Calcutta Notebook


The Central Government has issued a Notification to restore and maintain the wholesomeness of the Ganga River. The issue is important because this notification may become the template for notifications on other rivers of the country. The commitment to restore and maintain the wholesomeness of the river is entirely welcome.

Presently all or almost all water of Indian rivers is removed by hydropower and irrigation projects. The river becomes totally dry downstream of these projects. It dies. The Notification specifies the amount of water that will be released from hydropower and irrigation projects on the Ganga as "environmental flows" (e-flows). The release of this water will ensure that the river does not become dry downstream of these projects and restore her wholesomeness. The question is how much water should be released for this purpose.

The previous UPA Government had asked a Consortium of 7 IITs to make a Ganga River Basin Management Plan. While that study was going on, the UPA Government established a Committee under Shri B K Chaturvedi, formerly Cabinet Secretary, and member of the Planning Commission at that time. Chaturvedi Committee recommended a release of 20 to 30 percent water from hydropower projects. He said clearly that these figures were an interim measure until the IIT suggested the desired e-flows. The NDA Government had already accepted this interim recommendation of the Chaturvedi Committee. Government of Kerala has said in an affidavit filed before the National Green Tribunal that the Ministry of Environment was requiring release of 20-30 percent water while issuing Environment Clearance to new hydro-power projects.

The Report of the IIT Consortium was submitted in January 2015. The Consortium recommended release of about one-half of the water as e-flows for maintaining the wholesomeness of the river. The NDA Government has now notified that 20-30 percent water will be released as e-flows. In doing so it has only notified what the Chaturvedi Committee set up by the UPA Government had recommended as an interim measure and ignored that report of the IIT Consortium. It is old wine in new bottle.

Sources in the Ministry of Water Resources say that the Government had appointed another Committee to advise it about the adoption of the recommendations made by the IIT Consortium. One Professor of IIT Delhi, who was also involved in the IIT Consortium, was also appointed on this Committee. In other words, he reviewed his own recommendations. This Professor now recommended to the Government that e-flows of 20-30 percent would be adequate. This throws light on the shoddy state of the integrity of the Professors in India's prestigeous academic institutions. It is a standard policy of the Government to make one Committee after the other until the Government gets its desired recommendation.The NDA Government has simply ignored the recommendations of the IIT Consortium and accepted the recommendations of this pliable committee without any public discussion.

Four hydropower projects are under construction on the Ganga (Phata-Byung, Singoli-Bhatwari, Vishnugad-Pipalkoti and Tapovan-Vishnugad). These projects require making a barrage across the river which will prevent the flow of spiritual charges, fish migration and sediment of the Ganga. However, an agreement was reached between the British Government of India and the Hindu Community led by Madan Mohan Malviya in 1917 regarding the Haridwar Barrage. This Agreement required leaving an unregulated opening in the barrage. The 1917 Agreement says, "The opening in (the barrage on the main channel of Ganga) was to be left for the present exactly as it is without constructing a regulator." This opening led to the spiritually charged water to flow unobstructed, enabled the fish to migrate upstream and the sediments to flow downstream. It was necessary to require these projects to redesign their barrages to leave an unregulated opening as mentioned in the 1917 Agreement. The Central Water and Power Research Station, Pune has shown that it is indeed possible to make hydropower projects with barrages with an unregulated opening. The present Notification is silent on redesigning these under-construction projects.

Seven hydropower projects have been commissioned on the Ganga (Maneri Bhali 1 and 2, Tehri, and Koteshwar on Bhagirathi; Vishnu Prayag and Srinagar on Alaknanda; and Chila on Ganga). The Notification gives a time of three years to these projects to start releasing the e-flows. This could actually be done immediately. All dams and barrages have gates at the bottom to flush out the sediments deposited behind the dam. These gates are at present opened sporadically, say, once a week. These gates could be opened partially or fully to release the e-flows immediately. The Notification allows them to use the water for the next 3 years for generation of electricity and making profit. The Government could have at least provided that the revenue generated from the electricity produced with this water should be deposited in a fund to be used for the protection of the Ganga.

The Chaturvedi Committee and IIT Consortium have not given any explicit figures for the amount of water to be released from the irrigation barrages at Haridwar and Narora. The 1917 Agreement specifies that minimum 1,000 cubic feet per second (or 28 cubic metres per second, cumecs) water will be ensured to flow through the canal on which Har-ki-Pauri is located. It appears that the Government has taken a cue from this figure and specified that minimum 36 cumecs water will be released from Haridwar and 24 cumecs will be released from Narora in the recent Notification.

In doing so the Government has made three errors. One, it has ignored the fact that the figure of 28 cumecs had been agreed in 1917 after an unregulated opening had been provided in the barrage. That is not the case at Haridwar and Narora barrages as they stand at present. These barrages extend across the entire riverbed and prevent the flow of spiritual charges, fishes and sediments. Two, the Government ignored that the figure of 28 cumecs was agreed as minimum flow in the canal at Har-ki-Pauri. That figure has nothing to do with the e-flows required for maintenance of spiritual charges, migration of fish and flow of sediments. Three, the e-flows specified in the present notification are only 6 percent of the flow at Haridwar and 3 percent at Narora. This is inadequate considering that IIT Consortium has recommended about 50 percent e-flows from hydropower projects.

Sanand Swami died after fasting for 111 days seeking restoration of the wholesomeness of the Ganga. It is time that the Government took more positive decision on the same.

[Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru]

Vol. 51, No.20, Nov 18 - 24, 2018