EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
When did you start working for the Ganga?
In 2007, when I was with lawyer-activist MC Mehta in Delhi, Priya Patel, who was working at Bhatwari, on the banks of the river Bhagirathi, came to meet him regarding the filing of a PIL against the building of dams on the Ganga. I went with them to see how the projects were destroying Ganga ji. I had gone to Gangotri some 30 years ago when work for the Maneri Bhali dam project was going on, and had seen what the Bhagirathi looked like then. In 2007, I was stunned to see there was no water in the Bhagirathi downstream from Maneri Bhali dam and felt we have almost destroyed it by diverting all the water to a tunnel at the dam. That image kept haunting me and I was convinced that no dams should be built on the Ganga. It was on Ramnavmi in 2008, in Chitrakoot, that I decided to devote the rest of my life to Ganga ji. I don’t see Ganga ji as a river or an environmental issue, but as a divine power, my identity, my belief, my mother. I consider Bhagirath ji as my ancestor, and the Ganga as his legacy. The Qutub Minar and the Taj Mahal are merely 400-500 years old, but we consider them part of our heritage. But isn’t the Ganga a greater heritage? If we can do so much for the Taj Mahal, why not for Ganga ji?
What is the condition of the Ganga today?
The biggest problem is that almost all the water is diverted for irrigation. Before the 1840s, when Proby Cautley made the first Ganga canal, no water was being diverted in a big manner. In Haridwar, the minimum flow then was 8,500 cusecs, out of which Cautley diverted 7,000. He believed that 1,500 cusecs was enough for the river downstream. I don’t agree with him. If you take away 70-75 percent of a human being’s blood, will he be able to live? The WWF has said that in Prayag, the minimum flow should be 530 cusecs. However, when we checked last year, the actual flow was 38 cusecs.
Are you satisfied with the role played by other dharmacharyas and sadhus?
I was willing to let any big seer or dharmacharya do the fast instead of me. After all, it is their responsibility to protect our culture. Unfortunately, sadhus and dharmacharyas with ashrams on the banks of Ganga ji just looked on as our mother was being plundered. I thought that if I died during this fast, it would force them to think why they too can’t die for Ganga ji. I knew I might not achieve anything I want in this life, but even if a single person turns out to be like me, then I would have achieved a great deal.
What should the government do to restore the Ganga to its original glory?
We have given a 10-point agenda to the government. The flow of the Ganga should be unimpeded, and no dam or canals should be built. The original Ganga Jal should reach the Ganga Sagar (where the river meets the sea). Then one should deal with the issues of man-made and industrial pollution, and the way the flood plain is used. Sand mining has to be regulated. An Act should be passed in Parliament to protect the Ganga, just as there is an Act to protect the honour of the flag.
Is the government serious about cleaning up the Ganga?
Whichever government may be in power, they are all interested in money. The government’s concept of development is very parochial. We call the Ganga our mother. You drink the milk of your mother, not her blood. But our greed keeps us from thinking properly. We had our hopes on the Inter-Ministerial Group (IMG) headed by Planning Commission member BK Chaturvedi. The prime minister appointed him in June and gave him three months to file a report on what is going on in Uttarakhand, so that an informed decision can be taken. I had broken my fast after the PM’s promise. However, the IMG was given an extension of one month, which ended on 31 October. On 2 November, when they were supposed to have their last meeting, we came to know that the government has extended the tenure by another three months till 31 January 2013. Even then, the report may not be filed because if it had to be done, it would have been done by the end of the first extension. I was with Sunita Narain, Rajendra Singh and Mahant Veer Bhadra Mishra — the only three members of the 13-member group who are not government officials — before coming to THiNK, and on 1 November, we decided that we won’t let the government pass any anti-Ganga Bill. I think they came to know of it and cancelled the 2 November meeting and extended the tenure. This exposes the government’s intention, but for people who are ready to die, these delays are immaterial. For us, this was just a break and if the government refuses to listen, we will start again.
Are you satisfied with the outcome of your fast?
The administration was forced to stop at least three dams. They were going to build the Bhairon Ghati dam just 6 km from Gangotri, but it is still on the drawing board. They had spent 100 crore on the Pala Maneri dam and 550 crore on the Loharinag Pala dam, but both have been stopped. The government has notified the cancellation of these three projects. Also, 130 km of the Bhagirathi has been declared an ecosensitive zone by the National Ganga River Basin Authority, though no notification has been issued yet. Despite the dilly-dallying, even this is an achievement. However, the biggest achievement of my fast is that people are at least discussing about it. TEHELKA did a series on it and invited me to THiNK, where I got a phenomenal response. Several people told me they are shocked by the government’s apathy and want to do something. This is my real achievement.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.