Frail holy man's stand against the tide of progress

LOCAL HEROES: Sunderlab Bahuguna

A solitary, frail, old man is standing in the way of the world's sixth largest dam project. Sunderlab Bahuguna lives in a tin shed overshadowed by the Tehri Dam in a steep Himalayan valley. When the dam is constructed, and the floodwaters rise, he will become its first victim. He is prepared to sacrifice himself rather than see his sacred river, the Ganges, dammed and domesticated.

The Ganges is the holiest of all the rivers of India. Hindus believe that it flows down from the coiled hair of Lord Shiva. During the Cold War, it was enough for the Soviets to plant the false rumour that radiation had leaked out of a broken US spy installation into the Ganges for mobs to besiege the American embassy in New Delhi. The Ganges is also the source of life, and of hydro-electric power, for hundreds of millions of Indians as well as Bangladeshis, and some environmentalists claim that the long- range impact of the proposed dam could be calamitous.

Although Bahuguna is revered as a holy man in the Garhwal foothills of the Himalayas, he is also well-versed in ecology. His main worry, which is shared by many prominent Indian geo-physicists as well as thousands of villagers down river, is that the 260-metre-high dam might collapse in an earthquake.

Tehri lies in an active fault zone, and an earthquake which killed thousands several years ago in the nearby valley of Uttarkashimay has cracked a rock-filled dam wall.

Bahuguna has nailed a sign to his shed saying: "If the Tehri dam bursts, a 260m-high column of water would wash away Reshekesh in just 63 minutes; 17 minutes later waters would reach Haredwar."

Both Reshekesh and Haredwar are pilgrimage towns on the Ganges with populations of more than 100,000.

After authorities failed to listen to pleas by Bahuguna and other ecologists, the septuagenarian Sadhu - or holy man - went on a hunger strike which lasted from April until the end of June. He sustained himself with a ritual bath in the Ganges, which he insisted gave him strength, and Himalayan honey and berry juice. He called off his strike after the new Prime Minister, Deve Gowda, promised to open an independent inquiry into the dam project.

Bahuguna has the Hindu clergy on his side, as well as the people from 122 villages that will either be completely or partially flooded by the dam. But Bahuguna, the Ganges protector, also faces strong opposition. The Indian government has already sunk over pounds 220m into construction, out of the dam's total cost of pounds 1bn. And, instead of fighting, many of Tehri's 25,000 inhabitants have opted for government compensation and have moved out of the valley, which is soon to be submerged, to a new town on the ridges.

Never the less, Bahuguna summed up the resentment of many mountain folk last year when he wrote to the then Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao: "To build my ancestral house and the fields, my mother carried earth and stones over her head. There can be no compensation for my mother's sweat."

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