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?

Reviving the Ganga #2 Modi said he would revive Ganga but his government is doing the opposite by reviving dams

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.

Reviving the Ganga #1. Modi’s clean Ganga plan hinges on private companies tackling sewage. Will it work?

In September 2014, shortly after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first meeting on the Ganga. The river had featured prominently in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. The Ganga was both jeevan dayini, the giver of life, and mukti dayini, which sets the soul free, the document said.

But all was not well. “Even after decades of independence, the Ganga continues to be polluted and is drying,” said the manifesto. It went on to assert that the BJP was committed to ensuring “the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority”.

The Indo-Gangetic plain is home to a little over 5% of the world’s population. The Ganga and its tributaries bring in fresh water, recharge groundwater aquifers and drain wastewater. The survival of an estimated 400 million people – and the biodiversity amidst them – hinges on the health of the Ganga.

Modi’s meeting in September 2014 was one of the first signs the BJP intended to make good its election promise… Four-and-a-half years later, however, contradictory decisions by the government have pushed the Ganga into deeper trouble than before. On one hand, the government has moved to reduce river pollution, mainly by privatising sewage collection and treatment in 97 cities and towns along the river…

At the same time, the government has launched a set of other projects that further erode the river’s ecological foundations. Environmentalists have already expressed doubts about the Char Dham Pariyojana, a 10-metre-wide road between the temple towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, which is being built in the landslide-prone Garhwal Himalayas.

They have also criticised the large-scale dredging for the Inland Waterways project to ferry cargo on the river. Besides, environmentalists say, flows in the river will be hurt by the Ken Betwa river-linking initiative and the 450 hydel power projects being built on the river in Uttarakhand.

Last November, I reported on this three-part series on how our Hindu majoritarian government’s promise to revive the Ganga are coming along. Part one looked at the government’s work on pollution abatement.

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.

No city is an island: Lessons from Delhi’s odd-even experiment

The Delhi government’s 15-day odd-even initiative to contain vehicular emissions has made little or no difference to air quality in the capital, The Hindu reported last week.

The report claims that peak pollution levels during the first week of the scheme – which moved cars with odd licence plates off the streets on alternate days – are “either comparable or just slightly lower” than the high levels observed from the beginning of December.

This is not surprising. The odd-even rule wasn’t a bad idea. But the pollutants floating around in Delhi’s poisonous air are not generated by the city alone

india’s coal boom and attendant air quality fears…