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Rendering the Perennial Lifeless

To hear the call of the Ganga, both political will and ethical responsibility are required.

To be a river, is to flow. It is the flow of a river that has been then put to “use,” to rationalise that it is thus, prevented from going “waste.” However, now this use has increased to such an extent that we are unable to decide if a river is “living.” In fact, it is difficult to find a living river, as its flow is diverted into tunnels to produce electricity; or it consists of only filth and toxic wastes; or it is assumed that it can be cut and twisted like a water pipe for purposes of interlinking. And all of this can be done in the name of worshipping a river, “rejuvenating” it when the “development” instead is scuttling its flow. It is difficult to decide if a being is living, if it is entirely on the mercy of life support. It is difficult to call a river living if its flow is manipulated to such an extent that its naturalness itself is in doubt, and when it is not allowed to carry out the geological and ecological functions inherent to its being. It is difficult to call a river living, if it is living only in fragments, violated in parts in a way that denies it an ecological integrity, and an ability to self-rejuvenate.

While other rivers are equally in danger and are no doubt equally significant, the Ganga has been in a precarious condition despite and because of the government’s added attention towards it. A “call from the Ganga” drew Prime Minister Narendra Modi to contest from Varanasi. However, on the lines of Hindutva, Gangatva has been used to promote crass emotions, when the real association with the Ganga’s well-being is missing. Environmental-engineer-turned-sadhu G D Agarwal passed away unheard, continuing a fast for 112 days in the belief that the Ganga’s call continues to be audible to the Prime Minister. Agarwal’s demand, as indeed has been a consistent demand in Uttarakhand, was to address seriously the phenomena of sand mining and hydropower development in the Ganga that has reduced its flow to a trickle at most places. The source of the Ganga’s perenniality, the Himalayas, are increasingly becoming dry, hollowed out, and made fragile.

How can an aviral (unhindered) and thus a nirmal (free from impurities) flow be maintained, as was the promise of the `20,000 crore Namami Gange programme, when the entire flow has been diverted away from the riverbeds? Namami Gange envisaged the restoration of the “wholesomeness” of the river, and thus, seemed to have an understanding of the essence of aviralta and nirmalta. However, in reality, a bare minimum condition of maintaining an ecological flow (minimum flow that allows the river mimic being a river) is not abided by the project owners, and its compliance not made mandatory; while its stipulated magnitude keeps shifting.

Instead of addressing the ground realities and taking concrete steps, the Prime Minister goes in a reverse direction, either trivialising the matter by engaging in mere symbolism or announcing tall projects to alter and tamper with the flows further, staying true to his commitment to corporate interests. Instead of freeing the flow of the river, maintaining its flow regime, monitoring sewage disposal, checking the excess withdrawal of water, saving and increasing the forest cover, and revitalising the waterbodies feeding into the rivers, river rejuvenation in most cases has been equated with riverfront development. Thus, it involves concretisation and encroachment of riverbanks and floodplains for commercial activities, and water diverted from other sources to create an impression that the river is still alive.

While in its upper reaches the flow of the Ganga has been killed, in the 1,600 kilometres of the Haldia–Varanasi stretch, the `5,369 crore Jal Marg Vikas Project is underway, involving significant investment from the World Bank. Prime Minister Modi recently stood welcoming a PepsiCo consignment in Varanasi, ignoring the damages borne by and in store for the river. Since the Ganga does not have the carrying capacity for the navigation of 1,500 tonne vessels, the project involves channelising the braided river, massive dredging, frequent desilting, and barraging to increase its depth artificially. There are commercial interests feeding into each other; for instance, the silt recovered is expected to be used in the construction sector. Dredging contracts have been handed over to multinationals, including the Adani Group. Significant pollution risks are being ignored. Also ignored is the destruction of the habitats of the aquatic life and livelihoods of the fisherfolk and boatmen. The turtle sanctuary in Varanasi is planned to be denotified. Endangered species like the Ganges river dolphins are being pushed towards extinction.

The health and aliveness of a river is no longer seen in its ability to support the beings living in harmony with it, but it has come to mean how much it can be used for commercial purposes, as a waterway, as energy, as sludge flush, and for religious tourism. As long as the river continues to be seen merely as an entity for extraction, its further concretisation and pollution will continue unabated. Making these violations cognisable offences and bringing in an armed Ganga Protection Corps under the National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, to be tabled soon, will not be able to put a stop to offences that the government itself is exemplifying on a much larger scale.

Updated On : 30th Nov, 2018

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