global average of 25 percent.

    The audit examined the case of the Alaknanda river valley to gain an insight into the problems arising out of river tunnelling. The report says that in Alaknanda valley, 60 hydel projects, entailing a diversion of 249.60 km, were either built or were in the pipeline. The report cautions that if appropriate measures to ensure adequate downstream flow are not taken, it may cause a devastating effect on the region falling under the river valley. The report also cautions that this Himalayan zone is the most fragile and tectonically active, falling in the seismic zone 4/5 — indicating high risk of earthquakes.

    Uttarakhand has overlooked environmental concerns by following an ambitious hydel policy, says the CAG report

    What is shocking is the fact that some of the projects have gone to developers who have no prior expertice in hydropower generation, leave alone building dams in a seismic zone. Therefore, pan masala firms, tourism firms, cycle manufacturers and general developers have been allowed to set up hydropower projects.

    The irregularities and environmental degradation pointed out by the CAG report are borne out by real-life experiences.

    For 46-year-old Buddhi Balak Chamoli, of Dhari village, dams are not a symbol of power but of deceit and destruction. Pointing to the 330 MW hydropower project in Srinagar, he says, “when this dam was approved, the allotted capacity was 200 MW and the dam height was 63 metres. Suddenly, they increased the height to 93 metres and the capacity to 330 MW. I wonder who approved this.”

    This increased capacity has not only stoked further fears of death and destruction but also the submergence of the 16th century Dhari Devi temple on the banks of the Alaknanda. “This temple should be saved from being submerged,” says Chamoli. “Even our houses have developed cracks due to constant rock blasting. It could collapse any day. Who will compensate us for that? Why can’t the government come clean on the project and explain why and how the parameters have changed, allegedly at the behest of the developer (Secunderabad-based Alaknanda Hydro Power Company).”

    DHARI VILLAGE has seen several flashpoints between locals and the authorities. Residents of Srinagar and Kalysaur area want the project to be redesigned so as to “maintain free flow of the river along its natural course”, and to reduce the damaging effects on forests and ecology.

    Several large dams were proposed between Gangotri and Uttarkashi, namely, Bhairon Ghati 1 and 2 and Loharinag Pala, a 600 MW dam being built by NTPC at Pala Maneri. Work had already begun at the now-abandoned Loharinag Pala along with peripheral work at Pala Maneri. Bhairon Ghati 1 and 2 are on the drawing board.

    ‘The Tehri dam has damaged the region’s rich biodiversity. It has already fragmented the migration of fish,’ says VB Mathur

    It took several fasts unto death by Prof GD Agarwal (Swami Sananda), a former dean of IIT Kanpur, to restore some of Ganga’s glory. Demanding free flow of the Ganga in its natural form from its origin in Gangotri to Uttarkashi, Dr Agarwal began a fast unto death on 13 June 2008. He suspended his fast 18 days later after Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde announced a High Level expert Group (HLEG) to look into the technical issues to ensure adequate water flow in all stretches of the Bhagirathi. Dissatisfied with the delays and the nature of discussions in the HLEG, Dr Agarwal resumed his fast in New Delhi on 14 January 2009, but withdrew on the assurance of the PMO.

    However, when nothing much happened, he again sat on a fast and this time, after 36 days, the government buckled under pressure, and accepted all his demands. The then environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, announced that the government will scrap all hydropower projects between Gangotri and Uttarkashi. On 1 November 2010, the government also declared the 135 km stretch from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone, which ensures that no more dams can be built on this stretch.

    Locals too have complained, but who is listening? Ravi Chopra, director, People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, says, “First of all, accept the conditions of the world Commission of Dams. One of the most important points is that one should take the concurrence of the locals before going ahead with such projects. That doesn’t happen here. Public consultations are a real sham.” Tired of waiting for the NGRBA to meet and push the river cleaning programme, Chopra quit as the non-official member of the authority.

    Already, there are visible signs on the ground of the impending catastrophe. In several villages, houses have developed cracks due to blasting at construction sites. Landslides and floods are the other real threats coming true. “One of the main effects will be observed at Haridwar, where there will be surges in the daily flow,” says Chopra. “Whenever water is released from dams, especially Tehri, there is a huge release of water into the river. Now, this surge disturbs the river’s ecosystem. If you go along the banks of the Bhagirathi, you will hear stories of how people have been swept away by a sudden surge of water.”

    Rewati Raman Singh

    ‘BY commissioning the Tehri dam as the the irrigation and environment minister of Uttar Pradesh, I accept that I made the biggest mistake of my life. We were made to believe that the dam would generate 2,400 MW of electricity but that never happened. ’

    Rewati Raman Singh, Samajwadi Party MP

    Rajendra Singh

    ‘THERE is no serious effort on the government’s part. There are experts in the NGRBA, but till now we have not been given any responsibility. In meetings, the agenda of cleaning up the Ganga is hardly mentioned. There is no planning.’

    Rajendra Singh, Magsaysay Award Winner

    Himanshu Thakkar

    ‘WHAT is shocking about the Ministry of Environment and Forests is the fact that when the Forest Advisory Committee( FAC) rejected the 330 MW Alaknanda project twice, the ministry still went ahead and gave its clearance.’

    Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP

    Dr. Ravi Chopra

    ‘PUBLIC consultations are a real sham. One needs to accept the conditions of the World Commission of Dams, which is that one should take the concurrence of locals before going ahead with such projects. But that doesn’t happen here.’

    Dr. Ravi Chopra, Director, People’s Science Institute

    Though Union Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan refused to give an interview, sources in the ministry indicate that the government is seriously contemplating banning all kinds of dams on the Ganga and its tributaries. But environmentalists are not ready to believe the government. “It took prof Agarwal to go on another fast unto death to force the government to convene the third meeting of the NGRBA,” says an environmentalist not wanting to be named. “The NGRBA, which was constituted in February 2009, has met only twice. The PM talks of everything but an effective strategy to restore the Ganga’s pristine glory. When the attitude of the government is such that we have to fight even for a meeting then you can very well imagine the situation.”

    MAGSAYSAY AWARD winner and former NNGRBA member Rajendra Singh says, “There is no serious effort on the government’s part. There are experts in the NGRBA, but till now they have not been given any responsibility. In meetings, the agenda of cleaning up the Ganga is hardly mentioned. There is no planning. They should at least meet every 3-6 months. If the government thinks just by declaring the Ganga a national river it has done its duty, then it’s mistaken. Like the tricolour, there should be a law for protecting the Ganga’s honour.” Like Chopra, Singh too quit the NGRBA.

    For Bimal Bhai, who has been fighting for the cause of the Ganga, there is also the question of inadequate rehabilitation measures. “The Tehri dam, which has submerged thousands of acres and hundreds of villages and displaced thousands of people, is threatening to flood 75 more villages as dam authorities have raised the water level in the reservoir to 830 m from the original 820 m,” he says. “Vast areas have been flooded and hundreds of families are facing eviction as their villages are on the verge of being submerged.”

    Aquatic life is also under threat. According to WII dean VB Mathur, “The Tehri dam has already done a lot of damage to the rich biodiversity. There is a decline in the population of mahseer in the upstream of the Bhagirathi due to the barrier posed by the dam. It has fragmented the migration of fish. If new dams come up, they will further add to the damage.”

    Mathur argues that the loss of power generation due to scrapping of the 34 hydropower projects can be recovered. “world over, the losses from power transmission is 15 percent. In our case, the power transmission loss is 30-40 percent, which is huge. So if you can reduce those losses, then every power unit saved is a unit generated. And that is why power management is very important,” he says.

    A lot more than just power management needs to be done if the government’s target of a clean and free-flowing Ganga by 2020 is ever to be achieved. The Ganga and its tributaries sustain around 400 million people. Yet, even after a quarter century of trying, the government is nowhere near reversing the alarming damage to this important lifeline. The ancient, holy Ganga seems to be trapped in the unholy mess of modernisation.

    Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
    [email protected]

    A Six-Part Series

    1/6 Holy river Unholy mess

    2/6 Polluted: River Turned Into A Drain

    3/6 Choked: A River Encroached

    4/6 Burdened: Curse Of The Tributaries

    5/6 Gapped: Big Scheme, Small Result

    6/6 Awakened: Importance Of A Lifeline

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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 22, Dated 02 June 2012



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