Last week, Ganga became the country’s first national river. Announcing this, the Prime Minister said the river has a “special place in our hearts and minds” and this ‘emotional link’ needs to be recognised. Coming as it did before a round of elections, the BJP was in no mood to cede ground. It quickly termed the announcement as a “pre-poll gimmick”.
The talk of “emotional link” stems from the river’s ‘holiness’ and the ‘sanctity’ it enjoys among the people. But curiously even in an election season, when these two characteristics of Ganga are ‘under threat’, both parties are quiet. The BJP-led Uttarakhand government has given the green signal (with, of course, a helping hand from Delhi) to more than 37-odd hydropower projects on the Alakananda and Bhagirathi rivers (the two meet at Dev Prayag to form the Ganga). Many fear that such huge hydropower projects in an ecologically rich and a seismically fragile zone will have an irreversible effect on the region, destroy the five prayags and will block the Ganga from flowing freely, an attribute integral to its religiosity. Instead, a cascade of dams will turn the river into multiple stagnant pools. In fact, the very origin of the Ganga at Dev Prayag will be permanently under a 10-metre column of water.
Some months ago, the BJP and the Congress fought bitterly on the Sethusamudram case, debating on similar grounds of ‘holiness’. But this time around, the BJP is strangely quiet on the demands for ‘protecting’ the river. “If Ganga becomes a stagnant pool, it loses its character. Since it is our common heritage, finishing the river’s sanctity is a violation of Article 25,” says an environmental lawyer. Most of the dams being planned are run-of-the-river dams and officials involved in the projects say they are less damaging. However, environmentalists say that is not true. “They have to create big tunnels over long distances through fragile mountains. They also dry up stretches of the river, killing it and everything connected with it. This will create problems downstream,” says Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.
The counter-argument — India is growing and it needs power — is also true. However, the question that needs to be asked now is whether the cost of generating power includes all costs and if it is done then whether the projects would be economically viable. Economist Bharat Jhunjhunwala is trying to do exactly that: using the tools of his subject, he is quantifying all kinds of losses, including those not mentioned in governmental assessments. Jhunjhunwala questions the contention that hydropower is cheap as there are no variable costs like fuel. He says, “Every additional unit of power produced imposes higher costs on society and provides lower benefits. The correct level of generation has to be arrived at by looking at these costs and benefits.”
Take, for example, health costs of people living near dams. “Miles of slow moving water are ideal breeding grounds of malarial mosquitoes. But when project costs are calculated, only loss of land and displacement are calculated. The medical costs are not taken into account as this would be borne by the people later,” he says. “The cost-benefit analysis also does not take into account the indirect services provided by forests, the disturbance to the fragile Himalayan environment and proprietary value of submerged forest land.”
Such costs have to be brought under public scrutiny and the information must be passed on to the community. The effect of these dams on the people living far away also needs to be added. The deterioration of the quality of Ganga water at Prayag and Kashi and the loss of silt that’s so valuable for agriculture downstream should also be accounted for, he adds. The other problem is that dams are cleared as individual projects and no cumulative assessments of all dams on a river, a practice in other countries, are made. Only once such assessments are done, we will know what effects these dams that are being built in high-seismic zone will have in the future.