The Ganga agitation and the question of preserving the Himalayan ecology has become a deadly cocktail of politics and religion. Behind the scene, of course, at play are powerful business interests. What is needed is an independent scientific assessment of the problem and preparation of a blueprint for preservation of the Himalayan rivers and associated ecology, says Dinesh C Sharma.
The floods in the Ganga that devastated Uttarakhand in June may have subsided but its aftermath continues to keep the hilly state on the edge. The indefinite fast of Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand in Haridwar to press for restoring ecological and spiritual sanctity of the river has crossed 100 days. Now he has stopped accepting even water.
The swami is not the regular sadhu you find on the ghats of Haridwar or during the Kumbh Mela in Allahabad. Earlier known as Guru Das Agrawal, he is a former professor of environmental engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and former member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. After his retirement, he had been leading the life of an ascetic and was indoctrinated as a swami three years ago.
Agrawal began his fast on June 13, four days before the Kedarnath disaster struck. His main demand is halting work on all hydel power projects and dams under construction in the valleys of Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini, and constitution of an independent group to chalk out a plan for conservation of the Ganga.
The movement for conservation of the river and all its tributaries in Uttarakhand has been going on intensively for the past seven years and has acquired political overtones. A clear divide is visible between environmental groups and social-religious activists involved in this movement. Not just this, deep fissures have emerged within the two sides too.
At stake is the issue of environmental damage caused due to construction of a series of dams in the state. The way damage due to heavy rains and landslides got amplified after the Kedarnath disaster is being cited as a direct consequence of tinkering with the fragile ecosystem.
For the saffron side, it is not just an environmental issue. For them, it is the question of preserving the sanctity or the holiness of the Ganga which is revered by devout Hindus. They advocate unhindered flow (or ‘aviral dhara’ as they call it) of the river. Agrawal represents this line of though and action. He is being supported by Ganga Ahvaan -- the aggressive youth brigade engaged in bringing religious leaders of all shades on one platform and has been lobbying with the centre on this issue.
On the other hand, mainstream environmentalists feel that the problem should be addressed purely based on principles of ecology and environment without linking it to religious or cultural factors.
The governments at the Centre and the state have been pandering to saffron interests keeping their respective electoral interests in mind. In response to an earlier fast by Agrawal and agitation by Ganga Ahvaan, the central government agreed to scrap two major power projects -- 380 MW Bhaironghati and 480 MW Pala-Maneri hydel projects -- in 2009.
The letter the then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee wrote to the agitators mentioned that the decision was taken in deference of religious and cultural sentiments of people, and not on environmental grounds. Later 600 MW Loharinag Pala project was also scrapped. However, the damage caused by the two under-construction projects in Bhagirathi valley is still to be undone and there are already demands to restart work on them.
The Centre has also declared a 100 km stretch of Bhagirathi from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone which restricts development activity which can be undertaken along the banks. The notification, however, is yet to be implemented because of opposition from the state government. The previous state government led by Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank only paid lip service to the Ganga, while continuing to harass agitators.
A fasting sadhu, Nigamanand, died under mysterious circumstances for challenging sand mining mafia. The present Congress government led by Vijay Kumar Bahuguna has been advocating construction of dams in the state from the day it took office.
The National Ganga River Basin Authority chaired by the prime minister himself and with environmentalists and other experts as members was constituted to resolve all issues holistically, but it has hardly been able to make any headway. Three independent members of this authority have resigned last week, in support of Agrawal.
The authority had ordered a joint study by IITs, while the government set up another study group headed by former bureaucrat B K Chaturvedi and having environmentalist Sunita Narain among its members. The joint study of IITs has not even been shared among authority members and the Chaturvedi committee report has been dubbed ‘pro-dam’ by Agrawal and groups supporting him.
All this has brought to surface divisions within the saffron side as well. Agrawal was made Swami Sanand by Shankaracharya Swaroopanand Saraswati, who is considered close to the Congress party. The seer was part of all negotiations with the central government during the earlier fasts of Agrawal and was instrumental in convincing the central government to set up the Chaturvedi panel.
However, he has distanced himself from Agrawal in his current agitation. Hemant Dhayni of Ganga Ahvaan has shot off an open letter to the Shankaracharya alleging that his stand is tilted in favour of the Congress party.
The BJP too is a divided house on this issue. Its central leaders such as Sushma Swaraj have expressed themselves against unbridled construction of dams on tributaries of Ganga, while the state unit of BJP has constantly taken pro-dam stand. Uma Bharati, who had launched a separate initiative on Ganga earlier, too has shifted her stand after re-entry into the BJP.
Unfortunately, the Ganga agitation and the question of preserving the Himalayan ecology has become a deadly cocktail of politics and religion. Behind the scene, of course, at play are powerful business interests represented by power companies, contractors, hoteliers and the sand mining mafia. The bureaucracy too sees an opportunity in all this. Like the Ganga Action Plan of the Rajiv Gandhi era, a new ‘Mission Clean Ganga’ has been launched. A massive billion dollar credit from the World Bank comes as icing on the cake.
We need an independent scientific assessment of the problem and preparation of a blueprint for preservation of the Himalayan rivers and associated ecology. This effort also needs to take into account genuine developmental needs of local people. All parties concerned should be consulted and the assessment process should be open and transparent. Meanwhile, Agarwal should be persuaded to call off his fast.
Image: Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand after fasting for 100 days.
Dinesh C Sharma is a science journalist and author based in New Delhi.