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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 11, March 2, 2013

Threat to River Ganga and the Life of its Saviour

Wednesday 6 March 2013, by Madhu Bhaduri

Since the last two months the attention of the country and the media has focused on the Mahakumbh Mela on the shores of the holy river Ganga. In the meantime the most sincere devotee of the river has silently gone on a hunger strike to draw attention to the betrayal by the state authorities in not keeping their promises and assurances, given from time to time, to keep the river alive and from death at the hands of greedy men in power.

Professor G.D. Agarwal has been fasting in Amarkantak at the source of the river Narmada since January 26. It is almost a month now and his condition is deteriorating. In the meantime people have been going to the Kumbh Mela to wash their sins in the highly polluted water of the Ganga adding further filth to it. Godmen and politicians in droves have reached there to clean themselves in a river which itself needs cleaning and the life of which is seriously threatened by encroachment, intervention and manmade pollution.

Professor G.D. Agarwal, who is also known as Swami Sadanand, had in 2008-09 along with others like Rajendra Singh (better known as the water Gandhi), led a public protest in Uttarakhand to stop the construction of dams which would destroy the river Bhagirathi and its environment forever. As a result of these efforts the building of some dams on the river Bhagirathi were stopped mid-way. These include Bharav Ghati, Lahori Nagpala and Pala Maneri. On other dams under construction in Uttarakhand, assurances notwithstanding, work is proceeding apace. Protests by local communities and warriors like Professor Agarwal continue but there is scant attention from the authorities. Private and public players are busy building dams and planning more of them. This business is very lucrative. The life of one of India’s foremost environmentalists appears to be of much less value.

Because of efforts of people like Professor Agarwal the government has been forced to make a commitment of not disturbing the river Ganga and its environs from Gomukh to Uttarkashi, a stretch of about 135 km, by construction and encroachment on the river. Public protests have succeeded in stopping construction on the river Alaknanda of the Kotlabhel and Vishnugad dams. However, the dam in Srinagar is on the verge of being commissioned. The devastation done by it is already complete.

Planners and construction companies together have 200 projects of dams on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda alone. Some of these are at a distance of no more than a kilometre from each other. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has to date not withheld clearance to a single project on grounds of damage to environment and forests. At the most it has taken longer to give clearance to some.

Over the years a lot of financial assistance has been allotted for the purpose of cleaning the Ganga in action plans which have achieved nothing except spending large amounts of money. The pollution level of the river has been rising each year. The fact is that the waters of the Ganga and its largest tributary, the Yamuna, are being diverted in increasing amounts to feed industry and irrigate farms. The diverted water is being replaced by sewage of every city and township near the river and also the chemical effluents of industries and tanneries along the river and its tributaries.

Despite the fact that every committee of specialists (including the one set up by the Supreme Court in 1998) has stated in no uncertain terms that without a natural flow of clean water no amount of cleaning and setting up of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) can reduce the filth in the river, this fact is intentionally ignored. Professor Agarwal is one of India’s leading environmentalists who has made every reasonable and rational effort through discourse and dialogue and by means of public protest to stop the destruction of rivers, especially the Ganga. He has now been forced to chart the last and most difficult path of fast unto death in the interest of keeping the Ganga alive.

Is this country, its people and its government immune to the danger to its rivers and to its expert who is celebrated in the rest of the world? Will they continue to see his life deteriorate without raising a finger? Have we reached this level of greed? Is there no one willing to see and act before it is too late to save the saviour and the river?

A former IFS officer (now retired), who served as an ambassador of India in several countries, Madhu Bhaduri is a prominent activist upholding causes related to human rights and environment.

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