Environmentalist GD Agrawal, 86, died on Thursday, 111 days into a hunger strike to save the Ganga. He was in police custody at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh. Before he took his vows as a Hindu ascetic some years ago, Agrawal had taught at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, served on the board of the National Ganga River Basin Authority and advised government, at various levels, on the health of rivers. This was his fifth fast, a doomed attempt to make the Centre take action on his demands: make the Ganga “aviral” (free flowing) and stop the construction of hydroelectric projects along its tributaries, remove encroachments and keep the river clean. The government responded by trying to force-feed Agrawal, which he resisted, and by trying to shift him to Delhi, which he also resisted. The National Democratic Alliance largely ignored his demands. This was not to be expected of a government that made the preservation and cleaning up of the Ganga a showpiece on its agenda.
When it came to power in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party grandly renamed the water resources ministry. It is now called the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and has Uma Bharti as the minister in charge. The National Ganga River Basin Authority was to be replaced by a National Ganga Council. In 2015, the Namami Ganga project was launched, with Rs 20,000 crore allotted to ensure that the river was cleaned by 2019. Also that year, a report on the Ganga Rejuvenation Basin Management Programme was submitted. Apart from the change in nomenclature, however, the government seems to have done little.
Never mind being finalised, the Ganga rejuvenation report was reportedly not even circulated to different ministries for suggestions. The National Council for River Ganga still remains a proposal, now under the National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2017. The ambitious bill also proposes the creation of an armed force called the Ganga Protection Corps and steep fines for those polluting the river. Agrawal himself had questioned the wisdom of a new bill unless there was an autonomous body, staffed by experts rather than bureaucrats, to oversee the rejuvenation of the Ganga. Besides, going by its track record, it is unlikely the bill will be implemented in the life of this government.
Meanwhile, the water ministry diverted its attentions to a grandiose river-linking project that would entail diverting water from major rivers such as the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, costing an almost mythical $87 billion. First floated by the National Democratic Alliance government in 2002, this was to be the Centre’s solution to persistent droughts and floods in large parts of India. As an added benefit, it was also to generate several thousand megawatts of electricity. It is not clear whether such a project would, indeed, tackle the problem. What is certain is that the project would be ecologically disastrous for several regions – the Ken-Betwa link, for instance, would submerge large parts of the Panna Tiger Reserve.
On hydroelectric projects, the government has failed to take a firm stand. In 2013, after devastating flash floods hit Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court stopped work on 24 projects in the state. Since then, the water resources ministry and the environment ministry have gone to war at the apex court, the former demanding a review of all 24 projects. This has not happened till date, and the Uttarakhand chief minister recently spoke to Union Water Minister Nitin Gadkari, asking that work be resumed. Earlier this year, Gadkari had announced that no new hydroelectric projects would be allowed on the Ganga. This week, the water resources ministry announced minimum environmental flow norms for the Ganga, ensuring the uninterrupted flow of water that is essential to keeping the river clean. Existing projects that do not currently meet these norms will have to comply within three years. But this may be too little too late. The damage to the Ganga may be hard to reverse unless there is a comprehensive review of all existing projects.
Over the course of four years, the government’s initiatives to clean and protect the Ganga have been more sound than substance, with some dangerous missteps along the way. Agrawal’s death is a sad reminder of how much was promised and how little done.