At times political showmanship does more to improve environment than mere expert opinions. Nowhere it’s more visible than in the efforts to clean river Ganga. Last year while campaigning in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (two of the most important political provinces that can make or mar the fortunes of any political party in India) Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had promised that he would do anything to clean the river Ganga.
This is tricky pledge. It was first made by another Prime minister in bygone era. Late Shri Rajiv Gandhi, initiated the programme – Ganga Action Plan – to clean the river of its pollutants. However, 15 year long project ended achieving most of its objective expect for one – cleaning the river. Sewage treatment plants were in place. They were treating the sewage. Other actions like shifting polluting industries and closing down polluting units were undertaken but they didn’t produce the desired impact on the quality of water in the river.
The reason was simple and was echoed by all the environmentalists. They maintained, from the beginning, that a basic minimum flow of water was needed to ensure the river will regain its natural cleansing property. In the absence of natural cleansing property the river shall not be in a position to sustain its aquatic life (flora and fauna) which would further help cleanse the river and improve its water quality.
This simple but crucial fact was deliberately overlooked for the last three decades. The water from the river Ganga, Yamuna and their tributaries in the high hills of Himalayas were diverted for dams and canals.
A couple of chief ministers in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand recklessly pursued a dam building development path which was disastrous for the Himalayan region as well as alluvial plains downstream.
Now the new government after 14 months of planning and preparing for cleaning river Ganga has realised the simple truth of maintaining a minimum flow of water in the river. This has brought them face to face with an age old riddle – development or conservation.
The government and the policy planners have realised that to maintain minimum river flow in Ganga and improving its water quality it will have to stop construction of six dams that were given a go ahead in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand.
It has already ordered that any more dam activity should be undertaken keeping in mind the clause of minimum flow. It effectively means the dams will not be pursued as ground hasn’t been broken for all the six proposed dams.
How and from where did the government get the determination and clarity to pursue the path of conservation? The answer lies in the game of electoral politics. The cold calculation of numbers to ensure your pre-eminent position has forced the government to take such a bold step.
On the one hand is the state of Uttarakhand, the source of river Ganga and the site of dam building. It represents four parliamentary seats. While the lower riparian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar represent 120 parliamentary seats.
The river needs to be cleaned at least visibly in the next three years as the general elections would be held around that time. It is a short duration by any standards and minimum river flow is one of the easiest way to achieve it. The low hanging fruit that can be plucked right away.
The political cost of upsetting voters in 4 seats far outweighs the cost of alienating voters in 120 seats. A visibly cleaner Ganga ensures, at least theoretically, a favourable response from the voters during elections in these two states.
This calculation has given the government the courage to shut the doors on dam developers.
What lesson does it hold for the conservationists? Work on the people to make environment conservation issues vocal enough to catch a politician’s attention. Work on him to bite the bullet and commit himself or herself for a cause. Make the cause as emotive as you can and once committed to it they don’t have any option but to deliver.
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