People, prosperity and politics are intrinsically linked to a river sutra, upstream along the Ganga from the yoga and meditation town of Rishikesh.
About 75km of woozy switchbacks on a state highway brings Devprayag, one of Uttarakhand’s holiest of holy towns where the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers meet to gurgle down under a more famous name — Ganga. The Bhagirathi, also Ganga for some, emerges from Gangotri, the Himalayan glacier in Uttarkashi.
The routes these rivers carve — as tiny toddlers in the upper reaches and as impetuous teenagers along the way — become some of the most beautiful valleys of the Garhwal Himalayas, sustaining human habitation, meditation, pilgrimages and later-day touristy pursuits such as white water rafting. In short, the rivers are the lifeline of hundreds of people.
But like humans, the rivers show their fickleness. The 2013 flash floods from a cloudburst was one such example. Thousands died, properties destroyed, livelihood lost, and mass migration followed. Gregarious mountainside hamlets with cornfields and livestock have been reduced to ghost villages.
Those who stayed back are fighting to survive. And looking forward to some hope that the assembly elections on February 15 will lift their lot.
The Ganga was an appealing subject for politicians and environmentalists alike. But it doesn’t find mention prominently this poll season in speeches and manifestos of major the two players — the ruling Congress and the BJP, which ruled the state before. No doubt voters in the Ganga valley are angry.
Parties have no roadmap for the valley’s development, said Santosh Butola, a 28-year-old from Uttarkashi, who reaffirmed that he would instead vote for a candidate having a clear agenda.
“We have an identity because of Ganga-ji. Several orders came out for Ganga-ji, but her children are ignored.”
The anger stems from a 2012 conditional ban by the Centre on human activities such as construction of homes, commercial buildings and hydro-power projects considered detrimental to the environment.
Two years before, three hydro-power projects were stalled in Uttarkashi because of strong protests from environmentalist and seers of shrines dotting the landscape.
Locals working in those projects were forced to take up odd jobs such as breaking boulders for roadwork. Uttarkashi, which has three assembly seats, was already grappling with distress migration because of lack of employment. The 2013 floods dealt a further blow.
The BJP had promised to allow Ganga to follow its natural course in the upper reaches but local leaders demanded that the hydel power projects be reinstated.
“The projects will boost the economy and create jobs. People sitting in air-conditioned offices in Delhi may oppose them but locals want them to improve their livelihood,” BJP spokesperson Anil Baluni said.
The Harish Rawat government too demanded scrapping of the ban on hydro-projects.
The flash floods swept away suspension bridges that link hillside villages with state roads. One such damaged bridge for Dirsari village across the Bhagirathi was to be replaced by 2016 with a footbridge. The money was sanctioned, but the bridge never happened.
Similar bridges over the Pindar, a tributary of the Ganga in Chamoli district adjoining the Badrinath shrine, are yet to be repaired, rebuilt. People are forced to cross the gushing river on driftwood, or small manual and hydraulic trolleys, or take a long detour.
“We don’t want the moon, repair our footbridges and we will be more than happy,” said Dinesh Purohit, a resident.
The mountains of Garhwal attract millions of pilgrims to the holy Char Dhams on the banks of the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda. Millions more come to enjoy the pristine landscape and more.
Tourism flourished near Rishikesh, where dime a dozen tent sites came up on the Ganga banks catering to a raft of river rafting enthusiasts. But a National Green Tribunal (NGT) order in December 2015, prohibiting camping along the Ganga riverside, put a spanner in the trade that employed nearly 5,000 people directly or indirectly. The annual turnover was pegged at Rs 10 crore.
“Rafting and camping go together. The faulty government policies have taken toll on our business,” rues Ratan Aswal, owner of a camp site.