Jun 24 2008

Fast to Death Against Ganges Dam

Dr G. D. AgrawalDistinguished Indian environmental scientist Dr G. D. Agrawal today began his commitment to fast until death unless the country’s government heeds protests and warnings against the construction of several hydroelectric power dams on the River Ganges.
On the festival of Ganga Dusshera marking the birth of the river Ganges, crowds gathered on the banks of one of its tributaries, the sacred Bhagirathi river, to begin a day-long collective fast in the north Indian town of Uttarkashi, a gesture repeated by thousands throughout the country to show support for eminent scientist Dr G. D. Agrawal in his protest against proposed and ongoing hydroelectric construction schemes in the area a protest which will see him fast until death unless all such development work is stopped.

On a 125km stretch of the river’s 2525km length, running from the river?s source at the Gaumukh Glacier to this remote town nestled among the Himalayan foothills, a total of 6 hydroelectric power-plant dams are planned, seeking clearance or are already under construction, despite numerous protests and representations by local citizens. In pursuit of its agenda for economic growth, which depends heavily on the ready availability of energy, the Indian Government pushed planning applications through hastily, in the process destroying what those gathered here describe as the traditional Indian ethos of worshipping nature and living in harmony with it. Pained at the insensitivity of the project stakeholders, 76-year old environmental engineer Dr Agrawal has decided to go on fast from June 13 2008 until he dies, or until a satisfactory agreement is drawn up to cease any work which stems the Bhagirathi?s flow. He has said that he has no wish to outlive the river.

The many objections raised are rooted both in scientific, environmental and legal concerns, as well as those related to faith, culture and sentiment. Of the latter, it is stressed that for Hindus the Ganges is a divine flow, a living entity, a ?mother?, and as such is worshiped: many Indian homes have a bottle of Ganges water for use in rituals, especially that of applying two drops to the forehead both at point of birth and moment of death. These beliefs led to a 1916 mass movement against the then British government which resulted in a written agreement committing that the flow of the Ganges will not be blocked completely. This agreement is mentioned in the Constitution of India, but has not been acknowledged.

At the same time, the feasibility, safety and economic viability of the proposed projects have been called into question, with many feasibility reports being kept confidential, and those accessible to interested parties found to be largely based on insufficient or very short-term data. Geological fault lines are present in the area, presenting enormous risks for those communities not forced immediately to move by the projects in the case of dam failure during an earthquake. Furthermore, past projects in similar areas have seen project costs escalate dramatically, not least due to the severe local geologic conditions.

The long-term environmental impacts are hard to measure, and as a consequence their importance is diminished in the feasibility reports. Drastic changes in water depths, velocities and silt-loads over long periods of time are bound to impact heavily on the distribution and survival of dependent flora and fauna species, especially migratory fish and benthic worms, insects and invertebrates; all critical elements in the food chain. The immediate loss of forests and vegetation in flooded areas puts endangered, endemic and sensitive species at further risk, and farmers too lose out since all their precious, irrigated fields in the region lie at low altitude along the banks of the river.

That these projects are deigned to satisfy a short-sighted need for energy to fuel India’s ‘development’ in the present is finally emphasized by recent studies concluding that the Gaumukh Glacier, whose perennial melting ice constitutes the Bhagirathi’s source, is shrinking at a significant, visible rate: the UN Environment Programme announced in March that as soon as 2030 the glacier, along with other Himalayan glaciers, may no longer exist. This being the case, there is every chance that if Dr Agrawal’s grave plea falls on deaf ears, then by mid century these valleys will be littered with giant, dry monuments to a bygone era, a time when those in power would sacrifice anything and everything in the pursuit of economic growth.