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2008: Uttarakhand’s Save The Rivers Year

Ganga river, originating in the Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, is well-known throughout the world as India’s sacred and most revered river. But now its very existence is threatened as the state government, driven by an untrammeled lust for revenue and money-making, has given permission for the construction of a cascade of hydropower projects in its uppermost reaches. So far 220 big, medium and small dams have been decided upon throughout the state. The Ganga and most of its glacial tributaries will be converted into a series of ponds (reservoirs behind the dams) connected by pipes (tunnels). Most of the upper reaches of the Ganga river system will become dry as the water is pushed into tunnels.

Not only are the rivers and their ecosystems imperiled but the lives, livelihoods and culture of hundreds of villages along their banks are doomed to perish. Shoddy engineering during the construction of an 11.5km long tunnel for the Vishnu Gaad hydropower project in Chamoli district has led to land subsidence in Chayeen village, destroying the homes of about 30 families. While the District Administration has agreed to find them alternate accommodation, another 100 families survive fearfully from day-to-day, worrying about a similar fate in the near future. Slope instability has also been reported from Pala village, which sits in the middle of the Loharinag-Pala and Pala-Maneri hydropower projects in Uttarkashi district. (Both projects are on the Ganga river.)

“We are not campaigning against hydropower generation in Uttarakhand. We believe, however, that there are better ways to generate hydropower that less threaten people’s lives and livelihoods. The state government needs to carefully study the issues and prepare a comprehensive policy with the genuine involvement of the communities that are likely to be affected, so that they can also be partners in a real sense in the development process,” says Dr Ravi Chopra of the Uttarakhand Nadi Bachao Abhiyan.

While the glaciers-fed rivers are threatened by power projects, springs-fed rivers in the state are drying up. Decades of deforestation have denuded many of the river valleys of their tree cover. Rainwater runs off the denuded slopes leading to very little recharge of the rivers after the rainy season. Over-extraction of water for ever-increasing demands further depletes the water flow. Recent research shows that if serious and sustained efforts are not made to recharge and revive Uttarakhand’s rain-fed rivers, they will go dry in 10 or 15 years.

Traditionally the people of Uttarakhand have had a deep reverence for their natural resources and this has been reflected in their customary practices. While in principle the rulers owned all the resources in their domain, in practice the rights of ownership, use and powers to manage natural resources were vested in the local communities. The latter followed ecological principles of water resources development, as enunciated in ancient texts. and evolved integrated approaches to natural resources management to ensure their sustainability of the water sources.

British administrators systematically replaced community management of natural resources with state management. Separate departments for land, water and forests replaced the earlier holistic approach to natural resource management. The links between the rights over resource use and duties towards their preservation weakened gradually, alienating communities from their resource base. After independence, successive central and state governments adopted, amended or expanded the colonial legal and administrative framework. The decline of tradition continued.

“Official policies have only viewed water as a commodity and not as a community resource essential for its survival. Modern lifestyle in urban areas has greatly increased the consumption of water and the generation of wastewater. Urban sewage has polluted the once-pristine rivers and lakes of the state. Even the holy Ganga has not been spared,” says Radha Bahen, Chairperson of Gandhi Peace Foundation, who is also guiding the Abhiyan.

While its officials routinely mouth commitments to sustainability and equity, in practice the state has often given priority to tourism and commercial use of water over meeting basic human needs. To promote tourism the state has permitted the unrestricted construction of hotels leading to water shortages and pollution of local water bodies. These hotels can easily harvest rainwater from their roofs and treat their wastewater.

Concerned citizens of Uttarakhand and social activists have begun a campaign to mobilize communities against the anti-river policies of the state and awaken the government to save their rivers. They have declared 2008 as ‘Save The Rivers Year’. Padyatras (walks) are being organized from January 1,2008 to January 15, 2008 in 12 river valleys to promote mass contact, hold public meetings and discussion with local communities. The walks will also lead to a study of the state of the rivers and a compilation of people’s concerns. A signature campaign will be undertaken during the walk. The 12 teams will gather in Ramnagar for a conference to share their experiences on January 16-17, 2008. Specific programmes for the remaining year will be chalked out at the conference. The problems of the people and their concerns will be presented to the state government along with their direction to the state.

The campaign is receiving good support from the local communities, particularly women’s organizations and other community-based organization. Radha Bahen, Chairperson of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Dr. Shamsher Singh Bisht, Chairman of the Uttarakhand Lok Vahini, the well-known folk singer and poet Girda, Dr Shekhar Pathak, Dr Ravi Chopra, Director of People’s Science Institute, Ramesh Pahari a senior journalist, Suresh Bhai of Himalayee Pariyavaran Shiksha Sansthan and Laksman Singh Negi are guiding the campaign. Several eminent persons from other parts of the country including Magsaysay Award winners like Rajendra Singh, Dr Sandeep Pandey and Arvind Kejriwal and social activists like Dr Sudarshan, S.R. Hiremath, among others will join the walks at different stages.

Contact Person: Ayan Biswas: 0135-2773849 (Office), Mobile: 9411787232