At the confluence of religion, politics and technical know-how. Trajectory of a public policy instrument in the management of the Ganga River.

By Bérénice Girard

Keywords: India, Ganges, River management, Hydro-electricity, Flows

Since the mid-2000s, the construction of hydroelectric projects on the two headstreams of the Ganges, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, and their tributaries, has been the subject of a widespread controversy (figure 1). The construction and operation of these projects indeed have significant environmental and social consequences, both locally and all along the river (deforestation, mountain blasting, tunneling, reduction of downstream water flows, etc.) (figure 2). In response to the controversy, the New Delhi government has taken a variety of measures over the past 15 years or so, including the cancellation of several projects and the creation of an eco-zone. Alongside these often symbolic announcements, a public policy instrument has gradually emerged. Known by different names (ecological flows, ecological reserve, environmental flows, e-flows, etc.), it aims to assess the water levels required at different times and places in a river to sustain aquatic ecosystems and riparian populations. This article will present this instrument and, through two case studies, analyze the way it has been used and appropriated by various actors. It will thus show how politics, religion and technical know-how are intertwined in the management of the Ganga River.


figure 1: The Bhagirathi River, just before its confluence with the Alaknanda River
Source: B.Girard


figure 2: The Bhagirathi, the Alaknanda and the Ganges, and the major States through which they flow in India
Source : N.Guerguadj & B.Girard


The 2007 Brisbane declaration defines e-flows as "the quantity, timing, and quality of water flows required to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems and the human livelihoods and well-being that depend on these ecosystems". Rivers are thus recognized as ecological entities. However, this recognition does not mean that ecological preservation necessarily becomes the priority of water management policies. Rather, the assessment of e-flows can help find a compromise between resource exploitation and ecological protection, and thus determine what could be an equitable distribution of the river water between different needs and uses (irrigation, protection of the fauna and flora, fishing, electricity production, etc.)

The legitimization of e-flows as a public policy tool in India was concomitant to the massive development of hydroelectric plants on the upper reaches of the Ganges and to a growing opposition to these projects. E-flows were thus quickly perceived as a potential way to solve the controversy. E-flows are indeed a particularly interesting instrument for decision-makers, as they allow for a redefinition of the terms of the debate. The discussion no longer revolves around the merits or demerits of specific projects, but rather focuses on protecting the river and its ecology by imposing a minimum flow. E-flows can also lead to the definition of a concerted solution, as they promote the quantification of the issues at stake. Environmental flows indeed allow political, economic, social and environmental issues to be equated within the same measurement tool. Finally, the assessment of environmental flows fits within the historical conception of rivers as elements to be controlled.

An attempt at shaping e-flow assessments

In this context, some environmental activists pragmatically tried to shape the instrument before its stabilization in academic and political circles. An example of this can be found in the program launched in the late 2000s by WWF-India (figure 3). It brought together activists and experts, both Indian and foreign, with the aim of assessing environmental flows for different stretches of the upper Ganga between Gangotri and the city of Kanpur. The study was intended to serve as a resource for government agencies and experts who might conduct similar studies for other rivers.


figure 3: The WWF study
Source: WWF-India, 2012

This study is interesting because it incorporates, in the words of its authors, the 'spiritual and cultural' dimension of the river. At the instigation of some of the project members, it was indeed decided to include water requirements for practices such as ritual bathing, cremations, and more generally, religious ceremonies and rituals. This required an adaptation of the assessment method. Indeed, while e-flow assessments often include issues such as the economic well-being of riparian populations and have in the past sometimes taken into consideration the water needs of certain sacred places, the spiritual or religious dimension had never been taken into account for an entire river.

Surveys were thus conducted among residents of the different localities of study, as well as among priests, pilgrims, etc. A variety of data was collected on the evolution of the quantity and quality of the water over time and on what was considered by the respondents as acceptable river levels and flows at different periods of the year for ritual bathing (ease of access to the river, depth, quality and velocity of the water). Other data were also taken into account: if a priest could not meditate if he did not hear the roar of the river, what level of water was needed in that specific locality for the river to roar? Elsewhere, respondents mentioned that the local temple dedicated to the god Brahma must be flooded by the river at least once a year. The environmental flows assessed this way were in the end very close to those determined in parallel by the experts in hydrology, biodiversity, etc. The WWF study thus contributed to enrich e-flow assessments, through the quantification of uses and needs that were a priori not easily quantifiable, such as the level of water necessary for religious practice and spiritual well-being (figure 4).


figure 4: Religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganga
Source: B.Girard

A reference to the past

In the aftermath of the terrible June 2013 floods, which killed several thousand people in Uttarakhand, the state where the sources of the Ganges are located, the construction of two dozen hydroelectric projects was suspended by the Supreme Court. It's in this context that the Ministry of Environment filed an affidavit with the Court in January 2016. In this document, the Ministry refers to a nearly century-old agreement between the colonial government and a representation of political and religious leaders to support its e-flow policy and to allow the construction of several of the halted projects.

The story goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when British engineers wanted to build a masonry dam upstream of the city of Haridwar. Several political and religious leaders, including Madan Mohan Malaviya, one of the historical figures of Hindu nationalism, were concerned about the possible obstruction of the uninterrupted flow of the river. The matter was finally resolved in December 1916 when the colonial government agreed to ensure a flow of 1000 cusecs at the ghāts of Haridwar. This agreement is often used as a reference by Hindu nationalist movements in the controversy surrounding the construction of hydro-electric projects on the Ganges. The reference can indeed be used to denunce an Indian government that is less respectful of the religious majority than the British colonizers, and thus to spread the idea of a political disregard for the Hindu majority.

For the Ministry of Environment, referring to the 1916 agreement is thus clearly a political strategy. However, it simultaneously empties the concept of e-flows of its ecological meaning, since the flow proposed in 1916 was not designed to protect the ecosystem. The use of this agreement has been criticized by environmental activists and experts and even within the government itself. The political will to refer to this agreement seems to have waned over the following months. In October 2018, the government finally issued a notification defining the minimum environmental flows to be ensured for various stretches of the Ganga at different times of the year, without referring to the 1916 agreement. However, the proposed e-flows were again denounced by many activists and experts, who pointed out the lack of scientific basis and of public consultation. The proposed e-flows were moreover well below the estimates of several committees and independent studies.

The analysis of this instrument thus shows how political, religious and technical issues are intertwined in the management of the Ganga River. These entanglements are complex and diverse in their form and consequences. Thus, while in the first case study, the religious and the technical collide, in the second, the political and the religious intersect at the expense of the technical. The trajectory described here also reflects one of the recurring debates on the management of the Ganga River: should international standards and instruments be adapted or should specific knowledge, standards and instruments be created for a river that holds a special place in Hinduism, but also, more generally, in Indian history, geography and economy?

Bérénice Girard is a postdoctoral fellow at CSH.
She defended her PhD in sociology in July 2019 at EHESS Paris (École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales — School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences). Her thesis, entitled “The Engineers, the River and the State. The role and place of engineers in the management of the Ganges”, was awarded the French Academic Network on Asian Studies (GIS Asie) 2020 PhD Award.

Indicative Bibliography

Kelly D. Alley, On the Banks of the Ganga. When Wastewater meets a sacred river, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2002, 296p.

Magali Bourblanc, "Les trajectoires bifurquées de la 'réserve écologique' sud-africaine : d'une logique aménagiste à une logique écologique", Autrepart, 2013, 2:65, p.27-45

Georgina Drew, "Transformation and Resistance on the Upper Ganga: The Ongoing Legacy of British Canal Irrigation", South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 37:4, p.670-683

Bérénice Girard, « Un ingénieur contre l’exploitation hydraulique. G. D. Agrawal et la lutte pour la protection du Gange » in Roland Lardinois et Charles Gadéa (eds.) (in press),Les ingénieurs en Inde de 1850 à nos jours. Paris: Garnier Flammarion

WWF-India, Assessment of Environmental Flows for the Upper Ganga Basin, 2012, 163p. URL:

: la rivière Bhagirathi, juste avant sa confluence avec la rivière Alaknanda
December 2021
Bérénice Girard
Post-doctorante au Centre de Sciences Humaines de New Delhi