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July 8, 2000


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The Rediff Interview/Sunderlal Bahuguna

"The rulers should know that the Himalayas are for water and not for revenue..."

Mechanised trolleys shoveling off the hills, huge cranes and hundreds of trucks are all adding up to ear shattering noise in Tehri. But Sunderlal Bahuguna, the 73-year-old leader of the anti-dam movement, is still audible. The old Gandhian with a silver beard and child-like smile continues to live in his hut (Ganga Himalaya Kuti), which has been romanticised internationally. Made of tin, it is perched by the river, close to the dam site.

His support base continues to be slim in Tehri, the town of 25,000 residents which is waiting to be submerged. In the recent past, Bahuguna and his supporters have not carried out any major public demonstrations, nor are they aggressively pursuing their anti-dam agenda. Bahuguna says he is an optimist and is waiting for the Supreme Court's decision on the issue.

Talking to Josy Joseph, sitting in his tin hut by the Ganges, Bahuguna says the authorities will awaken now that even the glaciers are thinning. "A crusder is always optimistic, I don't feel I am losing the cause," he reiterates. But warns: "The whole country is sleeping. People are intoxicated by the slogan of temporary development."

The maximum number of supporters arrested along with Bahuguna at Tehri till date has been around 20. The population that will benefit the most if Bahuguna succeeds has indeed never been any great support base for him. However, there is an increasing sympathy and indirect support that is gaining momentum in the town, as families who had collected the compensation offered and had left the hills for the plains, return as paupers to their town. "There are both divine justice and human justice, and both will be delivered. I am confident we will not lose the Supreme Court case," Bahuguna says.

Now when the glaciers are thinning, Bahuguna believes that even the authorities will be forced to sit up and take note of it. "The Gangotri glacier is a skeleton. It is a global problem," he says.

Here is what the crusader has to say on the various issues concerning the dam...

The dam: "It is a temporary solution to a permanent problem. It will benefit the richest farmer, it will uproot the forests of Tehri. The benefits will go to the rich farmers of Western UP and to Delhi's residents. They say the dam will withstand earthquakes. But these hills will not. Already there are cracks visible in some hills. If the dam breaks, within 12 hours the entire region up to Bulandshahar will be wiped out. Look around, even America is breaking their big dams."

He points out that there is already a canal constructed in Delhi for taking the water of the Tehri dam. "The leaders in Delhi have committed so many sins that they want to wash them off with Ganga water. They have polluted the Yamuna trying to wash their sins."

Impacts of the dam being constructed: "This is the last source of water. This will be dead water once the dam is constructed. They are killing the Ganga water which is our national heritage. It is not just a religious belief but it has been scientifically proved that water can die. When a river runs zig-zag, the river purifies its water. By October, old Tehri will be vacated. There are over 25,000 people there. The question is not just about compensation, rehabilitation means better living conditions which are absent. If they want to compensate me for my ancestral house, then they can build another house for me. If this dam is for development, I will ask for my development.

"The rulers should know that the Himalayas are for water and not for revenue."

On water scarcity: "We have entered an era of water scarcity. If a Third World War erupts it will be on the issue of water. Nations will divert rivers, block each other's sources of water. Imagine China blocking the Brahmaputra."

The government: "It is a mercenary of organised crime. State sponsored violence has increased manifold. In 50 years people have got lost, they have been reduced to the status of beggars. The government only makes false promises and there are temporary developments. No permanent changes can be brought about by the centers of power."

Democracy: "True democracy is not about making those already rich richer. It is about making the poor better. Democracy without empowerment of the people is a mockery."

Solution: "I want the country to realise the folly of such projects. In the case of the dam, they could raise the dam up to the height of the tunnel and run the turbine. To tackle the entire water problem, there are several steps that could be initiated. First, solve it by austerity. Second, find alternatives to activities that consume water. Third, aforestation should be an important priority. We should plant trees that give nuts. Nuts are the natural food of human beings. Further, we should plant trees for timber, firewood and fibre. This is a small man's small formula."

On himself: "I am the chowkidar of the people. For me, this is an emotional issue. I was born here, I have spent most of my life by the Ganges and I want to see the river till my last moment. I don't want future generations to ask us, `Why did you all keep mum when this was happening?'

"I have fought two battles earlier -- one against liquor and the other against deforestation. Both have been successful. So I am confident this agitation too will be a success."

On the lacklustre phase of his movement: "After 1995 we have not organised any major demonstration because I don't want any more sacrifices. The bus accident in which 16 of our activists were killed was a planned one. I don't want any more such incidents to take place."

The movement's future after him: "I am 73 years old now. Do you think this world is finished when some men die? Good causes will survive. I feel the new generation will take the cause more vigorously. They will not fight for Assemblies and Parliament, they will fight for these causes."

On his successor: "The future leadership will emerge itself. Many young people across the country are fighting for similar causes. Look at Medha Patkar. She is young. During the Independence movement, we had pledged our lives for the common people. I am not a patriarch, but only a good worker. This is a good cause, all good people will come forward. Young people have no one to inspire them. But there are determined youngsters across India who are doing great work for society."

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