There is that little hope that flutters faintly when the middle seat stays unoccupied on a Friday evening flight that this is going to be a business class flight in cattle class with lots of elbow room. The flutter gets replaced by a sinking feeling when the entire row beyond the middle seat and across the aisle is also free. For seasoned air mile earners, it usually means an overweight family with squabbling kids or a raucous group of business travellers who would lurch in last and generally make themselves unbearable from take-off to touch down.
The third apprehension proved correct as the last to board the flight to Delhi was a clutch of religious men, business travellers of another kind. The swamiji was in saffron. His lieutenants in simple cotton whites and coarse coloured khadi, one of them lugging a large bundle neatly tied up in shiny ochre cloth. The faint smell of men having spent hours squatting on rain wet earth hung around them.
I dived deeper into my book, an inconsequential thriller with deep forensic insights, little in the name of plot and much angst over homicide for organs.
The stubble-rich man-boy who sat next to me first pulled out a sheaf of papers and proceeded to pore over it. As the next body turned up with the same forensic footprint, my eyes wandered to my neighbour’s reading. It was an elaborate IIT Roorkee study on the hydropower projects on Alaknanda and Bhagirathi. (Today’s search of the net shows up a report “Assessment of Cumulative Impact of Hydropower Projects in Alaknanda and Bhagirathi Basins upto Devprayag, by the Alternate Hydropower Energy Centre at IIT Roorkee” but I wouldn’t necessarily say it was the same having read over his shoulder between big bites of Indigo’s cold chicken subs and magic poha). His neighbour and compatriot had a Hindi leaflet much like the ones distributed in our JNU days in the mess with the headline, roughly, “When will the people wake up to GD’s Struggle?”
Meanwhile the Swami was deep in his reading as were his companions. The young man next to me finished his pages and fished out his Apple Macbook Air, powered it on from its suspended mode and quickly minimised his Facebook pages. Over the next twenty minutes he hammered away on his laptop in a language that escaped me but intrigued me enough to break a cardinal principle: start a conversation in an aircraft with little room for escape if the conversation became tedious. As it turned out, the man-boy was a student of IIM Bangalore. Suave, articulate, khadi-clad and I didn’t ask for his name.
He was accompanying Swami Vishveshateertha of Udupi to Haridwar to give “moral” support to G D Agrawal who was on his 37th day of fasting to stop the continuation of hydro projects on the upper reaches of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi and for the restoration of the Dhari Devi temple to its historic location.
The last 24 hours have gone into thinking – and reading up – about the diverse dynamics that make up this polity. I set aside the forensic thriller and dived into the forensics of another murder, a mass murder. The body count is far from over. And the facts are fairly clear. There was a cloudburst. Flash floods. And a huge landslide that swept away thousands. Or buried them, forever lost. Spectacular visuals of crumbling buildings, hard fought rescues and squabble about rescue efforts jostled for column space with a rising din on eco-devastation due to unfettered construction fed by religious tourism, growing pilgrimage routes and retirement homes. In between were “colour” stories on the wrath of Dhari Devi, brought down by the moving of the temple on June 15. The IIM student fished through his files and brought out an article by Bharat Jhunjhunwala which talked about the Devi warning the company officials in their meeting with the priests that her wrath would fall heavily mixed with a discourse of the merits of Article 21 vs Article 25 of the Constitution.
I argued, without a rebuttal, with the student that the bigger challenge to the region was religious real estate and that the priests and mahants would have more credibility if they would first rein in the degradation of the hills before they took elevated positions on saving the Ganges. When questioned about putting divine wrath into the mix of policy and environment, he pointed out – gently – that the reason G D Agrawal had decided to make Dhari Devi an emotive issue was because he had found all other recourses failed to elicit lasting temperance from the government. A few hours later, while viewing an interview with Madhu Kishwar, it became apparent that Agrawal had moved the distance from reasoned lobbying for policy to pure Gandhian tactics, jettisoning along the way all compatriots who had failed to sacrifice enough in the battle to save the Ganges.
Here is a story in a nutshell of the standoff in the Himalayas. 80-year-old Professor G D Agrawal of IIT Kanpur, now Swami Sanad, has done the journey from an environmental engineer to an independent figure who today combines religious belief (astha) with core environmental beliefs to wage a war against hydel power projects. His current fast is in a series of similar satyagrahas that has periodically managed to stop the inexorable march towards tapping into India’s hydel power potential. With him – and he claims with varying degrees of commitment – are a ragtag bunch of usual suspects in the environment bandwagon, happy to sit on government committees or hobnob with the government but refusing to take a stand that, he says, would burn too many bridges or for that matter committee seats.
His interview in mid-June with Madhu Kishwar (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pzdoc-8kupk) is an indictment of the full spectrum of Indian political, religious, judicial and environmental leadership. Mixing mythology and religious discursions with a recounting of practical politics, Swami Sanad outlines the machinations that he says keeps the Indian state pushing forward with its agenda of damming the Ganga. Having tested out every pillar of stopping the march of the dams, Swami Sanad now believes that only the argument of the faith of the Hindu being affected would stop the leashing of the Ganga.
Having tried out technical arguments, government committees, judicial recourse, political arbitrage and commercial discussions, Swami Sanad believes that the only way the government, courts and people would see sense is if they realized that leaving the primordial flow of the rivers from Gangotri – the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda – was a matter of faith and not of negotiation. (A memorable line on parleys with Jairam Ramesh and his question of whither the invested Rs 500 crore would be compensated from along with – laughingly – the commission. The response of the gathered leaders was that they would raise the funds– along with the commission. Swami Sanad’s wistful recounting of the episode shows his desperate need to believe that money spent and commissions pocketed was really what mattered and they were not simply being humoured while the work progressed.)
Dr. G. D. Agrawal (born 20 July 1932) is primus inter pares in the fraternity of environmental engineers. A civil engineering graduate from the erstwhile University of Roorkee (now IIT Roorkee), he went on to get his PhD in in Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. His career spanned time both in academia as Professor and Head of Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in IIT Kanpur and as member secretary of the Government’s Central Pollution Control Board. His struggle to save the Ganga started thence and eventually led him to take up sannyas with the name Swami Gyanswaroop Sanand. His Diksha was at the hands of Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati at Joshi Mutt. Today, he accuses the Shankaracharya and the Prime Minister of hobnobbing together to undermine his fast and give false assurances about stoppage of work on hydel projects.
Dr Agrawal’s struggle to save the Ganges has taken on epic proportions. In 2008, he went on a fast-unto-death to ensure that river Bhagirathi was allowed to flow in its natural form between Gangotri and Uttarkashi. He called off his first fast after the Uttarakhand government promised in writing to suspend work on the Bhairon Ghati (380 MW) and Pala-Maneri (480 MW) hydropower projects on the Bhagirathi river, and the Central government also gave a written commitment to ensure perennial environmental flows in all stretches of Bhagirathi and to keep it alive. But the promises were shortlived and Agrawal resumed his fast in early 2009 after the central government gave a written commitment to suspend all work on the Loharinag-Pala HPP with immediate effect.
What Dr Agrawal has been championing is to maintain the uninterrupted flow of Bhagirathi River in its natural form between Gangotri and Uttarkashi i.e. to allow flow of the Ganges in its original channel in this 125 kilometres (78 mi) stretch from its origin. A part of the argument was environment, but a deeper insistence was on the necessity of maintaining the pristine form of the deity (the Ganga, in this instance) as part of its sacred status: “The water …(of the Ganges) is not ordinary water to a Hindu. It is a matter of the life and death of Hindu faith”.
The mixing of faith with science, of belief with environmental necessity have tended to skew external perception on the struggle in a country where the ‘rational’ press is fighting the demons of religious supremacy demanded by the Hindu right. It has possibly alienated other voices – particularly global voices - that usually join such stirs on grounds of sound environmental concerns. Even the more high profile Indian environmentalists have tended to jolly up to the cause with caution lest they be accused of supporting Hindu fundamentalism, atavistic notions of the river being the Hindu Mecca or Jerusalem.
There is a point to the concern that religion and environment don’t mix too well as fantastic tales take the place of reasoned debate. That was, if anything, brought home brutally by the interpretation of the destruction in Rudraprayag district and Kedarnath:
On June 15th 2013, the ancient deity of Dhari Devi was removed from her temple to be shifted to another location to facilitate the construction of a dam, which locals were opposing ever since the conception of the project with the belief the moving of the Dhari Devi would somehow agitate Kali. Exactly on the next day a massive cloudburst and flash flood started in Uttarkhand, which devastated Kedarnath, washing the city completely away.
This may sound like a story from a comic book. but it is not so - its reality that most people today like to ignore and push aside a superstition. The fury of the Goddess is well known and any attempt instigate her would lead to great destruction. Let us look at the events leading to the great devastation of Uttarkhand by flooding of Uttar Kashi.
The government has tried to build up dams to overcome the power shortage in the country. This has been opposed by locals and some prominent politicians like Uma Bharti and B. C. Khanduri of the B.J.P. since it would lead to the submergence of the temple of Dhari Devi. As a result efforts to construct dams have been delayed indefinitely. Previously, in 1882, an attempt to shift the Dhari Devi shrine was immediately followed by havoc in Kedar Valley. There is some strange connection between these guardian goddess and the Kedarnath jyotirlinga.
These are not just any other Shakti temples, they are among the 108 Shakti Pitha mentioned in the Devi Bhagavat. Dhari Devi is a temple on the banks of the Alakananda River in the Garhwal Region of Uttarkhand State, India. It houses the upper half of a deity of goddess Kali specifically called “Dhari Devi” that, according to local lore, change in appearance during the day from a girl, to a woman, and then to an old lady. Perched atop a 20 metre high rock, the temple of Dhari Devi is situated on the banks of river Alakananda. One has to travel a distance of 19km from Srinagar (Pauri Garhwal) on Srinagar-Badrinath highway upto Kaliya Saur, then down trek another half a kilometer towards Alakananda river.
According to a local legend, the temple was once washed off by floods, while floating the idol struck against a rock, the villagers heard the cries of the idol. On reaching the site they heard a divine voice instructing them the install the idol as it was, on the spot it was found. Since then fierce looking idol remains where it was, known as Dhari Devi, under the open sky, and thousands of devotees on the way to Badrinath pay their obeisance to it. The temple of Dhari Devi in Srinagar hosts only to the upper part of deity of Goddess Dhari, the remaining part is believed to be in Kalimath in Rudraprayag District.
It is believed that the idol of Dhari Devi shall not be put under a roof. For the same reason, the deities in Dhari Devi Temple are put under open sky. Taking photographs of the Dhari Devi Dieties are strictly prohibited. The village near the temple is named after Goddess Dhari and known as Dhari Village. A hanging bridge over Alakananda river connects the Dhari Devi temple to Dhari Village.
Now, the lower half of the idol of Kali is located in Kalimath Temple. These joint temples are aligned exactly at NE-SW direction (see adjoining image) symbolizing Kali as sleeping with her feet in NE direction and head in the SE direction. This causes the energy to flow in the NE direction, which in jyotisa, is the direction of Jupiter (Ishana Shiva), the paramesthi guru. The upper part of the devi with the head symbolizes the calming of Kali by Shiva, the Guru. The lower part of Kali is not in the form of an idol and instead, is worshiped as the Sri Yantra. In this manner we learn that the Sri Yantra, as established by Adi Shankara at Kalimath, is the yoni of Shakti from which all creation proceeds.
The Kedarnath jyotirlinga is exactly North from Kalimath symbolising the husband-wife of Shiva-Shakti relationship. In this, Kedarnath being to the North (Mercury direction for ahimsa) is constantly calming the devi who is in the south (Mars direction, anger, agitated and at war).
On June 15th 2013, the deity of Dhari Devi was removed from her ancient temple to be shifted to another location to facilitate the construction of the same dam (a 330 megawatt hydro electric project which stands in ruins), which locals were opposing ever since the conception of the project with the belief the moving of the Dhari Devi would somehow agitate Kali. They were right in their belief as any movement would lead to change in the angle of the Dhari Devi and Kalimath alignment, besides alerting the distance. There are energies we human beings do not understand as yet and it is best to let these spiritual shrines where energies are contain, be maintained.
With the shifting of Dhari Devi, the agitated Kali has been woken up, and she seeks the demon Raktabija, (seed of blood). As per mythology, Raktabija took varous bodies, and she continued to destroy each one. Primarily this indicates unimaginable bloodshed and death. Exactly on the next day a massive cloudburst and flash flood started in Uttarkhand. Today, when official death figures are at 1,000 (identified people/bodies), the unofficial figure is way beyond 5,000 deaths and more are still following as the rains are returning.
Restore the idol of Dhari Devi (Kali torso) to its original shrine and start the prayers that calm her down. Shri Yantra sadhana has to be maintained at Kalimath and Bael leaf must offered to Kedarnath. If this is done, then Kali will calm down and the agitation of nature will stop. If this not done, the the agitation of Kali, shall spread throughout India and this will prove to be one of the worst years in the history of modern India.
Ranged against Swami Sanad are the usual arguments that have come to characterize the debate of big dams vs small dams; ecology vs development; deprivation vs pristine environment and so forth. There is little conclusion to the debate but what we do have in the complex web of issues, people, personalities, business drivers and religious resistance is a compelling story of how inept is the policy making and implementation process
A Business Standard report succinctly captures the arguments:
The environmentalists say hydro projects involve construction of dams which lead to diversion of the natural course of river, blasting to make tunnels and construction of roads and townships that result in deforestation. “These factors increase the vulnerability of the mountainous regions to landslides,” says Himanshu Thakkar, country head, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People . He adds these factors also aid the process of climate change, which is the reason behind increasing incidence of cloudburst and flash floods.
Uttarakhand has a total installed hydro-electric power capacity of 3,426 Mw. Another 95 projects with a total capacity of 12,235 Mw are in various stages of development. According to the data available with Uttarakhand Jal Vidyut Nigam Limited (UJVNL), the state government is developing 32 projects with a total capacity of 2,815 Mw, PSUs like NTPC and NHPC are developing 25 projects with a total capacity of 7,302 Mw and the private sector is working on 38 projects of 2,118 Mw capacity.
Most of these projects are stuck because of opposition from environmental groups and religious bodies. Following pressure from these groups, the Centre issued a notification last year declaring the 135-km stretch between Gaumukh and Uttarkashi, along the Bhagirathi river, an eco-sensitive zone banning all construction activity in the region.
This order will seal the fate of hydropower projects of 1,743 Mw. Incidentally, Uttarakhand has the potential to produce 25-30,000 Mw of power.
However, there are some groups in Uttarakhand who want power projects to go ahead. They are saying that environment protection is important, rivers should be allowed to flow and the natural beauty of the region should be preserved. But the benefits of development must be allowed to percolate down.
While environmentalists are concerned about long term damages, pro-development lobbies want the benefits of the India growth story to reach even remote corners of Uttarakhand. Gandhian and environmentalist Anupam Mishra offers a solution. “There is nothing wrong with building roads or power plants. We just need to be sensitive to the basic character of the place before adding or subtracting something. If a place can manage with just two power plants, why sign MoUs for 20?” he says. The region had massive floods in 1893, 1894, 1970 and 1977, he adds.
The question is, should Uttarakhand go ahead with hydro-power plants? Hydro-power expert and former engineer with Central Water Commission Awadhesh Jha lists the benefits of hydro-power projects: “The country like ours should have a blend of 40 per cent power from hydro projects and 60 per cent from other sources. The share of hydro projects in the country has been constantly falling from 40 per cent to 18 per cent between the Second Five-year plan to the Eleventh Five-year plan. Hydro-power is non-polluting and it helps in regulating peak hour demand as it can be switched on and off instantly, depending on the grid requirement.” He adds that while initial investment in producing hydro power is higher at Rs 7 crore per megawatt than thermal power’s average cost at Rs 5-5.5 crore, yet hydro-power becomes a cheaper source over a period of ten years.
A short introduction to the other protagonist, Padamshree Avdhash Kaushal — unfortunately, tagged as “a trained lobbyist from Washington”. Chairperson of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a Dehradun-based NGO, he has to his credit a series of social advancements for the bonded and the underprivileged communities. Besides holding positions a number of local and national entities, Kaushal is credited in internet biographies with putting an end to bonded labour in the Jaunsar Bhavar tribal area in Dehradun District, enactment of the Bonded Labour Abolition Act in 1976, bringing to an end buffalo baiting killing which took place on the occasion of Dussehra in this tribal belt and rescuing of women from this area who had been sold to brothels in different parts of the country. If his social empowerment credentials are exemplary, no less so are his crusades for the environment. His online biographies highlight his role in the Lime Stone Quarry case which resulted in the Court ordering closure of 101 lime stone mines in the area.
Kaushal is livid with Agrawal.
He says “environmentalism has become a new religion as faith is getting precedence over reason.” To support his argument, he says “building tunnels do not require blasting. Power projects do not consume even a drop of water. All they do is regulate the flow of the river in a certain way.” “Because of dams, the town of Rishikesh was saved from nature’s fury this time”.
"Forty per cent of the villages do not have even kuchcha roads and 1,200 villages do not have electric poles," says Avadhash Kaushal. His organisation has been fighting court cases, sending petition to the Prime Minister and other ministers for resumption of three projects that were cancelled following a fast by GD Agrawal.
Today, then, is the 39th day of G D Agrawal’s fast. He has failed to excite very many people in media, government or social causes on his demand for scrapping all hydroelectric projects on the Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini river basins. He wants the Dhari Devi temple to be restored to its place and the government to stand by its word.