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.

Sand mining in Tamil Nadu is incredibly destructive – but it’s also unstoppable

For the longest time, V Chandrasekhar fought a lonely battle.

When sand miners first came to his village near Pondicherry in the 1980s, most of his fellow villagers stayed quiet. They stayed quiet when the local riverbed went down by 30 feet, local groundwater levels collapsed, wells dried out and then filled up with saline water as sea-water moved into the space vacated by freshwater aquifers. They stayed quiet even when the miners began disturbing the dead. “We bury our dead on the river bank,” said Chandrasekhar, “and body parts were getting disinterred.”

The villager-turned-activist knocked on other doors. But to no avail. Local bureaucrats and police officials did not help. He had a short-lived glimpse of victory in 2010 when he turned to the courts, petitioning the civil court and then the Madras High Court. The High Court issued an order staying sand mining. But, Chandrasekhar said, the state did not implement it. He filed a case in the National Green Tribunal at Chennai which gave another favourable order. That was not followed either.

Welcome to one of the more intriguing dimensions of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. As the previous story in this series reported, rampant sand mining has hurt the state in several ways. It has damaged rivers, contributed to a collapse of groundwater levels and imperilled farming livelihoods. With the industry functioning through subcontractors who illegally stockpile and sell sand, the state is believed to have lost thousands of crores as revenue each year.

It raises a large question: how could something so harmful continue so long? As the first story in this series reported, successive state governments have supported the trade. But why did the other checks and balances – local communities, rival political parties, media and courts – fail to oppose sand mining?

This story, which is the third and final in the series, attempts to answer that.

What does Tamil Nadu’s experience with sand mining tell us about our society’s ability to challenge/stop environmental damage? As Scroll’s #eartotheground project did its reporting into sand mining, this question loomed larger and larger. This story, the third in our series, is what we concluded.

Think sand mining damages the ecology? It ruins politics as well

…Villages talk about collapsed groundwater levels, wells that do not fill even when the river is brimming, wells in coastal areas which have turned saline. Little here is surprising. These ecological changes are well-known side-effects of sand mining. But the damage done by sand mining isn’t just ecological. As Scroll found while reporting from Tamil Nadu, rampant sand mining has damaged the state in several other ways too.

Politicians aren’t only messing with Tamil Nadu’s water – they’re making Rs 20,000 crore from sand

Out today, the first instalment of our three-part series on sand mining in tamil nadu.

Stepping onto the bank, the first thing that’s visible is a ten-wheeled tipper. It grinds to a halt at the end of a queue of similar trucks. Beyond it stretches a vast riverbed. That is the Thenpennaiyar, one of the larger rivers in central Tamil Nadu. It is summer and there isn’t a drop of water in the river. The riverbed, with its carpet of sand, is warming under the sun. It looks like it has been ploughed by a giant tractor. Long trenches are separated by ridges that are wide enough to serve as roads for the tippers. All along the monochrome riverbed are queues of trucks. At the head of each queue is an excavator. The arm of the machine dips into a trench, pulls out a shovelful of sand and pours it into the tipper waiting alongside. As the tipper fills up, it moves away, and another tipper takes its place.

It’s hard to tell how far this sand quarry stretches. The trenches are as deep as seven metres. The ridges are all that is left of the original riverbed. A scab of dark earth is visible at the bottom of one trench. So much sand has been scraped away that the Thenpennaiyar’s clay base stands exposed. According to locals, anywhere between 2,500-3,000 tipper-loads of sand leave from here each day. With each tipper designed to carry 20 tons, that’s 50,000 tons of sand a day. This quarry in Villupuram district, about an hour from Pondicherry, is a good introduction to the daunting scale of sand mining in Tamil Nadu. The Thenpennaiyar enters this part of northern Tamil Nadu from Karnataka and flows through the district for about 100 kilometres before entering the neighbouring district of Cuddalore. In this stretch, said locals, there are two more quarries of similar size. And that’s just one river in one district.

How Karnataka and Tamil Nadu mismanaged their water and then blamed each other

Why is the Cauvery such a recurring flashpoint between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu?

In recent days, an array of hypotheses have been advanced to help answer that question. Some of these are broad in their scope – tracing the long history of the conflict. Others focus on the here and now – rainfall patterns and reservoir levels this year. Yet others have taken a more sociological look – which is how we ended up with diagnoses that include political grandstanding, Kannadiga nationalism, the role of the media, and more.

In the process, however, some ecological questions have not received the attention they deserve.