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?

Urban planning: Why Gujarat’s cities are losing their fight against a changing climate

Out today, the second — and concluding — part of our series on Gujarat and climate variability.

Urban planning has seen a lot of changes in Gujarat.

Take Rajkot. In 1973, when this town in Saurashtra became a municipality, its municipal corporation was responsible for urban planning. That changed in 1976 when Gujarat passed the Gujarat Town Planning and Urban Development Act. Following this, Urban Development Authorities were set up in Gujarat’s biggest towns, and urban planning responsibilities were divided between these new bodies and the municipalities. While municipalities would handle town plans, the Urban Development Authorities would draw up development plans.

The difference is one of scale. Development plans work on larger areas – such as planning the city’s expansion – and look 20 years to 30 years into the future. They map the broad contours of a city such as zones and road networks. Zones include categorisations like residential, industrial and green spaces. On the other hand, town plans flesh out the development plan in detail, and work on a shorter timeframe.

To understand how Rajkot is preparing for a changing climate, which has resulted in more intense heat waves and changing rainfall patterns in Gujarat, as reported in the first part of this series, it is important to look at the functioning of the Rajkot Urban Development Authority or RUDA.

Gujarat is battered by heat waves, floods, drought. How are its cities coping?

What does the climate map of Gujarat currently look like?

Southern parts of the state get fewer days of rainfall now. In Surat, for instance, locals say that rainfall patterns over the city began changing about 15 years ago, with the city getting fewer days of rain each year. However, the rainfall is more intense, so Surat floods more often.

In Ahmedabad, 270 km to the north, the mercury topped 50 degrees Celsius last year – the previous high was 47.8 degrees Celsius over 100 years ago, in 1916. Another 150 km to the north lies Banaskantha, a normally arid region. Here, heavy rains caused flooding this year. To the south-west, in arid Saurashtra, farmers and scientists talk about delayed monsoons, increasingly torrential downpours and increased flooding.

There is little that is surprising here. Across India, climate variability is disrupting the structures of everyday life. In 2015, changing mid-latitude westerlies triggered a whitefly infestation that ruined Punjab’s cotton crop. In Tamil Nadu, rising sea temperatures have affected the fish catch. Inland, towards the town of Sivagangai, a weakening South-West monsoon has contributed to a drop in farm earnings and rising indebtedness. In Bihar, scientists in the agriculture university outside Bhagalpur say that crop yields are falling as heat waves increase in frequency.

The first five states Scroll.in’s Ear To The Ground project reported from – Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Bihar – were not doing much to adapt to, or mitigate the effects of, such climatic changes.

What about Gujarat?

Can the courts save India’s rivers from pollution? Tirupur shows the answer is no

the second — and concluding — part of our trip down the Noyyal (see previous post).

A slum sprawled on one side of the river. In the distance, a factory belched smoke in the air. The riverbed was overrun with weeds and crammed with plastic bags that were half buried into the earth. An earthmover scooped gunk from an open drain and dumped it on top of the debris. The river itself was a thin trickle of black.

Welcome to Tirupur, an industrial city in central Tamil Nadu, where India’s judicial system tried – and failed – to save a river.

The Noyyal is a small river which starts in the western ghats and flows 170 kilometres to merge into the Cauvery. It passes through Tirupur, where factories have been emptying out effluents in its waters ever since a textile hub came up in the 1970s.

After the state failed to protect the river, in 1996, the Supreme Court intervened. It ordered dyeing units in Tirupur to shut down if they could not stop polluting the river. Fifteen years later, in 2011, the Madras High Court followed up by applying the “Polluter Pays” principle, directing the dyeing factories to become zero discharge units by recycling waste water and pumping it back for reuse.

Since then, the larger units in Tirupur have set up their own effluent treatment plants. The smaller ones have come together to set up Common Effluent Treatment Plants. In all, 18 CETPs are operating here.

But the river still does not look clean.

The first part of this series flagged how the state administration in Tamil Nadu has been unable to protect the Noyyal. That story traced the river’s journey from its source till Coimbatore.

This story looks at what happens to the Noyyal after it leaves Comibatore, and why even judicial remedies to protect the river have failed.

How a river in Tamil Nadu turned into a sewage canal

A narrow little rivulet splashes down, bouncing from boulder to boulder as it descends the rockface. It pauses to catch its breath in a tiny pool limned by trees, before rushing downhill again, merging with other streams to form a small river called the Noyyal.

For centuries, the river’s 170-km course used to take it past the farms, forests and villages of Tamil Nadu, before sinking it into the embrace of the great Cauvery.

In recent decades, this landscape has changed.

Noyyal’s basin – the area drained by the river and its tributaries – has become one of the densest urban landscapes in the state. The cities of Coimbatore and Tirupur, which are located here, are now among India’s leading industrial clusters. The basin has seen an exponential rise in population. Between 1991 and 2011, the number of people living here doubled from 19.5 lakhs to 42 lakhs. With more people settling in the cities, the urban population mushroomed from 9 lakhs to 33 lakhs. Such a large number of people moved to the cities that the rural population actually fell.

Spikes in population, urbanisation and industrial activity bring with them questions of sustainability.

At Kovai Kutralam in Kachimanathi Reserve Forest, one of the starting points of Noyyal’s journey, the water is so clear, you can scoop it up to drink.

What happens as it flows ahead?

The first of a two part series on the river.

A tsunami of debt is building up in Tamil Nadu – and no one knows where it is headed

G Venkatasubramanian trots out some astonishing numbers. Over the last 15 years, he and his fellow researchers at Pondicherry’s French Institute have been studying debt bondage among families in 20 villages in Tamil Nadu. Half of these settlements are in the coastal district of Cuddalore, and the others are in the adjoining district of Villupuram.

Their study is throwing up some puzzling changes in how much these families borrow – and how. In 2001, the average annual income of these families was Rs 16,000. Average debt was Rs 10,000. Come 2016, annual income has risen five-fold to Rs 80,000. Average debt, however, stands at Rs 250,000. This is a 25-fold increase.

How these families borrow has changed too. Earlier, only land-owning communities – Mudaliars, Chettiars or Reddiars – lent money. But now, said Venkatsubramanian, the Scheduled Castes are increasingly lending and borrowing among themselves. “A family will borrow Rs 50,000 and lend Rs 25,000,” he said. At the same time, communities that once looked down upon moneylending are entering the trade. The Nadars of southern Tamil Nadu, for instance, have begun lending in central and northern parts of the state.

Why Tamil Nadu’s fisherfolk can no longer find fish

“What did you catch?” Alagairi Madhivanan shouts across to the fisherman in a small boat to our left. The young man stops scanning the net he has just pulled out of the lagoon, turns towards us and says, “Five fishes.”

His answer echoes what Madhivanan has been telling me over the past hour as his small fibre-bodied boat nosed through Tamil Nadu’s Pichavaram mangroves – it’s getting harder and harder to find fish. As recently as a decade ago, fishermen like him in this part of the state, midway between Pondicherry and the fishing town of Nagapattinam, made one fishing trip every day. They would head out before dawn and come back with the day’s catch by half-past eight.

But now, Madhivanan does two trips each day – two hours in the morning and another two in the evening. His fellow fishermen – the ones with bigger boats – are staying out as long as three days looking for fish. It is the same story in other parts of Tamil Nadu. Travel further north to the fishing port of Kasimedu near Chennai and you will find fisherfolk who stay out at sea for as long as a week. Head south to Nagapattinam and you will hear that fishermen, in the quest for catch, are sailing into Sri Lankan waters, even at the risk of landing up in jail.