Remember ‘Namami Gange’ — the Modi government’s much-vaunted programme for cleaning up and reviving the dwindling flows of our national river Ganga, with a budget outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore?
The stated goals of the programme — implemented by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation — were to ensure “the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority”.
Or, as Scroll puts it, to “ensure nirmalta (purity) and aviralta (continuous flow)” of the Ganga.
But four and a half years after the BJP-led NDA’s launched the ‘flagship programme’, it is apparent that the national river is in more troubled waters than ever — as a three-part investigative series published on Scroll elaborates (first, second, and third).
Privatising Pollution Control
To begin with, the Modi government’s plan to clean up the Ganga entails privatising the collection and treatment of sewage in 97 cities and towns that lie along the river.
In 2015, water ministry secretary Shashi Shekhar and his team proposed “a hybrid annuity model”, whereby private companies would build and operate sewage treatment plants for 15 years, and then hand them over to the state governments.
The central government would pay 40 per cent of the bid amount in the beginning and the rest as annual payments over the length of the contract, but the payments would have been linked to the quality of the treated water. And the treated water was not to be released back in to the river but to be sold to entities that did not require fresh water, for example, municipal corporations or thermal power plants.
However, this model ran into political opposition and the project did not see any progress. In a December 2017 report, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) pointed out that as of March 31, 2017, all of the funds—Rs. 19,814 crore—allocated to the Clean Ganga mission were lying unused.
Then in 2017, after Nitin Gadkari took over the water ministry, he changed Shashi Shekhar’s approach by introducing the “one city, one operator” model — replacing the earlier provision for multiple private companies handling sewage treatment plants with the new policy that a single private company would oversee the collection and treatment of sewage in an entire city.
“But redirecting sewage is difficult,” noted Scroll. “Large parts of Indian cities have come up without sewer lines. For instance, Patna, which covers 235 sq km on the south bank of the Ganga and accounts for close to 60% of all domestic sewage flowing into the Ganga in Bihar, has no more than 20 kilometres of sewer lines. In Kanpur, no more than 30% of the city has a sewer system,” the report further stated.
Besides, the NMCG will not construct sewer systems in most cities. “Instead, it will build wiers on drains before they empty into the river – and pump their sewage into treatment plants.” The treated water will go to either industry or agriculture.
The effluent quality will be monitored by sensors. In fact, the NMCG has created a separate cell for monitoring water quality at the Central Pollution Control Board.
However, this privatisation model, which is being implemented without a pilot project first, has already failed in Gujarat.
Scroll said the primary reason for this failure was “acute understaffing at the state pollution control board, which hamstrung attempts to check how the plants were functioning.”
And this problem of inadequate government supervision and scrutiny will remain with the “one city, one operator” model, as the “lack of state capacity to monitor the data on water quality could result in the same outcomes as before.”
Damming the Flows of the River
While on the one hand, the Modi government speaks of reviving the Ganga and ensuring uninterrupted flow, on the other it has revived and approved dams as part of hydel power projects with zero consideration for the ecological damage and destruction they cause.
“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,” Scroll noted.
What’s more, most of these dams 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.” Running through tunnels for hydel power projects, the state’s rivers that feed the Ganga and the aquifers they recharged had dried up.
Blasting during the construction of dams and tunnels led to the drying of mountain aquifers as well, in turn making it difficult for local communities to survive. Also, the fragmentation of rivers led to dying of fish such as the golden mahseer.
What’s worse, in the highly ecologically sensitive region of the Himalayas, the new hydroelectric power projects increase the risk of cloudbursts — such as in 2013 in Kedarnath which caused flash floods and landslides killing thousands of people.
A number of measures by the previous government and decisions by courts had been taken keeping these concerns in mind.
For example, in 2010, the Congress-led UPA had cancelled three hydel projects in Uttarakhand while declaring 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.”
A study by the Wildlife Institute of India had recommended that 24 proposed hydel projects on the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi be cancelled, and the recommendations were later endorsed by two committees.
Then in August 2013 floods, the Supreme Court banned new hydel power projects in Uttarakhand.
But the Ganga-loving BJP after coming to power rolled back nearly all of these measures. After all, “Dams and highways are how politicians make money in Uttarakhand,” as a former environment ministry official anonymously told Scroll.
Also Read: Modi's Namami Gange Programme Falters
In January 2015, the environment ministry again started supporting hydel projects, “even in the upper reaches of the Ganga which all reports recommended should remain untouched.”
For example, in February, the ministry submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court “stating a four-member panel it had set up found six of the dams flagged by the Wildlife Institute had obtained environmental and forest clearances in accordance with the rules and regulations.”
But the panel actually had warned against permitting these dams, and yet the environment ministry “selectively quoted from the report – only telling the court these six projects had all the clearances.”
As outrage poured over in the media by environmentalists, the ministry in May 2015 set up another committee to evaluate these six projects.
However, in October, the committee gave the go-ahead to these six projects.
“That same month, on the insistence of the Uttarakhand government, Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra reduced the Supreme Court’s 2013 ban on all hydel projects, limiting it to the 24 projects flagged by the Wildlife Institute in its 2012 report. The ministry did not object,” the report said.
In January 2016, the ministry told the apex court that projects releasing at least 1,000 cubic feet per second of water into the Ganga and its tributaries would be allowed. However, in July, this decision was challenged by the Ministry of Water Resources insisting that all 24 projects be reviewed. The matter is still pending before the Supreme Court
A total of 450 hydel projects had been proposed in Uttarakhand by 2014, mostly without being subjected to a proper cost-benefit analysis and without considering any of the environmental costs and damages.
In 2015, the Supreme Court allowed construction of dams on all rivers except the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. “Instead of opposing the order, the environment ministry tried to reduce that number further down to 18,” the report noted. The government instead of focusing on environmental flows, have actually added to the drying of the river before it even reaches Bihar.
The government’s affidavit to the Supreme Court submitted in December 2014 had suggested 30%-50% environmental flows during non-monsoon months. But on October 1, 2018, the government published new guidelines reducing the mandated e-flow in the Upper Ganga basin till Haridwar to 20% (average monthly flow) between November and March, 25% in October, April and May, and 30% between June and September.
As activists told Scroll, this is far from enough to meet local requirements. These stipulations of the government indicated that there was pressure to divert water for hydel power in the hills and irrigation in the plains.
And then in 2016, the Modi government decided to allow dams in the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone.
Three Infrastructure Projects
Besides allowing the rampant construction of hydel power projects, the Modi government is rolling three infrastructure projects that will not only further pollute the river and decrease water flows into it, but also denude its catchment areas and endanger its biodiversity around it.
Around 400 million people inhabit the Indo-Gangetic plain, besides the precious biodiversity and Gangetic species.
While the gharial and Gangetic dolphin are on the brink of extinction, “catches of fish from rivers of the Ganga basin have declined by 90% in the last 40 years, while otter numbers have dropped by a third over the last 30 years.” The future of these species depends on the future of the Ganga and its tributaries.
The three infrastructure projects are — the Char Dham Pariyojana, the Inland Waterways project, and the Ken-Betwa river linking project.
While the Char Dham and the Inland Waterways projects have been approved without any environmental scrutiny, the Ken-Betwa link has been approved with total disregard to the environmental destruction.
The Char Dham project cuts through rocks of the lesser and the greater Himalayas, contributing to making the mountains unstable.
Besides, around 33,000 trees would be felled in the process, even though there is a need to plant more trees for strengthening Ganga’s catchment areas.
In 2013, the environment ministry had said that expansion work covering up to 100 km on national highways would not require environmental clearances, nor would land acquisition up to “40 meters on existing alignment [roads] and 60 meters on bypasses”.
Also Read: Uttarakhand’s Chardham Project, a Saga of ‘Untruths’, ‘Blatant Lies’ and Ecological ‘Fraud’?
Cleverly, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways announced that the Char Dham was not a single 900-km stretch but a series of 53 individual projects, separated by 16 bypasses, with none of these individual projects exceeding 100 km in length or 40 metres in width.
The ministry’s claim was challenged before the National Green Tribunal. Calling the government’s claim fraudulent, an NGO called Citizens for Green Doon pointed out that the project covered continuous stretches far longer than 100 km, spread over five national highways.
The Inland Waterways project was proposed by Gadkari, and in 2016, the BJP government passed the National Waterways Act, which would have several consequences not just for the river flows but the ports as well as the riverine ecosystem.
“The law has three components – riverine ports, channels along which ships will move, and the ships themselves. Ports pollute and alter river flows. Channels require dredging to ensure ships do not run aground,” as Scroll says.
But dredging on river beds “dislodges river sediment, destroys breeding grounds of fish as well as habitats of endangered species like freshwater turtles and other aquatic life.”
Moreover, “the noise and disturbance caused by dredging and as mechanised ships move along the river will hurt biodiversity as well.”
For example, it would further endanger the existence of the Ganges dolphin, “a blind mammal which uses echolocation (like bats) to forage in and navigate the Ganga-Brahmaputra system. Nearly 90% of the dolphin’s population lives along stretches marked for waterways in the two basins.”
In 2016, when the Inland Waterways project was supposed to go through the environmental impact assessment process of the environment ministry, the shipping ministry argued that the project’s multimodal terminals did not qualify as ports or harbours.
It argued that the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2006 applied only to oceanic ports, not inland waterways. The law ministry sided with this assessment, as The Indian Express reported in May, 2016.
In May 2017, the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee insisted that an environmental impact assessment of the project needed to be done. “However, as The Hindu reported, after Gadkari met the then Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan in October 2017, the green ministry relented and said an environmental clearance was not needed,” the Scroll reported.
As for the Ken-Betwa linking, it entails a dam in the middle of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, which will not only “cut the reserve into two and submerge ledges where India’s endangered vultures breed, it will also result in the loss of about 10 lakh trees. The reserve itself will lose as much as 5,578 hectares of land from its core and buffer zones.”
Moreover, as water from the Ken is diverted to the Betwa, “it will reduce flows into the Yamuna, which joins the Ganga downstream in Allahabad”, threatening the biodiversity in the Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary which lies just downstream of the proposed dam.
The Ken-Betwa project was given the green light despite environmentalists raising major red flags as to “its heavy environmental and wildlife costs”.
It takes 30 to 40 years to restore a river, as a water ministry bureaucrat anonymously told Scroll.
But it is not just a question of time, but of intentions — it is clear that all the noise around reviving the “holy river” of Ganga is only part of the Modi government’s ‘nationalistic’ rhetoric as he continues to compromise the national river’s future at a rate more accelerated than ever.