Last Sunday of every September is celebrated as ‘World Rivers Day’. It is a recent phenomenon, but in many senses more significant than World Water Day. While ‘Water’ is seen more as a resource than the life-blood of the global ecosystem, ‘River’ provides water with its ecological, social, cultural and spiritual context. One this day, SANDRP looks at India’s ‘National River’ Ganga. The river seems to be a symbol of all that is right and wrong with water governance in India. It depicts crystallisation of challenges faced by rivers across the country, albeit at a much larger scale. The rich canvass and the deep spiritual value of Ganga for many cultures make it more riveting. The new government at the centre has declared that rejuvenation of the Ganga River is one of its priorities. However, in addition to several infrastructure projects planned and ongoing on the river and its tributaries (Ganga is not just 2525 kms long river, its is more than 25,000 kms long, with all its tributaries), the new Government is planing to build a series of barrages on the River to make it navigable, from Haldia, at the mouth of Hooghly, a major distributary of the Ganga to Allahabad which is some 1620 kms upstream from Haldia. Before we go further into the advantages or the disadvantages of more barrages on Ganga, let us take a look at what one only existing Barrage on this 1620 km stretch of the river, The Farakka Barrage, has done to the river in the past 39 years since the Barrage was commissioned. Let us see how we have managed the issues which have arisen, how human lives have been impacted, what has been our response, how the main objective of building the barrage has been frustrated, how we have dealt with this realization, how the Barrage has furthered more conflicts and how a thriving fishing activity has been nearly killed by Farakka in the upstream as well as in the downstream. SANDRP visited the region of Farakka Barrage, Malda, Murshidabad, talked with the affected people, fisherfolk, authorities at the Barrage as well as the Director and other officials at the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) to understand the complex issues. Prior to detailed analysis, here’s looking at Ganga, Hooghly and Farakka in photos.
Farakka Barrage was commissioned in 1975 to transfer 40,000 cusecs ( Cubic Feet per second) of water from Ganga into its distributary Hooghly to save the Kolkata Port on the Hooghly from silting up. The barrage is just 16 kms upstream from Bangladesh border.
As a part of Farakka Barrage Project, an afflux bund was constructed over several rivers upstream of Farakka, like Choto Bhagirathi, Pagla, etc., to divert water into the Barrage. The complete diversion of water killed these rivers in the downstream, severely affecting people. Here we see Choto Bhagirathi flowing after many years, thanks to a pipeline and sluice sanctioned this year to supply meager water to the river. This does not help the fish though, there are hardly any left.
Not withstanding the anti-erosion works completed upstream the Farakka Barrage in Malda, the Ganga has deposited huge sediment load in the upstream of the barrage and this has accelerated the swing in its channel. The channel is swinging rapidly to the left bank, eroding and eating away thousands of hectares of villages, farms, mango plantations and chars (islands) in the way, endangering the Barrage itself. Although sediment-laden Ganga has a history of changing courses, this has been aggravated to a great extent by the sedimentation and obsrtuction caused by Farakka.
Even before you arrive at the heavily guarded Barrage, you can see the heavily silted river, with cattle grazing peacefully on islands (chars) just 500 meters-1 km upstream of the barrage. According to River Expert Kalyan Rudra, Farakka hordes nearly 350 million tonnes of sediment flow of Ganga every year in the upstream!!
The Barrage also severely affected navigation through the river. A separate ship lock was made on the Feeder Canal and it is managed by Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). Hardly any ships pass through due to high sedimentation.
Downstream the barrage, due to trapping of silt in the upstream, silt free water erodes banks with vengeance, especially the left bank. We saw several anti-erosion measures failing miserably in front of the river’s fury.
Farakka has profoundly changed the character, sediment regime and flow of Ganga. It is affecting lives of lakhs of people in India and Bangladesh through cycles of erosion, sedimentation, floods and affected fishing. Our response to the issue has been dismal. We have not conducted a single review of costs, benefits and impacts of Farakka Project so far. In addition to Farakka , Lower Ganga (Narora), Middle Ganga, Upper Ganga Barrages (Bhimgoda), Kanpur Barrage, Hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and other upstream states have affected the river in most profound ways. If we want to rejuvenate the Ganga, we need to institute a credible independent review the existing Barrages, not plan new ones. May be we can begin with a demand for such a review for Farakka on urgent basis. One World Rivers Day, let us wish for a long and healthy flow for the Ganga River, a symbol of all flowing rivers in India!
-Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
POST SCRIPT on April 28, 2015:
An edited version of this article and photoessay on The Nowhere People — Environmental Refugees around Farakka, was published in the Mint on March 28th, 2015. Here it is in full: http://www.ficusmedia.com/traildiaries/2015/03/28/the-nowhere-people/
This article was made possible with a grant from The Third Pole and Asia Foundation.
Arati Kumar Rao