Uttarakhand, the land of snow-clad peaks and glaciers from where many rivers originate, quenches the thirst of hundreds of millions of people in northern India’s plains. Ironically, residents of several parts of the hill state routinely face water shortages. The probem has assumed significant ground in the run up to the 2019 Indian elections.

Elections to the 543 seats of the Lok Sabha will take place over April and May. Of the 543 seats, Uttarakhand accounts for five seats: Almora, Garhwal, Hardwar, Nainital-Udhamsingh Nagar and Tehri Garhwal. They are going to the polls on April 11.

Carved out as a separate state from Uttar Pradesh in 2000, Uttarakhand has seen a significant push for hydropower projects on the Ganga and its tributaries, which flow through the state. Even as these projects progress on the state’s rivers, the authorities have failed to provide safe drinking facilities for the local residents.

As per a 2018 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General, Uttarakhand is among the states where less than 50% of the population had access to adequate quantities of safe drinking water. Besides the lack of water facilities, the state is also experincing an overexploitation of groundwater, land use change, deforestation and drying up of water resources like springs and ponds.

Kishore Upadhyaya, a senior leader of the Indian National Congress party from Uttarakhand and former head of the Uttarakhand Congress, not that no one is listening to the state’s problems.

“Uttarakhand is like a water factory,” Upadhyaya told Mongabay-India. “We have big projects like the Tehri dam through which water is being provided to states like Rajasthan and Delhi. But people living in the area near Tehri are being forced to pay hefty water bills. The issue of water and clean air are not the top issues being discussed in the elections.”

He added: “We are trying to change that. There needs to be a sustainable policy for Himalayas.”

Vimal Bhai of Matu Jan Sangathan, an Uttarakhand based non-governmental organisation, echoed his view. “The worst part is that mainstream political parties have largely ignored these issues,” he said. “It is only smaller parties that are talking about these issues.”

Is water a priority?

The problem of water shortage is not new to Uttarakhand. In early 2018, a report by the United Nations Development Programme found that the state is facing acute water crisis.

In December 2018, people from around 40 villages in Pauri Garhwal region threatened to boycott the 2019 elections if the water crisis was not resolved. Some residents of Mussorie, the popular tourist town, had voiced similar sentiments.

The drying up of mountain springs, considered lifelines for people in the hills, has worsened the problem of water shortage. A 2018 report by the Indian government’s NITI Aayog think tank acknowledged that most of the drinking water supply in the mountainous parts of Uttarakhand is spring-based. It had revealed that approximately 50% of the mountain springs in the Indian Himalayan region, which includes Uttarakhand, are drying up.

But as environmentalist Ravi Chopra emphasised, “In the political scene of Uttarakhand, environmental issues hold no central space”.

“They are part of electoral discussion only in some small pockets,” he said. “For instance, solid waste management is an important issue in urban areas of Uttarakhand while in some rural areas people are protesting against the lack of drinking water facilities. Sand mining too is an issue but it is limited to a small area. Drinking water is an issue because Himalayan springs, which are the main source of water, are drying up. However, successive governments have failed to take cognisance and act on it.”

Uttarakhand has vast water resources but yet, its citizens are facing a water shortage. Photo credit:  Rajarshi Mitra/Wikimedia Commons/Flickr.
Uttarakhand has vast water resources but yet, its citizens are facing a water shortage. Photo credit: Rajarshi Mitra/Wikimedia Commons/Flickr.

Ajay Bhatt, who is the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its candidate from the Nainital-Udhamsingh Nagar seat, admitted that water shortage is an important issue for the people in the state.

“Drinking water is a main issue and is on my agenda,” he said. “It is a big problem in this area due to groundwater levels going down. It is a problem that the whole world is facing. Moreover, it has also been noticed that snowfall is also decreasing, which is an issue of grave concern.”

However, as per a recent survey released by the Association for Democratic Reforms, which listed top three voters’ priorities in every constituency, environmental issues did not figure as a top voter priority in any of the five seats in Uttarakhand.

The one priority issue that was common for all the five seats was better employment opportunities, while other issues high on people’s minds were traffic congestion, agriculture-governance related issues and better health facilities.

No dam talk

Since Uttarakhand’s formation, there has been a significant thrust on developing hydropower projects in the state but they have always been controversial due to intense pressure from environmentalists who demand free flowing rivers including Ganga. According to the official data, there are at least 124 hydropower projects, either in operation or under development, of total installed capacity of over 13,000 megawatt in Uttarakhand.

The 2013 Uttarakhand floods that resulted in deaths of thousands of people also led to protests against dams as reports held that they aggravated the impact of the floods and increased the damage. However, the issue seems to have lost steam for now and is not even part of the election agenda.

Uttarakhand based environmentalist Ravi Chopra said what speaks volumes about the apathy of governments is that no authority or politician has cared to take note of Swami Atmabodhanand of Matri Sadan in Haridwar, who is sitting on fast for over 160 days demanding steps for a clean and free flowing River Ganga.

BJP’s president in Uttarakhand, Ajay Bhatt said dams are important as they help in improving the water levels. “If we had no dams, we would not have been to ensure water at Allahabad [now known as Prayagraj, in Uttar Pradesh] during the recently held Ardh Kumbh celebrations,” he added.

Thus article first appeared on Mongabay.