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Before it becomes the Ganga at Devprayag after flowing some 200 km downward from Gangotri, it is the Bhagirathi. And where the river begins, the poll contest playing out involves the environment as well as political rebellion. A veteran RSS swayamsevak and one of the oldest Jan Sangh members in Uttarkashi, Surat Ram Nautiyal, is contesting against BJP.
Gangotri constituency is symbolic not just in religious terms but also politically. Whichever party has won here has always formed the government of the state, be it Uttarakhand or Uttar Pradesh.
It is also the centre of a tussle between Chief Minister Harish Rawat and the NDA government over the eco-sensitive zone scheme notified by the UPA government in 2012. Under the scheme, the “entire watershed of about 100 km” of the Bhagirathi from its origin at Gaumukh to Uttarkashi, covering 4179.59 sq km, is termed the eco-sensitive zone, imposing many restrictions on projects.
Nautiyal, the Sangh veteran, is disillusioned with the BJP. “The lotus came in 1980, I have been with the Jan Sangh since 1969,” he says. “Advaniji said it was the party with a difference. Where is he now?” Referring to the large number of Congress rebels-turned-BJP leaders, Nautiyal says: “We raised slogans against [Vijay] Bahuguna and Harak Singh Rawat, now they are with us.”
The BJP candidate is Gopal Singh Rawat, who had been with the Congress and the BSP before winning the seat in 2007 on a BJP ticket. “He has been the PRO of a Congress minister. The party of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has sacrificed its ideals,” says Nautiyal, expelled by the BJP last week.
He equates his situation with that in Goa, where RSS rebels have turned against the BJP. He has a number of loyal cadres with him.
Gopal Rawat’s team throw Nautiyal’s charges back at him. “We are the authentic BJP here. Ekdum khalis (totally pure),” says Manmohan Rawat, Gopal’s cousin and poll manager. “Nautiyal is a victim of over-ambition,” says local BJP leader Sudha Gupta.
In a season of switchovers, however, not every BJP leader can claim a long association with the party. At Gopal Rawat’s main election office, cousin Manmohan introduces former state Congress secretary Arvind Bisht, who claims “Congress is finished because hundreds of former Congress members are with me now”. The Congress flaunts its own inductees from the BJP. “Bisht has no mass base. Many from the BJP have joined us,” says Ishtiaq Ahmad, head of the constituency’s Congress minority cell.
The seat has alternated between sitting Congress MLA Vijai Pal Sajwan and Gopal Rawat since 2002. As if symbolic of the prevailing confusion, the election offices of Sajwan, Gopal Rawat and Nautiyal are on the same road, within 100 metres of one another.
Nautiyal sums it up with a reference to the Mahabharata: “Saree bich naari hai ki naari bich saree hai (Is a woman wrapped in a saree or does a saree emerge from a woman)?”
Growth vs green
Ever since the UPA notified the eco-sensitive zone, various parties and the administration have come together to oppose the restriction on projects. The zone allows only micro or mini hydel power projects up to 2 MW while banning mining, stone quarrying and crushing, commercial felling of trees and any wood-based industry. It also prohibits “development” on steep hill slopes with a gradient of 20° or more. The notification requires the state government to prepare a master plan for the zone. The assembly had passed a resolution against the notification.
The state’s contention has been that the restrictions don’t apply to other hill states such as Himachal Pradesh. “Is it not the responsibility of Kanpur and Allahabad to take care of the Ganga?” Nautiyal wants to know. “Does the river cease to become sacred once its crosses Uttarkashi? If all activities are allowed there, why single out this stretch?”
But for the fact that it falls in a high earthquake-prone zone — Uttarakhand experienced tremors of magnitude 5.8 intensity Monday — the steep gradient lends the Bhagirathi enormous hydro-power potential.
Some distance from Uttarkashi district, the Bhagirathi has been tamed by the Tehri dam, the tallest in India. “It’s not the Bhagirathi, it’s a jheel (lake),” says Hukum Singh Padiyar, referring to a 40 km stretch.
The dam wholly or partially submerged over 100 villages years ago, something that still bothers locals such as Padiyar, who lost his fields. “It was once a flourishing belt of agriculture,” he says. “The dam destroyed an agriculture belt running over 70 km. The dam now determines the river. They squeeze the river when they want water, and when they have enough they release water.”
The dam saw massive protests for years over a variety of reasons, including its location in the high-seismic zone. “Besides being located in the quake-prone zone, there also exists reservoir induced seismicity,” says Shekhar Pathak, writer and historian.
Leaders of Uttarkashi, however, want “development” and hence the eco-sensitive zone is the new point of contention. The Centre recently rejected a master plan submitted by the Rawat government that had sought exemptions in the original notification. Last month, when the model code of conduct was on, Rawat sat on a dharna at Jantar Mantar. When the UPA was in power, it was the state BJP that had opposed the zone. “When the UPA government issued the notification, Harish Rawat was a Union minister. Was he sleeping then?” says state BJP chief Ajay Bhatt.
Like Gangotri, Tehri is witnessing a contest among an independent — Dinesh Dhanai — and the two major parties. Tehri is the home seat of PCC chief Kishore Upadhyaya, who had won in 2002 and 2007 and lost in 2012 to Dhanai, who was later inducted by Rawat in his cabinet. This time, Rawat is seen as being behind Upadhyaya’s transfer elsewhere. Dhanai, tourism and culture minister, is seen as the favourite against the Congress candidate who replaced Upadhyaya.
Vineet Badoni points at the dam, whose construction buried the homes of his relatives years ago. “Remember the wrath of Kedarnath’s river (in 2013)? Imagine if the Bhagirathi gets furious… all of Haridwar would be washed away.”