If the Ganga dies, India dies – Vandana Shiva

Vandana ShivaThe movement to save the Ganga and its “nirmal (clean)” and “aviral (uninterrupted)” flow is not just a movement to save a river. It is a movement to save India’s troubled soul that is polluted and stifled by crass consumerism and greed, disconnected from its ecological and cultural foundations. – Vandana Shiva

I am travelling with the Ganga yatra which is a pilgrimage to save the river Ganga. The Ganga is India’s ecological, economic, cultural and spiritual lifeline. That is why we are undertaking the Ganga yatra.

The threats to our Mother Ganga, or “Ganga Ma”, are many. Deforestation was a major threat to the catchment of Ganga in the 1970s. The myth of the descent of Ganga is, in fact, an ecological tale.

Ganga, whose waves in Swarga flow,
Is daughter of the Lord of Snow.
Win Shiva, that His aid be lent,
To hold Her in Her mid-descent.
For earth alone will never bear
These torrents travelled from the upper air.

The story of the descent of the Ganga is an ecological story. The above hymn is a tale of the hydrological problem associated with the descent of a mighty river like the Ganga. H.C. Reiger, the eminent Himalayan ecologist, described the material rationality of the hymn in the following words: “In the scriptures a realisation is there that if all the waters which descend upon the mountain were to beat down upon the naked earth would never bear the torrents… In Shiva’s hair we have a very well-known physical device which breaks the force of the water coming down… the vegetation of the mountains”.

That is why the Chipko Movement, which was initiated to protect the Himalayan forests, was important for India’s ecological security. I started my ecological activism with Chipko. After nearly a decade of Chipko actions, logging was banned in the high Himalaya in 1981.

The women had given the slogan: “What do the forests bear: soil, water and pure air,” to replace the slogan of commercial forestry: “What do the forest bear: timber, resin and revenue.”

After the 1978 flood in the Ganga, it became clear that water conservation was the first gift of the Himalayan forests. The wisdom of the peasant women of Garhwal is today called the economies of ecosystems.

GangotriThe Ganga is threatened at its very source — the Gangotri glacier. Climate change has led to the decline in snowfall and an increase in the rate of melting of snow. From 1935 to 1956, the retreat of the Gangotri glacier was 4.35 metres per year. In the period 1990-1996 it was 28.33 m/yr. The average rate of retreat is 20-38 m/yr. If this retreat continues, the Ganga would become a seasonal river, with major ecological and economic consequences for the entire Ganga basin. This is why we need climate justice for water justice.

Tehri DamThe Ganga’s tributaries are threatened by dams and diversions in the upper reaches. The 260.5-metre-high Tehri dam, built at Tehri on the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bhilangana, submerged the ancient capital of Tehri Garhwal, destroyed the lush and fertile fields of the valleys and displaced 1,00,000 people from 125 villages of which 33 were completely submerged. But the displacement due to the dam continues.

At the shore of the reservoir, people were flooded from below and above simultaneously. Fields and homes by the dam shore were submerged as the water level rose from 820 to 835 metres. The authorities of the Tehri hydropower plant were not willing to release excess water from the dam even though the water levels were affecting the surrounding villages. From their point of view, release through the slush gates was spillage. Mooni Devi, who lives at water level, says: “This used to be such a great place with great farms. The dam builders have turned us all into beggars”.

Ganga dry bed.A chain of hydroelectric projects have stopped the “aviral” flow of the Ganga and in many stretches the Ganga runs dry. The Government of India has been proposing hydroelectric projects on Loharinag-Pala, Pala-Maneri and Bhaironghati on Bhagirathi to tap their hydropower potential. In addition to the already-built Tehri dam and Maneri Bhali-2 dam, a series of dams were planned between Gangotri and Uttarakashi on the river Bhagirathi. It took penance and fasting by today’s “Bhagirath,” Prof. G.D. Agarwal, to stop the dams on the Bhagirathi.

In the plains a big threat to the Ganga and Yamuna is pollution — both from industry and sewage. And even as billions are poured into cleaning the Ganga and the Yamuna through the Ganga Action Plan and the Yamuna Action Plan, the pollution of our sacred rivers increases because of a combination of corruption and inappropriate technologies.

Ganga at VaranasiIndustrialisation and urbanisation have turned our sacred rivers into sinks for pollutants. The Yamuna is clean before entering Delhi. In 22 km of its journey through Delhi, it picks up 70 per cent of the pollution of the river in its total length. Various action plans have set up centralised sewage treatment plants that do not work and 70 per cent of untreated sewage is dumped into the river. The river dies because of pollution, the land dies because it is deprived of rich nutrients. As Sunderlal Bahuguna reminded me, Mahatama Gandhi called this “golden manure”. Intelligent zero-waste-sewage treatment systems like those evolved in IIT-Kanpur by Dr Vinod Tare would clean the Ganga and also fertilise the soil. We would not be wasting `130,000 crore on fertiliser subsidies and thousands of crores on river action plans. Organic farming can be a major action for cleaning the Ganga.

Pepsico's Aquafina Bottled WaterThe final threat to the Ganga is privatisation. Privatisation of water reduces it to a commodity, makes giant corporations owners and sellers of water and ordinary citizens, buyers and consumers. The role of citizens and communities as conservers and caretakers is destroyed. The human right to water, which was recognised by the United Nations in April 2010, is undermined. That is why when the Ganga water which has been brought to Delhi from Tehri was being privatised to Suez through a World Bank project, we built a Citizens Alliance for Water Democracy and told the World Bank and the Delhi government that our “Mother Ganga is not for sale”. The World Bank project was withdrawn and the privatisation stopped.

The movement to save the Ganga and its “nirmal (clean)” and “aviral (uninterrupted)” flow is not just a movement to save a river. It is a movement to save India’s troubled soul that is polluted and stifled by crass consumerism and greed, disconnected from its ecological and cultural foundations.

If the Ganga lives, India lives. If the Ganga dies, India dies. – Deccan Chronicle, Chennai, Dec. 13, 2010

Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, author and activist.