Give respite to our rivers, let them flow freely

The Chief Justice of India recently visited Allahabad and offered worship at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers. The priest asked the Chief Justice to give clean and free-flowing Ganga towards payment of his fees. The “clean” and “free-flowing” aspects of the river are interconnected. One cannot get clean river without ensuring free flow. But we are trying to clean the Ganga and also obstruct her flows. This will not work.

We mostly think of the economic benefits to be derived from the rivers. More water for irrigation means that more sugarcane can be grown and the price of sugar will be less. More pollutants discharged into the river means lower cost of production of leather, paper and sugar. More municipal sewage discharged into the river means that lesser expenses will have to be incurred by the municipality in running the sewage treatment plants and people will have to pay less property tax. More navigation means cheaper transport of imported coal from Haldia to the upstream power plants and cheaper electricity. More use of nitrogenous fertilisers by farmers living on the banks of the Ganga provides cheaper food grains even though the nitrates contaminate the groundwater and the river water. We are not much bothered if our rivers die. Few in Delhi, for example, cry about the Yamuna having become a string of stagnant reservoir in Delhi instead of the dancing and chirpy river that it once was. The reason for it is that we are not aware of the harm that river pollution does to us.

Polluted river water overflows into our piped water supply. We spend money in installing RO systems in our houses. The municipalities spend more money in treating the water for supply to the households. Fisheries suffer. The catch of fishes upstream of the Farakka Barrage has declined to about one fourth of the catch in the seventies. Lakhs of fishermen have abandoned that trade and have added to the slum populations of our cities. We are struggling to maintain law and order due to the unemployment that is so created.

The ground water is recharged by the rivers. Polluted river water overflows into ground water and enters our food chain. The fish and the crops ingest the contaminants. Our food gets poisoned. Drinking of contaminated water leads to diseases such as jaundice, cholera, dysentery and worms.

The disinterest on part of the officials is a reflection of the disinterest amongst the people. The problem is compounded by the fact that officials are less interested in making the river clean and more interested in building large sewage treatment plants that remain idle. A change in strategy is required. The government must make a scheme to buy treated sewage and supply it to the farmers for irrigation. The private businessmen will then establish these plants and run them.

This approach has to be supplemented by establishing free-flow of the river. The Ministry of Environment has recently filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that hydropower projects that obstruct free and uninterrupted flow of Alaknanda, Bhagirathi and Mandakini rivers may be constructed. The government claims that stopping the flow of the river behind the dam and then releasing the water will do no harm. This is not correct.

Stagnant rivers deprive us of a huge income from tourism. A friend from Himachal Pradesh narrated the story of a temple located on the banks of a river. About one lakh pilgrims used to come here every year. Then water of the river was diverted for generation of hydropower. Now barely 25,000 pilgrims come every year and this continues to decline. The economy of Garhwal region in Uttarakhand is hugely dependent on the Char Dham Yatra. Imagine the loss to hoteliers and cab operators if the rivers die and people coming for the Yatra decline. Cities like Delhi and Lucknow could develop a huge industry of water sports. Recreational areas like Chowpatty can be made. Water sports can be started here. We are losing these economic benefits from river-based tourism by obstructing free flow of the river.

Dams have many other impacts. The river carries sediments along with the water. These sediments carry beneficent metals like copper that have bactericidal properties. The sediments are trapped behind the dams; or they are entirely removed from the river and supplied to the agricultural fields from diversions such as at Narora in Uttar Pradesh. Run-of-river hydropower projects flush the sediments after every week or so. That is like giving a child a half a litre of ghee once a week instead of giving milk everyday! Second, fishes clean the polluted river. The better fishes like the Hilsa in downstream Ganga and Mahseer in upstream Ganga migrate hundreds of kilometers upstream to lay eggs. The hatchlings flow downstream and grow. This movement of the fish is obstructed by making barrages. Third, the rivers, the Ganga in particular, carry spiritual charges from the shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. These charges are destroyed as the pristine water hits against the blades of the turbines in hydropower projects. Lastly, there is loss of beauty of the free flowing river. For these reasons the barrages made for irrigation and hydropower impose huge economic and emotional costs upon the people.

A living example of these impacts is the Srinagar hydroelectric project. Local people supported it during its construction. Now they are crying. Water from the canal is seeping into the homes. Houses and fields are developing cracks as the land on the ridge slides into the reservoir. The entire cities of Srikot and Srinagar are suffering from jaundice because contaminated water is being supplied. Local people have been deprived of sand, stone and fish that they were harvesting from the river. Hundreds of workers have been thrown out of jobs because construction is complete.

Hill states like Uttarakhand need to change their approach. They should develop the service sectors. Dehradun, Shimla and Darjeeling were once premier centers of education. Today Kota and Pune have marched ahead. Bengaluru and Hyderabad have developed the health and software sectors. The hill states should develop these sectors. Better education, health, and software can be developed along the beautiful river banks. The river will also flow and the states will also develop. Ultimately, we are the masters of our destiny. We have to decide whether we want jaundice or the exhilaration of seeing a free flowing Ganga. The Courts can go only so far; and the government will go only as far as we plod it to go.

Author was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru

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