Book Review: “Ganga: The Many Pasts of a River” by Sudipta Sen. Penguine Viking. 2019. PP 445 + (xvi)
“Panditaraja Jagannath, Mughal court poet extraordinaire, a scholar of Linguistics, poetics, and philosophy, hounded by the Brahmin orthodoxy led by Hara Dikshita for marrying a Muslim woman, sought refuge on the steps of Banaras by the side of the Ganga. Forbidden to step into the water lest he pollute the river with his transgression, he was moved to compose his famous devotional eulogy of the Ganga, known as the Piyushalahari. As he composed each verse, legend has it, the river rose step by step, and at the end of his recitation sweeps him and his devoted wife away.”
In a remarkable protest echoing urgent need for protection of rivers, fisherfolk of Kosasthalai River on 03 January 2018, launched a ‘Jal Satyagraha’ against Kamarajar Port project. The proposal would divert 1000 acres of creek area. It mainly comprises of river, wetlands, marshy areas on which fisher community depend for livelihood.
Raising their voices against the project with holding play cards that read “This is River, Not Land” they stood in waist-deep in waters to save Ennore Creek. Joining the protest, hundreds of residents also demanded the withdrawal of alleged fraudulent maps denying the existence of the Ennore Creek. The community has been fighting a lonely battle against the Tamil Nadu government accusing it of turning wetlands illegally into industrial real estate corridors.
– “Fishing economy has been hit massively. Shrinking of water body means less space for fish. Shrinking has happened in terms of surface spread as well as depth thanks to the dumping of dredged sand from the sea, silting the waterbody. The larger concern is fly ash and heavy metals from the industries polluting the environment causing health hazards,” said Nityanand Jayaraman, Environmental activist and researcher who was part of the protest. https://www.oneindia.com/india/chennai-fisherfolk-stage-jal-satyagraha-to-save-ennore-creek-2613088.html (One India, 04 January 2018)
Year-end provides a wonderful opportunity for us to take stock of siatuations. If we look at India’s water sector, the above-average rainfall in 2013 monsoon would mean good agricultural production.
But the water sector as a whole is showing increasing signs of trouble.
Let us take few examples. The most striking crisis of 2013 was the unprecedented flood disaster in Uttarakhand in June where thousands perished. Experts and media called it a man-made disaster with a significant role played by existing and under construction hydropower projects and other unsustainable infrastructure. (SANDRPs Report) The Supreme Court order of Aug 13, 2013 directed the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests to set up a committee to look into the role played by existing and under construction hydropower projects in the disaster and also directed that no further clearance to any hydropower projects be given till further orders. This order was possibly the only hopeful sign since Uttarakhand government, other Himalayan states or the central agencies including NDMA and MoEF, seem to have learnt no lessons from the disaster.
Earlier in 2012-13 we saw triple crisis in Maharashtra in the form of worst drought in 40 years, worst irrigation scam in independent India and agitation against diversion of huge quantity of water from agriculture to non agriculture sector without any participatory process. In Andhra Pradesh too, a massive irrigation scam was exposed by the CAG report. In fact inequity in the distribution of costs and benefits related to water sector project lies at the heart of the bifurcation of the troubled state.
In Chhattisgarh and downstream Orissa, thermal power plans of massive capacities are going to impact the water situation so fundamentally that big trouble is likely to erupt there, which may impact several other sectors. Madhya Pradesh government is on a big dam building spree in all its river basins, including Narmada, Chambal and also the water scarce Bundelkhand. All of these projects are for canal irrigation when canal irrigation has failed to add any area to the total net irrigation at national level for over two decades now. We could see a new massive irrigation scam in MP in coming years, in addition to agitations and interstate disputes. Gujarat too saw a very bad drought in 2012-13, and there is increasing perception that Gujarat government is by design not building the distribution network to take the Narmada Dam waters to Kutch and Saurashtra, for whom the project was justified and built.
In North East India it is now two years since massive agitation has led to stoppage of work at ongoing 2000 MW Lower Subansiri hydropower project. This is India’s largest under construction hydropower project on which over Rs 5000 crores have been spent without putting in place basic studies or participatory decision making process. Similar fate awaits if the government goes ahead with other hydropower development projects in the region without learning lessons from this episode. During the year, Forest Advisory Committee’s rejection to grant forest clearance to 3000 MW Dibang and 1500 MW Tipaimukh projects in the region was a good sign, so is the stoppage of work at Maphithel dam in Manipur by the National Green Tribunal.
But we have seen no sign of improvement in environment governance. The year saw the questionable appointment of former Coal Secretary as chairman of the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Committee, by Union Ministry of Environment and Forest. In fact, several of the new appointees in the committee do not have any background in environmental issues. The year also began on the wrong note with the environment clearance to the 620 MW Luhri hydropower project in Himachal Pradesh, designed to destroy the last flowing stretch of SutlejRiver in the state. In April 2013, the Forest Advisory Committee took the most shocking decision of approving the completely unjustifiable Kalu dam for Mumbai Metropolitan Region, without any assessments. The same FAC had rejected the proposal one year back and the reasons for that rejections stand even today.
In Western Ghats, the decision of the Union government of dumping the Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel Report (Gadgil Report) and instead in principle accepting the-much criticized Kasturirangan committee Report has already led to full blown crisis in Kerala and is threatening to engulf more areas. This crisis was completely avoidable if the MoEF, in stead had used last two years to encourage public education on the need for implementing the Gadgil panel recommendations.
While relatively poorer states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa has shown big jump in agriculture growth rates in recent years, these have come at the cost of huge depletion in groundwater levels. As Vijayshankar of Samaj Pragati Sahyog said at a conference in Delhi recently, in Rajasthan, the level of groundwater development (ratio of annual groundwater draft to annual utilizable recharge) increased alarmingly from 59% in 1995 to 135% in 2009, indicating that Rajasthan is now in the overexploited category. Of the 236 blocks in Rajasthan, massive 164 (69%) were in over exploited category in 2009. In Madhya Pradesh, while the state groundwater use has moved from 48 to 56%, about 89 blocks out of total 313 (28%) are using unsafe levels of groundwater.
This fresh news of groundwater depletion in new areas is bad sign in medium and long range. “Over the last four decades, around 84 per cent of the total addition to the net irrigated area has come from groundwater. India is by far the largest and fastest growing consumer of groundwater in the world. But groundwater is being exploited beyond sustainable levels and with an estimated 30 million groundwater structures in play, India may be hurtling towards a serious crisis of groundwater over-extraction and quality deterioration”, said Planning Commission member Mihir Shah at a recent meeting in Delhi. 12th Five Year Plan has started the new scheme of mapping groundwater aquifers of India, which is a useful step, but we have yet to crack the puzzle of how to regulate groundwater use to ensure its equitable and sustainable use for priority sectors.
The state of our rivers as also the reservoirs and other water infrastructure is deteriorating but our water resources establishment has shown little concern for that. The IIT consortium report on the Ganga River Basin Management Plan is due soon, but if the pathetic interim report is any sign, there is little hope there.
The year 2012 ended with the National Water Resources Council approving the National Water Policy 2012. At the end of 2013 we have yet to see a credible plan in place for implementing the policy provisions. The year saw proposal from Union Ministry of Water Resources for a new Draft National Water Framework Law, Draft River Basin Management Bill and draft National Policy Guidelines for water sharing/ distribution amongst states. None of them have reached finality and all of them are likely to be opposed by states as an encroachment on their constitutional domain. In fact the interstate Mahadayi River conflict has reached a flashpoint with upstream Karnataka and Maharashtra starting dams in the basin without even statutory clearances from the centre or consent from downstream state of Goa.
While all this looks rather bleak, increasing agitations and informed protests all over India on water issues is certainly hopeful sign. More community groups are challenging inadequately done environmental impact assessments, cumulative impact assessments, basin studies, downstream impact assessments, concepts like eflows etc, raising very informed and pertinent questions. Most of these studies have been the monopoly of select, fraudulent EIA agencies. Critical questions indicate that these studies cannot be done excluding local communities, their knowledge and their concerns. Among other hopeful signs include some of the decisions of the National Green Tribunal on Yamuna and other rivers.
The underlying theme of these events is the increasing trend of state in India working for the interest of the corporate interests to the exclusion of people, environment and democracy. It is a challenge for us all to see how to reverse this trend.
The year 2013 also marks the end of the current term of the Union government. While there is little to hope from the two main political parties ruling the centre and the states mentioned above, perhaps the emerging political alternative in Delhi will grow and move in right direction. Let us hope for the best.
Why is Tehri filled up with half the monsoon still to come?
The Tehri dam reservoir on Bhagirathi river in Uttarkashi district in Uttarakhand is filled upto 818.4 m as on August 5, 2013, as per the latest available information on Northern Region Load dispatch Centre (http://nrldc.org/). With permitted full reservoir level of 820 m, the FRL is just 1.6 m above current level. At current rate, the water level in the Tehri dam may reach FRL in less than a week. The question is why is Tehri dam being filled up when almost half the monsoon is still to come? And when going by the trend so far, the monsoon is likely to continue to bring surplus rains? Now the Tehri dam is posing a huge, grave and real risk for the downstream areas in Uttarakhand and UP as the monsoon rains continue in all its fury.
In last 35 days since July 1 (level 780.05 m), the water level in the dam has gone up by 38.35 m. In last four days since Aug 1, the level has gone up by 7.85 m. On every single day since July 1, Tehri has been releasing less water than it has been receiving, which means the dam is hoarding water (a detailed list of reservoir level, inflow and usage at Tehri dam from July 1 to August 6 is given in the annexure below). On at least 22 days since July 1, the dam has used less than the optimum quantity of water it can use, that is 572 cubic meters/ sec. The Tehri dam generated 657.65 million units of power during July 2013, which is below the optimum it can generate (744 MU) and also less than what it generated for example in Aug 2011 and Sept 2010. As a direct consequence, while less power was generated, more water was accumulated behind the dam and now the dam is posing a risk to the downstream areas.
Safety issues at Koteshwar Dam: Vigilance enquiry on It may be recalled that in September 2010 similar mismanagement at the Tehri dam led to huge and avoidable floods (for details see page 20 of Aug Sept 2010 issue of Dams, Rivers & People: https://sandrp.in/drp/DRP_Aug_Sept_2010.pdf) in the downstream Uttarakhand and UP. Thus the highest ever flood level of 296.3 m at Haridwar was reached on Sept 19, 2010 (see http://www.india-water.com/ffs/static_info.asp?Id=24). In fact in Sept 2010, the downstream Koteshwar dam of THDC also suffered severe damages due to this mismanagement and now it is unable to take larger flows from upstream Tehri dam. The weak civil works of Koteshwar dam is also now facing vigilance enquiry as per the Aug 4, 2013 report from http://www.energylineindia.com/. The report said, “Vigilance department had expressed its concerns regarding the civil works and works relating to diversion plug, which are extremely susceptible to rains and are vulnerable to lead to major impact on the dam safety… The stalemate at THDC’s 400 MW Koteshwar Dam and Power House (KDPH) has seen work come to a halt in the event of non completion of emergency works for the project.”
AIPEF misleading Power Ministry? It is reported that All India Power Engineers Federation has written to the Union Power Ministry, expressing concern that spillage from Tehri dam will pose risk of flooding of the downstream Koteshwar project. This concern also seems to suggest that Koteshwar dam is not strong enough to take the higher water releases from Tehri that may be required. The Matu Jansangthan has also raised concern about safety of the Koteshwar dam and its impacts. The request in the letter that THDC be allowed to increase the water storage to 830 m is anyway misleading since it is not in the hands of Power Ministry.
Uttarakhand waiting for new disaster? It seems from this situation that unless urgent steps are taken, Uttarakhand may be in for a new disaster pretty soon. It is strange that while this situation was developing over the last month a number of agencies that should have taken advance notice and action have been sitting quietly.
Þ Central Water CommissionIndia’s highest technical body on water resources is supposed to provide rule curve for safe operation of all dams. It seems CWC has not issued any such safe rule curve for Tehri or the rule curve issued by it is unsafe like it is in many other dams.
Þ Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh government In case of the flood disaster that will happen in the downstream area because of the wrong operation of the Tehri dam, it is the people, lands, property and environment of the Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh governments that will be affected. But Uttarakhand or the Uttar Pradesh seems to have taken no action. Uttar Pradesh government is also partner with THDC in the project.
Þ National Disaster Management Authority NDMA should be concerned about this impending manmade disaster and should have taken action, but seems to have done nothing.
Þ Union Ministry of Water Resources The Ministry is supposed to be concerned about the safety of all dams in India, but has clearly failed to do anything about Tehri or Koteshwar.
THDC, Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Central Water Commission among others have been making a lot of false claims about Tehri dam having saved Uttarakhand during the Uttarakhand flood disaster during June 15-17, 2013. Our analysis showed that this is clearly false claim and also warned that Tehri could turn out to be a source of disaster in the remaining part of current monsoon. That situation now has clearly developed and requires urgent intervention. We hope all concerned authorities will urgently intervene and ensure that no such disaster happens.
 In ongoing Supreme Court case, THDC does not have permission to take water level behind the dam above 820 m due to lack of progress in rehabilitation. On Aug 27, 2010, THDC was given a one time temporary permission to take water level to 830 m only as an “emergency measure”. Now THDC is seeking SC permission to take the water level to 835 m from the current permissible 820 m, but that is unlikely to be agreed by the Uttarakhand government considering the state of rehabilitation. The case is likely to come up before the Supreme Court in Sept 2013, as per Matu Jansangthan, which is fighting the case.
The claim of THDC, CWC and Uttarakhand Chief Minister that in absence of Tehri dam, Rishikesh and Haridwar would have been washed away is completely baseless and unfounded, nothing but a hype. Facts show that if Tehri Dam id not exist, the water level in downstream towns may have risen on June 16-17, before the levels actually rose on June 18 (as per CWC, peak level in Rishikesh was 340.8 m and in Haridwar at 295.1 m, both on June 18), but are likely to be lower than the levels of June 18 since peak flow in Alaknanda (around 11000 cumecs) was lower than that in Bhagirathi (6900 cumecs). THDC and CWC should refrain from making such claims as they are more like adding salt to the wounds that the people of the state are now experiencing and where dams and hydro projects have played a big role.
From all accounts, it is clear that peak flood in Bhagirathi River on which Tehri dam is situated, occurred on June 16 and the peak flood in Alaknanda occurred on June 17 and not at the same time. So it is not rational to add the two peaks happening at different points of time to claim that Tehri saved downstream areas. If Tehri was not there, there could have been floods in downstream a day earlier, but that does not mean peak level would have been much higher than what was the case with Tehri Dam.
From the records available on the websites of Central Water Commission (http://cwc.gov.in/Reservoir_level.htm) and Central Electricity Authority (http://cea.nic.in/daily_hydro.html), it is clear that water level in Tehri reservoir rose from 749 m on June 15 to 776.8 m on June 18 (water levels for June 16 and 17 are not available for some strange reason), this translated to increase in water storage by 652 Million Cubic meters (MCM). THDC claims that they experienced peak inflow of 244 000 cusecs and moderated that to an outflow of 14000 cusecs. To achieve this moderation for a day would take storage capacity of around 563 MCM, so it is plausible that they achieved this moderation on June 16, when Bhagirathi was experiencing peak flow.
However, as we noted earlier, the peak flow in Alaknanda happened on June 17. THDC should make public hourly figures of flow in Bhagirathi and Alaknanda on June 15-19, outflow from Tehri on each of those hours, level of Ganga at Devprayag, Haridwar and Rishikesh, so that everyone can assess the reality of their claim. Such information should in fact be in public domain in routine way.
It cannot be forgotten that:
Areas downstream of Tehri dam faced avoidable and unprecedented flood disaster in September 2010 (for details see page 20 of Aug Sept 2010 issue of Dams, Rivers & People: https://sandrp.in/drp/DRP_Aug_Sept_2010.pdf). If the dam operation is not done properly, we may be in for a repeat later this season.
It should also be recalled that Tehri is a ticking time bomb in the context of large earthquake that is imminent in the state as seismologists are telling us.( including eminent seismologists like Dr. Vinod Gaur. For more details: Earthquakes and Large Dams in Himalayas)
People affected by the Tehri dam have still not been rehabilitated, the dam has also not been delivering the peaking power it could, as noted by Central Electricity Regulatory Authority. The dam is also silting up much faster than envisaged, reducing its water holding and power generation capacity.
In fact, CWC has failed in its flood forecasting as we made it clear earlier. Both CWC and THDC need to put their house in order rather making unfounded claims.