Swami Atmabodhanand, the young seer of Matri Sadan, in Haridwar, is on an indefinite fast since August 18 demanding an immediate prohibition on rampant sand mining in Haridwar and ban on the four hydroelectric projects (HEPs) in Uttarakhand—Tapovan Vishnugad (520 MW), Vishnugad Pipalkoti (444 MW), Singoli Bhatwari (99 MW) and Phata Byung (76 MW).
The Union environment ministry had recently recommended resuming the construction of seven HEPs, including the above-mentioned four projects plus Tehri II (1000 MW), Madhmaheshwar (15 MW) and Kaliganga II (4.5 MW).
Alarmed by the ministry’s decision, a group of more than 60 experts and activists have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi demanding that the decision be immediately revoked.
“The expert committee formed at the behest of the Supreme Court and headed by me had strongly recommended against building HEPs in para-glacial zones. It was corroborated by the committee that the existing HEPs played a pivotal role in aggravating the disastrous impact of the 2013 flashflood devastation,” Ravi Chopra, a noted environmentalist in Uttarakhand, told Newsclick.
According to letter, the Madhmaheshwar and Kaliganga HEPs have been proposed on virgin rivers in a para-glacial zone. “Scientific publications in the recent years have highlighted that small para-glacial tributaries are more destructive than the main rivers,” the letter states.
Following the June 2013 disaster, “Madhmaheshwar and Kaliganga rivers are virtually clogged with sediment. These sediments are likely to get mobilised during extreme hydro meteorological events and likely to impact the Singoli- Bhatwari HEP, whose barrage is located barely few 200 meters below the confluence of Madhmaheshwar Ganga with the Mandakini river as happened with the two HEPs in February 2021”, the letter further states.
The experts and the activists contended that Phata-Byung and Tapovan-Vishungad HEPs would require detailed fresh investigations, new detailed project reports and fresh clearances if they are considered for reconstruction. They “can in no way be considered as 50% complete” after suffering “extreme damage”. They “lie buried under debris even to this day. Their upstream geomorphology and catchment ecology is completely obliterated”.
Local reports suggest that construction of Vishnugad-Pipalkoti HEP too is not even 50% complete, the experts further wrote, adding, “Tehri 2 HEP, if constructed, would immediately recycle the river water that emerges out of Tehri 1 dam without allowing for even a minimal stretch of flow in which the Ganga could revive herself.”
Studies by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute have found that Tehri 1 has already compromised the self-purifying property of Gangajal, the letter states. “Tehri 2 would only deteriorate it further. Glaciers in the Himalaya are retreating faster than the global average. Hence the increased frequency of downstream flooding, glacial lake floods, and other disasters is expected.”
Supporting their argument, the experts wrote that “in the recent Chamoli flashflood disaster, Rishi Ganga HEP was wiped out in minutes by the flooding in the Rishiganga River. Tapovan-Vishnugad and its tunnels were buried under tonnes of debris minutes later and still remain in a deplorable condition”.
The warnings of Chopra and other experts against building such projects make perfect sense. “By approving the construction of the dams on the Ganges, the Centre has ignored environmental concerns, the latest massive Rishi Ganga disaster, the advice of experts and their opinions,” Mallika Bhanot, activist, Uttarkashi-based Ganga Ahwan, told Newsclick.
The Centre had promised to stop mining sand in the Raiwala-Bhogwala stretch and the construction on the four HEPs when the 29-year-old Atmabodhanand started a 194-day fast in 2018.
“Though the Centre gave assurance in writing to meet my demands, the state government did not fulfil them. I reminded the state government several times. My last resort was to go on fasting again. Even if I die for the cause of the holy river, somebody else will observe fast to ensure the clean and free flow of Ganges,” Atmabodhanand told Newsclick. No state government official enquired about his health or talked with him regarding his demands.
Atmabodhanand, who had fasted nine times earlier in protest, has also demanded a probe by a special investigation team into death of Swami Nigamanand, another seer of Matri Sadan, who died in June 2011 after fasting for 114 days; death of professor GD Aggarwal, who had fasted for 111 days in 2018; and the persecution of Sadhavi Padmavati by the government when fasted last year. The fasts were held to demand unrestrained flow of river Ganges, restricted by dams and the damage caused by sand mining.
Matri Sadan head Swami Shivanand told Newsclick, “We also demand an investigation into the way our fasting seers have been picked by district administration officials from the ashram premises and killed by poisoning at hospitals. How is it possible that GD Aggarwal, who was fine even after 111 days of fasting when officials forcibly took him to the hospital in Rishikesh, was declared dead the next day? The same happened with Nigamanand.”
Shivanand alleged that both Atmabodhanand and Padmavati have been tortured by officials in the hospitals in the past. “Padmavati lost her cognitive abilities due to the torture. Since ancient times demons have been trying to crush seers with their power but seers and good souls have been fighting them with their inner strength and sacrifices. The sacrifice of few people is nothing compared to the much-bigger cause of saving mother Ganges” Shivanand he added.