On October 11, after fasting for nearly four months, G.D. Agarwal passed away in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. Agarwal, also known as Swami Gyanswarup Sanand, had been on a ‘fast unto death’ since June 22. Among other things, he was demanding better stewardship of the Ganga and to make it ‘aviral’ (free-flowing).
This wasn’t Agarwal’s first such fast. Nidhi Jamwal caught up with Jairam Ramesh, the former Union environment minister, on behalf of The Wire for an interview about Agarwal, hydropower projects, sand-mining and the ‘Clean Ganga’ mission. Ramesh had met Agarwal in Haridwar in early 2010, convincing him to break his fast then.
The conversation offers a retrospective view of attempts India has made to revive the Ganga. These issues will also be discussed at the India Rivers Week 2018, a unique meeting on rivers in India. It is being held at the WWF, New Delhi, from November 24 to 26, 2018. The focus of this year’s three-day meet is ‘Can India Rejuvenate Ganga?’.
The interview has been presented in full, lightly edited for clarity. The questions are in bold and the editor’s comments, in square brackets.
You seem to have had both personal and professional interactions with G.D. Agarwal…
G.D. Agarwal and my father were contemporaries. My father was a professor of civil engineering at IIT Bombay and Agarwal was a professor of civil engineering at IIT Kanpur. So they were both part of the IIT system. I had heard of Agarwal, but had never met him.
My first meeting with him in February 2010 was rather dramatic, when Agarwal went on a fast and I was the environment minister. I went to Haridwar to meet him. When I met him, he embraced me, remembered my father and said they were friends. That was my first physical contact with Agarwal. I spent the whole morning, five to six hours with him, and asked him his demands.
What were the demands?
He demanded that Gomukh to Uttarkashi – 130 km – be declared an eco-sensitive zone. He demanded protection of the river Ganga and putting a stop to the hydel projects on the Bhagirathi: the Loharinag Pala, Bharon Ghati and Pala Maneri projects. I told him I will convey his demands to the Indian government. I came back and wrote a note, which is also there in my book, Green Signals: Ecology Growth and Democracy in India. I informed the government that Agarwal’s demands were eminently reasonable, which I support.
Two of the projects [Bharon Ghati and Pala Maneri] had not started. The only demand on which I had some reservation was the Loharinag Pala hydro power project, because 40% of the work was already complete, and about Rs 1,000 crore had been spent by the NTPC [National Thermal Power Corporation]. But this is a project that shouldn’t have started at the first place. I don’t know how an environmental clearance was granted to it. The fact of the matter is projects were being indiscriminately approved on the Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi rivers, and without a cumulative assessment. We were only doing individual assessment of the hydro projects.
So what was the government’s response after you approached it with Agarwal’s demands?
I spoke with the then prime minister [Manmohan Singh] and he said I should talk to Pranab Mukherjee [the then finance minister] and Sushilkumar Shinde, who was then the power minister. Time was running out because Agarwal was on a ‘fast unto death’. We had a discussion and I said that if I can get a commitment that the Indian government will compensate the NTPC, then it should be okay. The then PM, Mr Mukherjee and Mr Shinde saw my point of view. I was asked to go back and tell Agarwal that the government will meet his demands and he should give up the fast. So I went back to Haridwar and Agarwal drank some juice and broke his fast.
My last meeting with Agarwal was in April 2016 in New Delhi, when Nitish Kumar had organised an interaction on ‘aviral’ Ganga at the IIC [India International Centre]. This was the extent of my interaction with Agarwal.
Agarwal also used to stress on the river-basin approach. Did he discuss that with you?
Yes, apart from declaring Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone and the abandonment of three hydro projects, Agarwal had a third, equally important demand – of a comprehensive assessment of the Ganga river basin. So I set up a consortium of the seven IITs under the leadership of IIT Kanpur to prepare, for the first time, a comprehensive Ganga river basin management plan. Such a plan should actually have been done 20 years ago. The IITs consortium produced a 30-35-volume report and submitted it to the Indian government. But nothing has come out of it. The same report had [described] a draft law for protecting the Ganga, which I am told is now under consideration.
There have been news reports [such as this] quoting Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister for water resources, that the Centre will bring an Act to protect the Ganga in the Parliament’s next session.
Mr Gadkari is not on the side of the angels as far as the Ganga is concerned. Mr Gadkari, [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi, all of them believe in the nirmal [clean] Ganga part. They don’t realise that without aviral Ganga, you cannot have nirmal Ganga. The present Indian government has bifurcated aviral Ganga and nirmal Ganga. In fact, Namami Gange is largely a ‘nirmal’ Ganga plan, whereas the Mission Clean Ganga that I had announced in 2010 as an environment minister… I had clearly said there are two components to it: nirmal Ganga and aviral Ganga. How can you clean Ganga if there is no water in the river?
So, I am not sure if Mr Gadkari understands this, and even if he does, he is very commercial in his outlook, like with plans for dredging, waterways, etc. The Indian government is laying a lot of stress on the nirmal part of the Ganga, which is a continuation of what we had started. But on aviral Ganga, I have not seen any movement whatsoever in the last four years. In fact, the Centre wants to reopen many of the hydel projects that have been closed.
But India is not an energy-sufficient country, and hydro is seen as clean energy.
Hydro accounts for 17% of our electricity generated. We are committed that by 2030, 40% of our electricity will come from non-fossil fuel sources, which means hydel, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. Fortunately, nuclear is not taking off and accounts for only 3.5% of our electricity generation. It will go maximum up to 5%. The hydel contribution will probably be in the range of 20-22%, which means doubling our hydel capacity.
The notion that hydel is clean isn’t true. It is clean in some ways, but hydel is also environmentally devastating in many ways. It submerges land, displaces people, destroys forest and wildlife. It can induce seismicity, like what happened in Koyna. It is a difficult choice to make. And we are a democratic system. We can’t do what the Chinese did in the Three Gorges dam. They went ahead with the project and ‘resettled’ a million or two million people. No one knows where those people are now. We are still doing resettlement and rehabilitation in the Narmada project, which has some very different viewpoints. So, we cannot close our eyes blindly and say we will promote hydel. The promotion of hydel projects also has environmental consequences, which we have to be very sensitive to.
A lot of hill states complain that if they are not allowed to come up with hydel projects, they will lose out on a source of income.
So give them a green bonus. I wrote my solution to the then PM [Singh] that if we cancel a hydel project on environmental grounds, we should compensate the state with a green bonus. I don’t see any reason why states like Uttarakhand cannot be compensated. Say Rs 300 crore a year for five years. There are ways of compensating.
Agarwal had also protested sand-mining in the Ganga and demanded a ban on it.
Ban on sand-mining is a tricky issue. According to law, it is a minor mineral and a responsibility of the state government. As an environment minister, I had written a large number of letters to the then chief minister of Uttarakhand, Ramesh Pokhriyal, and had met him twice in Delhi and twice in Dehradoon. But [sand mining in the Ganga] was happening with political patronage.
I wrote a letter to Pokhriyal that is in the public domain, where I said if push comes to shove, I will use section 5 of the EPA [Environment (Protection) Act] to issue directions. But I didn’t use it as then it would have created an unnecessary problem between the Centre and the state government, and people would have said I am targeting a [Bharatiya Janata Party] government in Uttarakhand. I kept talking to Pokhriyal, but it was clear there was political patronage [for sand mining] at the highest level.
Do you think the successive governments have failed Agarwal and the Ganga river?
It’s not for me to say, but I went to Haridwar twice in the space of four days to meet Agarwal. It is very rare that ministers go. My first visit, the then PM didn’t know of. I went on my own. But my second visit had the full backing of the Indian government, where I carried a letter sent by Mr Mukherjee [the finance minister] to Agarwal asking him to break the fast.
I remember one meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. The Ganga was declared a national river in February 2009. And the National Ganga River Basin Authority was set up. The chief ministers of the five main Ganga basin states were a part of the authority. I became environment minister in May 2009 and then we had the first meeting of the authority. Mr Nitish Kumar suggested that the Gangetic dolphin should be given national status. If there were more dolphins, it would mean that the Ganga had both water and clean water. In less than 48 hours, the Centre notified and gazetted the Gangetic dolphin as India’s national aquatic mammal. This is something Mr Nitish Kumar still remembers.
In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had announced a national programme to clean the Ganga. You set up the river authority as well. It has been over three decades and the river remains polluted.
It isn’t true to say that nothing has happened. Two things on this. Firstly, I got the Ganga water quality tests done by the CPCB [Central Pollution Control Board]. There were three indices of river quality: BOD [biological oxygen demand], DO [dissolved oxygen] and faecal coliform. On the first two indicators, there is evidence to show that there has been an improvement. But on the third indicator, unfortunately we have not done well, and it is easy to see why: because the bulk of sewage led into the Ganga is untreated. In fact, 75% of the pollution load in the Ganga is because of untreated municipal sewage. Only 25% comes from industrial effluents.
Secondly, the main Ganga river is 2,500 km long. But it is not true to say that the entire length is highly polluted. The worst stretch is the 750 km from Kannauj to Varanasi because this is where municipal sewage gets mixed with industrial effluents from sugar mills, paper mills, distilleries, tanneries, agricultural runoff, etc., and flows into the Ganga. Had Mr [Rajiv Gandhi] not launched GAP-1 [Ganga Action Plan 1] – and then there was GAP-2 – the pollution load in the Ganga would have been worse.
Then there is the Namami Gange project, which has Rs 20,000 crore funds already allocated for rejuvenating the river.
Namami Gange is basically taking the ‘Clean Ganga’ mission forward. It has proposed sewage treatment plants in 160 towns and cities along the 2,500-km-long river, covering Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar. A lot of projects had already been sanctioned between 2009 and 2011. The present government has sanctioned more projects. That’s all. Namami Gange is actually Mission Clean Ganga translated into Sanskrit.
So at present, are those projects being proposed and implemented on the Ganga following the cumulative assessment approach?
No. The Wildlife Institute of India has warned that many of the national waterways will endanger the dolphin. Secondly, if there is going to be a revival of hydel projects [on tributaries of the Ganga] – and the Indian government, I think, has gone to the Supreme Court of India and filed some affidavits – then there will be no water left in the river. No aviralta. Aviralta is no longer an issue. No one is talking of aviral Ganga.
Nidhi Jamwal is an independent journalist based in Mumbai.