The focus of their anger lay 400 kilometres to the north. Since 2002, Uttarakhand, where the Ganga originates, has been on a drive to build hydel power projects. The state, which currently produces 4,000 MW of hydel power from 98-odd projects, has since 2009 signed agreements to build another 350 dams.
Most of these are diversion dams, which block the river and divert its water through tunnels to turbines that generate electricity. The river rejoins its original course only after passing over the turbines, leaving riverbeds dry between the dam wall and the tunnel’s outlet. For instance, the Bhagirathi, one of the sources of the Ganga, runs through tunnels for half its 220-km length.
One result has been a spike in anti-dam movements in Uttarakhand, including the one by the sadhus. Maintaining that the Ganga is holy, they want it to flow without interruptions. In 2014, the BJP’s election manifesto took note of this and promised to ensure “the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority”.
Shortly after the party won the 2014 election, it announced a Rs 20,000-crore project to revive the river. Namami Gange was intended to ensure nirmalta (purity) and aviralta (continuous flow) of the river.
In Uttarakhand, ensuring aviralta was the priority. As the state’s rivers, which feed the Ganga, ran through tunnels for hydel power projects, both the rivers and the aquifers they recharged had dried up. Blasting to build dams and tunnels created new fissures into which mountain aquifers disappeared. Communities living by the river found local water sources drying up and had to walk longer distances to fetch their supplies. As dams fragmented rivers, fish such as the golden mahseer began dying out.
In addition, the new hydroelectric power projects run the risk of cataclysm. The Himalayas see both earthquakes and cloudbursts, like the one in 2013 at Kedarnath which killed over 5,000 people and damaged 4,500 villages. After the cloudburst, several hydel projects failed to hold their surging reservoirs. As they gave way, downstream valleys saw walls of water bearing down on them.
On November 1, 2010, heeding some of these concerns, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance cancelled three hydel projects in Uttarakhand. It also declared a 100-km stretch of the Bhagirathi – from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi – an eco-sensitive zone. Two years later, environmental studies ordered by the Uttarakhand High Court proposed a minimum distance between hydel projects and suggested that each dam be required to release enough water for a river to perform its ecological functions. This is called “environmental flow”, or e-flow. One of these studies, by the Wildlife Institute of India, recommended that 24 proposed projects on the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi be scrapped….
Oddly, after coming to power in 2014, the BJP-led NDA government rolled back all these protections. The second part of our series looks at the reasons why.