Myth of power

Nourisher of an ancient civilization, the Ganga could be gasping for its survival. Every few kilometres the water of its tributaries will be diverted to produce power. While there may not be enough flow to run the turbines, there's enough incentive for investors to set them up, find out ravleen kaur and tom kendall

Published: Monday 15 September 2008

Myth of power

  Hydroelectric projects
in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins
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While going up the meandering road from Tehri to the holy town Gangotri during the thick of monsoon, the Bhagirathi appeared to get uneasily quieter with each hairpin bend; until Chinyali Sor village near Dharasu, 45 km from new Tehri town. The Tehri reservoir ends in the village. The river thereafter springs back to life and the roar of the gushing waters fills up the valleys. But the landscape gradually changes. Some of the mountains are bare and dotted along the road, every 500 metres, are graffiti, posters and signboards, giving out ominous messages. "Blasting Site" in bold, "Bandh Ganga ki hatya hai" (dams will kill the Ganga) and "Ganga ko aviral behne do" (let the Ganga flow unobstructed) are most common along this main stretch of pilgrim route where devotees go to pay their respects to Goddess Ganga, believed to be the daughter of heaven who came down on Earth through the matter locks of lord Shiva.

That apart, the river is fast becoming a favourite destination for hydroelectric projects, several of which are coming up on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins (see map), tributaries of the Ganga river. The highest of them, Bhairon Ghati, is 27 km from the Gangotri glacier. The Uttarakhand government claims it needs the projects. "We do not have many resources except the rivers. Power from these rivers is the only source of revenue for the state. Besides, we can also control floods and have water for irrigation round the year," said Yogendra Prasad, chairperson of Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (ujvnl) and adviser to the chief minister. Fifty five hydropower projects are in different phases of construction and planning. The 162 km stretch of the river from Gangotri to Devprayag will have 11 big dams while the 145 km stretch of Alaknanda from Badrinath to Devprayag will have more than nine big dams apart from several other small projects.

But things came to a head in June this year when G D Agarwal, former member secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board, sat on a nine-day fast. His demand was that no hydropower projects should come up on the 125-km stretch between Uttarkashi and Gangotri. He contended that it would affect the flow of the river and impact its purity. "Run of the river dams are the ones where water will be stored and released periodically through tunnels at locations on which the powerhouse will be built. If this goes on in a series, over long stretches there will be no flow in the channel," says Agarwal. Following the protest, the state stalled two projects, Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati. The Union Ministry of Power has set up a committee to look into the questions raised by Agarwal. In response, B C Khanduri, chief minister of Uttarakhand, is reported to have said that "the state respects Agarwal's sentiments and that he should also understand the state's energy requirements".

According to Anupam Mishra, environmentalist with Gandhi Peace Foundation, "Engineers feel that a river meeting into the sea without being of use for irrigation or power is a waste of the water in it. If we disrupt the natural flow of a river, it can create havoc. Merging into the river prevents large quantity of saline water ingress. This is crucial but is considered unscientific. Also, they cannot predict that a strong earthquake won't happen in the Himalaya. How will they save the downsteam areas from flooding if the dam breaks?" Experts also say that the ecology of the area will be adversely impacted, the qualities that make the Ganga what it is will be gone and the river may dry up.

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