Reviving the Ganga #3. Three ways in which the Modi government is adding fresh stresses to the river

A century ago, the gharial could be found all the way from the Indus to the Irrawady. The thin-snouted, fish-eating member of the crocodile family was spread out over 20,000 sq km at the time, studies estimate, and numbered between 5,000 and 10,000. Now, no more than 200 breeding adults survive in the wild.

The gharial is not the only Gangetic species at risk of extinction. The Gangetic dolphin is endangered as well. Catches of fish from rivers of the Ganga basin have declined 90% in the last 40 years, while otter numbers have dropped by a third over the last 30 years.

The well-being of these species, as also the lives of 400 million people inhabiting the Indo-Gangetic plain, depends on the revival of the polluted, erratically flowing Ganga and its tributaries. That’s what the Bharatiya Janata Party government promised to do when it announced the Rs 20,000-crore Namami Gange shortly after coming to power in 2014. The programme aimed to ensure nirmalta (purity) and aviralta (continuous flow) of the river.

Yet, four-and-a-half years later, the Ganga’s future appears more dire than ever. As the first two parts of this series reported, the efforts to control pollution in the river hinge on a public private partnership model that is untested. At the same time, rampant construction of environmentally suspect hydroelectric power projects in Uttarakhand’s Ganga basin is hampering the flow of the river.

Adding to the problems are three infrastructure projects being rolled out by the government. The Char Dham Pariyojana, a 10-metre wide all-weather road, will connect the four pilgrimage centres of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath. The Inland Waterways project intends to use 106 rivers and creeks for moving cargo, while the Ken-Betwa river linking project in the Ganga basin will divert water from the Ken, a tributary of the Yamuna that feeds the Ganga, to the Betwa for irrigation and drinking water. All three projects come with heavy environmental costs.

Two of these projects – the Char Dham road and the Inland Waterways – have escaped any environmental scrutiny. The Ken-Betwa link is coming up despite warnings about environmental damage. Between these projects, falling river flows due to climate change and, as the first two reports in this series described, Namami Gange focusing much more on nirmalta than aviralta, the river’s future looks more uncertain than before.

Out today, the third — and concluding — part of our series on how the Ganga is faring. Some parts of this reporting was relatively easy — like seeing the river as an integrated whole and mulling about the cumulative impacts of all these projects on it. What is harder is this: how does one understand the curious paradox of a hindu majoritarian government which comes to power promising to revive the river but leaves it worse off than before?

Is it ecological ignorance, which leaves them unable to see the river as an integrated whole? In which case, how did they arrive at this view of nature which is so shorn of any ecological understanding? Is it cynical politics where they just rode on the issue (as they seem to have done on the Ram mandir)? In which case, what are the compulsions contributing to that cynicism? This is a question we try to answer, especially in the Uttarakhand report, where we look at why the party is pushing dams despite knowing they are harmful for the river.

But there is something else here — and you see my thoughts turning more and more inchoate with each passing word — about a politics which seems to be so unmindful of the gap between promises and actions. I find it hard to understand that too. This gap makes me think of a book I just finished reading — and need to re-read. This is Lewis Lapham’s ‘Age Of Folly‘, where he talks about how democracy in America lost its vitality.

In his analysis, a large part of the answer lies in a society which turns cynical and stops discussing these matters.

For the better part of 200 years it was the particular genius of the American democracy to compromise its differences within the context of an open debate. For the most part (i.e., with the tragic exception of the Civil War), the society managed to assimilate and smooth out the edges of its antagonisms and by so doing to check the violence bent on its destruction. The success of the enterprise derived from the rancor of the nation’s loudmouthed politics — on the willingness of its citizens and their elected representatives to defend their interests, argue their case, and say what they meant. But if the politicians keep silent, and if the citizenry no longer cares to engage in what it regards as the distasteful business of debate, then the American dialectic cannot attain a synthesis or resolution. The democratic initiative passes to the demogogues in the streets, and society falls prey to the ravening minorities in league with the extremists of all denominations who claim alliance with the higher consciousness and the absolute truth.

Easier, he writes later in the book, for politicians to sway masses by claiming virtue than by engaging on a range of questions to which they often won’t have all the answers.

But that is an impulse which is always around. Bigotry, for instance, is always around and so too the impulse to ride on it. And so perhaps the question is: how do democracies come to this sorry pass?