An inter-ministerial group, including Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and Power Minister Piyush Goyal, has decided, in principle, that no new construction would be allowed on the River Ganga or any of its tributaries. The decision, to be conveyed to the Supreme Court on January 20, has been taken to ensure the river’s minimum environmental flow and protect the ecosystem that depends on it. This is a welcome move for two reasons. One, it shows the acknowledgement, among policymakers, of the intricate set of factors that must be taken into account to keep alive and rejuvenate a river system like the Ganga. Two, in the past, policymakers have shied away from calling a halt to power projects that clearly threatened delicately balanced and even critically endangered river ecosystems. On this occasion, Bharti has offered to compensate the six hydroelectric power projects (HEPs) to be built on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river basins in Uttarakhand, out of the Rs 20,000 crore approved for Namami Gange. The decision revives hope of not only rejuvenating the Ganga, but also of averting tragedies like the Uttarakhand floods in 2013.
The sequence of events that led to the decision, however, illustrates how government departments often work at cross purposes. In the aftermath of the floods, the Supreme Court had prohibited the setting up of any new HEPs in Uttarakhand. In February this year, a four-member committee of the environment ministry evaluating the cluster of six HEPs argued against them. In October, another expert body set up by the environment ministry, which included the Central Water Commission (which comes under the water resources ministry), overturned the first committee’s recommendation. And now, yet another five-member committee — this time led by the secretary of the water resources ministry — has reverted to the earlier decision against setting up the HEPs.
A large part of the problem is the lack of adequate information about ecological flows. There is hardly any regulation in this regard and guidelines about what is optimal or desirable are sketchy. There is little in terms of mapping of aquatic fauna. Drawing a line on HEPs is just one element in the effort to arrest the decline. The Centre might also want to relook at other schemes that show more ambition than ecological sense — like the proposed linking of 101 rivers across the country.