“Government will not proceed with interlinking of rivers if environmental consequences are adverse”, says Uma Bharti, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation at the India Rivers Week 2014
Sushri Uma Bharti, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation speaking in the valedictory function of the first ever India Rivers Week hailed the first ever event on the vital issue. She emphasized “if we want to save our rivers, the first step is to ensure that no untreated effluent or sewage is mixed with treated water and finds its way into our rivers.” She assured that minimum environmental flows will be maintained in the river itself . Manoj Misra, member of the organizing committee of India Rivers Week cautioned her not to proceed hurriedly on the project given its adverse social and ecological consequences.
The Indian Rivers Week-2014 conference awarded individuals and organizations the “Bhagirath Prayas Samman” for their dedicated work on river integrity and safety. Mr Justice Madan Lokur, Hon’ble Judge, Supreme Court of India was the Chief Guest at the Awards Ceremony, held on 26 November, 2014. Speaking on the occasion he stressed on the need to put in place alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve water conflicts. Courts are not the best option for this, he said. Sri Anupam Mishra, Gandhi Peace Foundation, who was the Guest of Honour in this ceremony spoke on the value of time-tested systems of water harvesting and the need to promote the use of indigenous knowledge to solve water problem instead of gigantic and destructive schemes like interlinking of rivers.
The awards were given to the following extraordinary individual/ organisations:
Dr Latha Anantha, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti who has worked on safeguard the integrity of the river Chalakudy (Kerala) was awarded for her exemplary capacity for combining sound research with the mobilization of community, political and state agencies, and for ushering in a unique methodology of consensus- based conservation of rivers in the country. Their group has been able to stop clearance to the Athirapally project on the Chalakudy for close to two decades now.
Akhil Gogoi, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti who has successfully utilised the Right to Information Act in conjunction with mass mobilization of communities with respect to ill conceived projects in river Subansiri (Assam) that could threaten their life, property and livelihoods. Due to the efforts of KMSS led by Akhil Gogoi, in association with a number of other organisations, the government had to make large number of changes in the construction and operation of the Lower Subansiri project and work on the project has remained stalled for close to three years now.
Koel Karo Jan Sangathan, an organization born in 1976 for untiring efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo (Jharkhand). Koel Karo Jan Sangathan has through community mobilisation effort to conserve their sacred sites and to look at alternative development paths in place of the proposed Koel Karo hydroelectric dam. The Sangathan has carried on a long and heroic struggle in the face of enormous pressures from the vested interests, battling tremendous odds to forge one of India’s foremost resistance movements to save rivers, riverine communities and their culture. The Sangathan has demonstrated the use of many innovative methods of struggle including people’s curfew and people’s check points.
K J Joy, SOPPECOM, Pune speaking on the issue of community initiatives for conflict resolution on rivers said that “there is a need to recognize the complexity, diversity and heterogeneity of conflicts around rivers. These conflicts often end up in courts for redressal. The experiences and struggles reveal limitations in the processes being handled in the court, thus raising the question of whether courts/tribunals are adequately equipped to redress these conflicts. At the same time there are several community evolved and driven resolution mechanisms, sometimes in the form of customary practices. These are often co-opted and/or sabotaged by vested interests and inappropriately mandated state agencies/ laws. There is a need to search for policy, legal and institutional avenues for legitimizing these resolution practices, and also frame alternative mechanisms within a normative framework of social justice, sustainability, and equity and democracy.”
Bhai KK Chatradhara on behalf of the group on “Campaigns for protection or rejuvenation of rivers” said that “river rejuvenation should be looked at from a holistic perspective – from source to sea. Cumulative Impact Assessment including downstream impact assessment should be done before taking up of any new project. That should require consultations with and consent of Gram Sabha and local panchayat raj institutions. Local community people should be involved in discussions and decision making processes at all levels. Effective cost benefit analysis including options analysis and direct and indirect costs incurred such as cost of decommissioning, aesthetic and landscape loss, disaster potential of an area should be assessed. Sand auditing should be carried out.”
Deliberations at India Rivers Week-2014, New Delhi
Preeta Dhar representing the group on “Good legal interventions and secured rivers” pointed that “there is a need for addressing outdated laws and standards, gaps and for accounting for changes in technology.” The greater role of panchayati raj institutions and local communities in governance was stressed. The group also recommended the need for use of legal spaces to develop best practices and do go for strategic litigation.
Sudhirendar Sharma, speaking on behalf of the group on “Dams decommissioning and restored rivers” said that “decommissioning of dams is new in the Indian context and in the light of the Mullaperiyar Dam, highly contentious and political. The arguments favoring decommissioning, if at all, are in a nascent stage both in terms of arguments, language and its presentation. The idiom of decommissioning has yet to be located. Locating decommissioning in the context of potential politics is weak in argument and smells of what critics might argue as a case of kinetic politics.”
The India Rivers Week event is being organized between 24-27 November, 2014 by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai), and Peoples Science Institute (Dehradun) to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country. With ‘Rivers in crisis’ as the theme, the Conference endeavors to devise a National Charter for Rivers and promote a National Forum for Restoration of Rivers.
“A river is an ecological system that flows and performs many functions” says Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India, at the India Rivers Week 2014
Over 125 river experts, planners, researchers, artists, enthusiasts and activists from different parts of the country that have congregated at first ever India Rivers Week being held in Delhi, discussed and debated on how to define a river. Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India, defined the river as “A natural organic hydrological ecological system that flows & performs many functions.” The attempt was to pen an aspirational, visionary and implementable definition of rivers to underpin an India Rivers Charter”, to be prepared at the end of these deliberations.
Manoj Misra of PEACE Institute, New Delhi, speaking at the India Rivers Week-2014, said the working group he convened defined river as a, “Hydrological, ecological, geomorphic living entity containing other life forms, landscape level ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium between rainwater, snow, glaciers surface water, groundwater, sea, estuary and providing a large number of social, cultural, ecological and economic services to people and ecosystems all along its basins.”
The event is being organized between 24-27 November, 2014 by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai), and Peoples Science Institute (Dehradun) to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country.
Can we think in terms of ‘rights of the river’ and then make it part of some legal system, questioned different groups. The groups were discussing the rivers right to unfettered flow, space for flood plains, flood, breathe, perform ecosystem functions, lateral connectivity and natural water.
Manu Bhatnagar, INTACH, representing the deliberations of another group said, “River is a living commons that drains a catchment along a natural course with natural and dynamic flow and providing ecological goods and services necessary for the development and sustenance of human civilizations under challenging social, economic, political and climatic drivers.” Speaking on the issue Professor Brij Gopal noted that, “River regulation is the root of all problems. We need to regulate human activities”.
“We are not obliging the rivers by editing her flow, we in fact are obliged by the rivers due to their life-giving flows”, said Mallika Bhanot, representing another group.
The conference also deliberated on what a river is not. Manshi Aasher said that a river is not static, an artificial drain, lifeless, embanked/ obstructed, without sand and sediments, carrier of wastewater or just a channel of water.
A living, wide, water course which has natural fresh, flow of water above and under the surface, in its course, nurturing life forms, ecosystems, culture, conserving biodiversity in it and is inclusive of small and big tributaries in its catchment area.
Shashank Shekhar explaining about river flows, clarified, “The flow with its natural variability includes natural water, nutrients, sediments and biota and is the defining characteristic of river systems.” Dinesh Mishra, Barh Mukti Abhiyan, said, “Rivers are self cleansing, flooding is purifying and rivers become pure after floods.” Pranab Choudhary discussed the issue of conservation of biodiversity as against utility and noted the importance of defining and protecting rights of riparian communities especially the poor, including from downstream areas, today these are neither assessed, nor compensated.
Paritosh Tyagi summed up the discussion by saying that the older concept of River Action Plan that focused on river flow should be replaced with focus on the complete basin.
2015 Rivers Calendar The organizers have brought out the 2015 desk calendar featuring the photos of 12 different rivers and highlighting the sacrifice tribals have made during the famous struggle against the Koel Karo project in Jharkhand.
“When Farakka barrage was built, the engineers did not plan for such massive silt. But it has become one of the biggest problems of the barrage now” said Dr. P.K. Parua. And he should know as he has been associated with the barrage for nearly 38 years and retired as the General Manager of Farakka Barrage Project (FBP). I remembered the vast island of silt in the middle of the river barely a kilometer upstream of the Barrage and the people who told us their homes were devastated by the swinging river.
Though called a barrage, Farakka Barrage is a large dam as per ICOLD, WCD and CWC definitions, with associated large dimensions and impacts. To call it a Barrage is misleading.
Commissioned in 1975[i] across Ganga in Murshidabad District of West Bengal and just 16 kms upstream of the Bangladesh Border, Farakka Barrage has been mired in controversies from the very beginning. Its role is singular: to transfer 40,000 cusecs water from Ganga to its distributary Bhagirathi-Hooghly (hence forth referred as Hooghly). And to make Hoogly river navigable from Kolkata port upstream till Farakka barrage. It was thought that this water will push the silt that is eating up the Kolkata Port and will protect the Port for navigation and economy. In reality, Kolkata Port continues to decay and the barrage has had such severe and unforeseen impacts on the people of India and Bangladesh that the call to review Farakka Barrage entirely is getting louder by the day.
A lot has been written about Farakka Barrage by Indian (and many times by Bangladeshi) authors, so why are we discussing Farakka again? Because Political leaders like Shri. Nitin Gadkari have stated that there are plans of building a barrage after every 100 kms in Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad, a 1600 kms stretch. So we are looking at possibly 15 more barrages on Ganga. But before taking decision about building any other such structure, we need to understand the range of impacts a single barrage has had on the lives of millions of people and how inadequate has been our response in addressing these impacts. Farakka holds critical lessons for Indian politicians, policy-makers, international groups and financial institutions like World Bank dreaming of making a string of barrages across a river which has one of the highest silt loads, densest population and the largest deltas in the world.
Ganga as a “Waterway” Government of India is planning to aggressively develop 1620 kilometers of National River Ganga as “National Waterway 1” (NW1). There is a profound difference between a Highway and Waterway. A highway is simply a road while NW1 is actually River Ganga, performing several other functions, it is important to recognise how the NW1 would affect these functions and the river itself. NW 1 spans from Haldia, near the mouth of Ganga Estuary in West Bengal, to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, passing through four states and cities of Haldia, Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Buxar, Patna, Ghazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI)[ii] plans to use this waterway for the transport of “coal, fly-ash, food grains, cement, stone chips, oil and over dimensional cargo.” Not surprisingly, companies keenly interested in using this waterway include “thermal power plants, cement companies, fertilizer companies, oil companies” etc. In order to make this stretch navigable, IWAI plans initiatives like “river training and conservancy, structural improvement, dredging, and Construction of terminals at Allahabad, Varansai, Gazipur in Uttar Pradesh, Sahibganj in Bihar and Katwa in West Bengal.”
Although this plan was on paper for some years, the new government has approached the World Bank for support of nearly Rs 4200 Crores (700 million dollar) for its implementation. In July 2014, the World Bank agreed to fund initial 50 million dollars including technical support (thus creating work for its own experts!). World Bank Team has already visited Patna for this project and joint meeting of IWAI and World Bank has taken place at Varanasi[iii]. No public consultation has been held thus far.
Although River Navigation has nothing to do with River Rejuvenation, Shri. Nitin Gadkari, Union Surface Transport & Shipping Minister with additional portfolio of Rural Development, who played an active role in the Ganga Manthan, announced this navigation plan as a part of ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’.[iv]
He also announced that the plan entails erecting barrages (dams) on the Ganga at every 100 kilometer interval from Haldia to Allahabad. This would mean damming the Ganga rough about 15-16 times, to maintain water levels and navigability.[v]
If the plan moves ahead, it may escape environmental clearance as the very limited EIA Notification 2006, being actively amended for dilution by the Modi government, includes only irrigation and hydropower dams in its ambit. This does not mean that these barrages will not have severe impacts on the river, its people and its ecosystems. Far from it. SANDRP has written about the impacts of Upper Ganga Barrage at Bhimgouda, the Lower Ganga Barrage at Narora and the Farakka Barrage in Murshidabad, West Bengal (SANDRP’s Report on Farakka, 1999: https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf).
The analysis at hand is based on official documents and research, site visit, interviews and discussions with experts and local people.
Farakka Barrage, in the backdrop of proposed Barrages
Farakka Barrage, 2.62 kms long, commissioned in 1975 has a unique purpose. The barrage was built for diverting waters of Ganga into its distributary The Hooghly/ Bhagirtahi, for flushing sediments and maintaining the navigability of Kolkata Port (& Hooghly River) which lies at the mouth of Hooghly. Records about high sedimentation in Hooghly can be traced back to 17th Century, but is known to increase following building of Damodar Dams in post independent India. Construction of a barrage on Ganga and diverting its waters into Hooghly was suggested in the 19th Century by Sir Arthur Cotton. After independence, the historic Kolkata port was becoming hugely silted due to sluggish freshwater from upstream on the one hand and and strong saline intrusion from the sea on the other. At that time, Farakka Barrage was thought to be an answer to these problems.
Even then, some lone voices highlighted the possible impacts of Farakka Barrage. Notably Mr. Kapil Bhattacharya, Engineer-in-Chief of West Bengal had warned about absence of sufficient water, catastrophic floods and sedimentation in the upstream back in 70s. When Pakistan (current Bangladesh was part of Pakistan during 1947-1971) upheld his views, he was branded as a traitor and lost his job. He had highlighted that one of the main reasons why Hooghly was desiccating was Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) dams on Damodar and Roopnarayan Rivers.
The Farakka Barrage completed in 1975 has 109 gates, and a feeder canal of 38.1 kms emanating from the right bank, carrying water from Ganga to Hooghly. There is one more barrage at Jangipur in the downstream and afflux bunds in the upstream of Farakka, diverting waters of all smaller rivers like Pagla and Choto Bhagirathi into Farakka, effectively drying them in the downstream.
The Feeder canal is supposed to divert 40,000 cusecs water continuously from Ganga into Bhagirathi/ Hooghly. Hooghly-Bhagirathi itself is not a small river. It is a system drained by 7 tributaries like Pagla, Bansloi, Mayurakshi, Ajoy, Damodar, Rupnarayan, Haldi and the two offshoots of Ganga – Jalangi and Churni.
Impacts and performance of Farakka Barrage
Several grave questions are being posed on the utility of the barrage itself and its impacts. Some of the main points are illustrated below:
Hooghly estuary cannot be made silt-free by 40,000 cusecs from Farakka only
River Expert Dr. Kalyan Rudra, an authority on rivers in Bengal, especially their interactions with sediment, says that the initial objective of Farakka of flushing silt from the mouth of Hooghly has been “frustrated”[vi]. This assessment has been supported by many, including the past Superintending Engineer of Farakka Dr. P.K. Parua (Pers. Comm.) According to Kolkata Port Trust, the dredging of silt at Kolkata Port has been rising from 6.40 million cubic meters (MCM) annually from Pre-Farakka days to four time increase at 21.88 MCM annually during 1999-2003.
The answer, according to Dr. Rudra, lies in the fact that freshwater flow brought by the Hooghly Estuary, even with 40,000 cusecs from Farakka is just too meagre to flush sediments deep down the estuary. The difference between volumes of freshwater brought by Hooghly, as against the tide bringing saline water from south to north is as much as 1:78, making any deep flushing due to freshwater nearly impossible. Dams in the Hooghly Bhagirathi Basin by Damodar Valley Corporation have further arrested freshwater which could have naturally replenished Hooghly estuary. At the same time the stated aims of Damodar Valley Corporation, fashioned on the lines of Tennessee Valley Authority have not been fulfilled.
Currently, the functioning of Kolkata Port and Haldia port is entirely at the mercy of Dredging Corporation of India (DCI) to desilt the river to maintain sufficient draft (allowable depth of a ship’s keel under water). DCI gets about Rs 300-350 Crores per year for dredging the channel, although several problems have been unearthed like dumping the excavated silt back in the estuary from where it is washed back in the channel. In 2009, the Government of India had actually written to the Kolkata Port Trust, saying that it has become a “liability” and it should explain why it should continue to receive dredging subsidies. A PIL has been filed[vii] in 2013 in Kolkata High Court to save Kolkata and Haldia ports by intensive dredging.
It is clear that 40,000 cusecs water from Farakka is not able to help the Kolkata Port much as was envisaged earlier. SANDRP tried to talk with officials at the Kolkata Port Trust, but they declined answering any questions saying that Farakka is a bilateral issue.
This has led to a situation where we have the barrage and the impacts of two countries and millions of people, without even achieving objective for which the project was developed.
2. Sedimentation in the upstream of Farakka Barrage and its massive implications for India and Bangladesh
It is estimated that Ganga carries a silt load of 736 Million Tonnes (MT) annually, out of which about 328 MT of sediment gets deposited in the upstream of Farakka Barrage ANNUALLY[viii]. This annual addition of enormous sediment in the upstream of the barrage has made the river extremely shallow and any ship transport past Farakka has become nearly impossible. As we saw during our visit, islands/chars have formed barely a kilometer upstream the barrage, where animals graze, making any transport nearly impossible.
This massive retention of sediments has resulted in a two-pronged problem:
3. Contribution to delta subsidence and rising sea level in Bangladesh and India
Water released below Farakka barrage has significantly less silt load as about 328 MT silt gets deposited at Farakka. This water has a higher eroding capacity and erodes downstream riverbed. But there is an additional problem: World Heritage site of Sunderbans at the mouth of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, shared between India and Bangladesh is witnessing possibly the first and highest numbers of Climate Change refugees in the world due to Ingressing Sea which is eating away at smaller islands and the delta. Part reason for this delta subsidence is sea level rise due to global warming and related changes, but the driving reason for encroaching seas is not only sea level rise, but the sinking river delta due to trapping sediment in the upstream dams and barrages like Farakka. The role of river sediments in building deltas is crucial. Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana Delta is subsiding rapidly and is categorized as a ‘Delta in Peril’ by experts like Syvitski et al, due to reduction in sediments reaching the delta and compaction of delta, furthering sea level rise. According to recent studies, the rate of relative sea level rise per year in the Ganga Brahmaputra delta is in the range of 8-18 mm per year, one the highest in the world. The related sediment reduction has been a whopping 30% in the twentieth century. (SANDRPs report on Delta Subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise due to sediment trapping by dams: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/sinking-and-shrinking-deltas-major-role-of-dams-in-abetting-delta-subsidence-and-effective-sea-level-rise/)
Farakka Barrage has been highlighted as one of the causes for this blocking of sediments at an important juncture. Any role played by Farakka in delta subsidence of GBM Delta has a massive impact on millions of people residing in this delta. According to Prof. Md. Khallequzamman (Pers Comm.), the amount of sediment influx flowing into Bangladesh from upper reaches in India has dropped from 2 billion tons per year in the 1960s to less than 1 billion tons per year in recent years, which is not enough to keep pace with rising sea.[ix]
4. Erosion in the Upstream of the barrage due to Sedimentation
Farakka Barrage is getting silted up due to millions of tonnes of sediment being deposited in the upstream annually. Ganga has been a meandering river, changing courses over centuries, forming paleo channel and ox bows. This deposition of sediment in the upstream is accelerating swinging of Ganga alarmingly to the left bank of the river. This is leading to tremendous erosion in Malda and surrounding regions. More than 4000 hectares of land in Malda has been eroded by the Ganga since 1970s. The river has also breached 8 embankments. Although a number of authors have conclusively written about this and even Legislative Assembly of West Bengal has been unequivocal in saying that “It is accepted all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”, Central Water Commission trivializes this fact and does not accept any responsibility of Farakka.The only issue CWC seems to be bothered about is the health of the barrage itself which is compromised by erosion on the left bank. In official correspondences of CWC and MoWR scrutinized by SANDRP, the agencies do not mention anything about plight of thousands of people, who are refugees of a swinging river, but are only concerned about the strength of the barrage.[x]
According to Audit Report on Farakka Barrage by Indian Audit and Accounts Departments, between 2006-2012, the “Unintended Consequences” of Farakka include:
Induced water through feeder canal raised water level of Bhagirathi by about 5 meters near Jangipur and does not allow Bansloi and Pagla to join Bhagirtahi freely. A new wetland due to congestion formed Ahiron Beel which has submerged fertile land.
The barrage has trapped substantial sediment and hence river in changing course. In homogenous situation the oscillation of river is secular but it gets aggravated due to Farakka Barrage. On account of Rajmahal hills on right bank and Farakka barrage on the channel, the river erodes the left bank.
The 10 day cycle of increased and decreased release of water from the Barrage has resulted in a complex phenomenon of recharging ground water by river and then receiving base flow from groundwater ( when river is low). The frequent change in water level on account of 10 day altered flow adversely affects the rivers hydro geomorphology leading to escalating bank erosion.
River bed height in Farakka pondage has increased and the river is compensating this reduction by expanding its cross section sideways
5. Erosion Downstream of the barrage, leading to loss of life and property:
Sedimentation upstream the barrage, coupled with natural swing of Ganga has meant that the river is swinging to the left, encroaching the left bank, leading to erosion in thousands of villages, roads, fields in the downstream of the Barrage in India as well as Bangladesh, causing annual floods. The Irrigation Department West Bengal (Report of the Irrigation Dept for 1997-2001) itself has agreed not only about this erosion due to Farakka Barrage, but has also cautioned about the possibility of outflanking of the Farakka Barrage itself. Many experts maintain the eminent possibility of Ganga outflanking the barrage to flow through its old course of the 15th century, which will reduce the barrage to just a bridge.
On our visit to Farakka, Kedarnath Mandal, a veteran activist working on issued of Ganga and Farakka accompanied us to see extensive erosion in the left bank of the river in the upstream at Simultola as well as downstream in ChaukBahadurpur. In both these regions, the eroding river has paid little heed to the erosion control measures on the banks. Huge boulders have been swept with the current, destabilizing land in their wake.
We saw extensive bank erosion in the left bank on the downstream where all measures like bull headed spurs, dip trees, porcupines, gunny bags, geo-synthetic covers, boulders bars, boulder crates with nets, etc. have been eroded.
In all this din, the people residing in the chars, their leaders like Kedarnath Mandal, River experts and even the Legislative Council of West Bengal maintain that though erosion and changing courses is a character of Ganga, it has worsened and accelerated hugely since Farakka Barrage. In fact the 13th Legislative Assembly Committee (2004) in its 7th Report notes “It is accepted at all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”.
6. Near Impossibility of desilting Farakka Barrage
To say that the challenge of desilting Farakka Barrage is Herculean, will be an understatement. The irreversible circle of events is highlighted by the fact that in order to have any appreciable impact, the amount of sediment lifted from the barrage should be at least twice the amount deposited per year, if the project is to be completed even in thirty years. But that seems impossible. According to Dr. Rudra, “Doing so will require a fourteen lane dedicated highway from Malda to Gangasagar” and the transport cost alone “would be nearly twice the revenue earned by Government of India in a year.” Dr. P.K. Parua also accepts that desilting the barrage will be next to impossible.
Such is the scale of sedimentation at Farakka.
7. Source of conflict with Bangladesh
Experts and authorities from Bangladesh have been raising the issue of impact of Farakka for several years now. Farakka Barrage not only obstructs the flow of sediments in Bangladesh, but also diverts waters of Ganga away from Bangladesh delta, depriving millions of fisherfolk and farmers from their livelihood. Water sharing from Farakka, particularly in lean season is now governed by Ganges Water Treaty of 1996. The Treaty holds force between 1 January to 31st May each year and water sharing calculations are based on 10 day flows. Some experts from Bangladesh have maintained that Ganges Water Treaty is not being implemented properly and Bangladesh is receiving less water than its due.[xi] There are issues raised by the Indian side as well of dwindling water availability. All in all, the barrage and the resultant Treaty continues to be a source of impacts for the river and people of the two nations.
Meeting officials at Farakka Barrage
SANDRP met with the Authorities at the Farakka Barrage Project office, which is under the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), at New Farakka. After meeting the officials, it was clear that they have no program for silt management at all. They do not even see this as an area of concern and are only concerned with anti-erosion works, which are failing miserably, and releasing water to Kolkata Port, which is not improving its navigability.
While some may argue, rather irrelevantly (considering the warnings of Kapil Bhattacharyya), that Engineers in 1950s, 60s and 70s were not equipped or aware of the issues related to sediment and its far-reaching impacts like erosion, deposition, floods, even sea level rise, the same in any case cannot be said about the current water management. They have the privilege of better knowledge, better resources and also lessons from past experiences. But despite having clear evidence that silt of Ganga is playing havoc with millions in India as well as Bangladesh, the Farakka Barrage Authorities tell us that they have no plan for silt management the barrage except annual erosion control measures.
The mandate of the barrage authorities is also 120 kms of bank erosion works, 40kms in the upstream and 80kms in the downstream. We were told on the condition of anonymity that this extensive work leaves little time even for maintaining the barrage. The bank protection work is also not permanent and is eroded with flood waves. The bureaucratic set up at Farakka makes it impossible to take proactive decisions about Barrage maintenance. The gates of the barrage need replacement, but there is hardly any agency interested in working for Farakka Barrage due to bureaucratic delays.
The officials told SANDRP that the only desilting measure that can be adopted is opening all gates of the Barrage, but that will not be possible unless all gates are replaced as many gates are faulty. Replacing all gates of Farakka will take at least two more years and we do not know even after that whether silt can be flushed. Such a flushing will need a major flood event and the impact of such sudden flushing of billions of tonnes of silt in the downstream will be unprecedented & huge.
Meeting with Farakka Barrage Authorities leaves one with more questions than answers.
Interview with past official of Farakka
SANDRP discussed the multiple issues of Farakka with one of the senior retired official from the Farakka Barrage Authority who has seen the work of the FBPA closely over several years. Some excerpts from these discussions.
SANDRP: Sir, do you think Farakka is fulfilling its functions?
Answer: Farakka was not only designed for diverting water for Hooghly, it was foreseen that there may be an Irrigation component and even a hydropower component. But the inflow at the barrage was over calculated. We never had that sort of inflow in the project. Add to this Treaty with Bangladesh in 1996 and India was left with little water. I would say objectives of Farakka were only partially fulfilled. The barrage has a designed discharge of 27,00,000 cusecs and we have been able to achieve that discharge only twice since commissioning the barrage. In the recent years, water flow has been declining sharply at the barrage. This further handicaps all its functions.
SANDRP: There are several problems associated with silt deposited in the upstream of the barrage like floods, change in course of the river, erosion, etc. Is there any way to tackle this deposited silt?
Answer: Yes, that is a serious problem. This is being faced by ports and barrages the world over and also across India. There are so many players responsible for the increasing silt load and reduced water in the river, right from Nepal.
We can say that the scale of the sediment issue was not understood when the barrage was designed, the engineers then did not have the knowledge or tools for this. Even now, there is no easy way this issue can be tackled. Desilting the barrage would be very costly, and what would be do with the collected silt? Malda and Murshidabad region is densely populated, we cannot dump it anywhere. If we dump it in the river, there will be other problems. It is possibly an evil we have to live with now.
SANDRP: There are plans to erect about 16 more such barrages on the Ganga main stem. What would be the lessons from Farakka for these barrages?
Answer:I think this is a horrible plan. In addition to the challenge of silt, I wonder where will the water come from? Supplies from Upper Ganga Canals are increasing, reducing water flow in the river. Uttar Pradesh is increasing the capacity of Lower Ganga Canals. More and more abstraction will happen. Such a plan does not seem feasible and will be harmful for the river as well.
There’s no Hilsa here
Farakka Barrage has stopped migration of economically important species like the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilsha) and Macrobrachium prawns, both Ilish (Hilsa) and Chingri (Macrobrachium) hold a special significance to people in West Bengal and Bangladesh. A lot has been written about the Barrage’s disastrous impact on Hilsa production and impoverishment of fisherfolk in India and Bangladesh[xii]. About 2 lakh fisherfolk in Malda district alone depend on riverine fisheries and Hilsa here was the backbone of the fishing economy.
Although Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) has a lab to work on Hilsa, the institute is not working on Fish passes or Hilsa Hatcheries at the Barrage itself!
Prior to commissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and even Delhi covering a distance of more than 1600 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar (Bihar), at a distance of about 650 kms from river mouth. Post Farraka, Hilsa is unheard of in Yamuna in Delhi and its yield has dropped to zero in Allahabad, from 91 kg/km in 1960s. Studies as old as those conducted in mid-seventies single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.[xiii]
We met fishermen who have not caught a single Hilsa in the upstream of the barrage despite fishing for three days. In the downstream too, size and recruitment (population) of Hilsa is affected due to arrested migration at Farakka. Some 2 million fisherfolk in Bangladesh depend on Hilsa fishing. Hilsa in Padma river (Ganga in India) downstream Farakka has also declined sharply due to decreasing water and blockage of migration routes.[xiv]
These fisherfolk have never been compensated for the losses they suffered. They were not even counted as affected people when the barrage was designed and they are not counted even now.
Fable of Farakka Fish Lock
The tale of Farakka Barrage Fish Lock is another tragic story. Fish Lock is a gated structure in a Barrage that needs to be operated specifically to facilitate migration of fish from the downstream to the upstream or vice versa to breed, feed or complete their lifecycles.
According to Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), Farakka Barrage has two Fish Locks between gates 24 and 25. The locks need to be operated to aid fish migration and transport fish. We talked with the Engineers at Farakka Barrage Authority, local villagers, fishermen and even the Barrage Control Room officials who operate the gates of the barrage about the functioning of the Fish Lock. No one had heard about a Fish Lock. There is some information that there is one more lock further upstream in the river, but the FBP Authorities did not seem aware of this.
The control room officials kept showing us the ship lock at the Barrage (which is also rarely used due to turbulence and sedimentation) and told us categorically that “There is nothing called as fish lock here”. The locks have not been operated for a minimum of a decade, possibly much longer.
Who is responsible for the loss of fisherfolk income in the meantime? Will the Farakka Barrage Authority or the MoWR or the CWC or the Kolkata Port Trust or Inland Waterways Authority of India compensate them?
According to Dr. Parua, fish locks were operated for some time when he was posted at Farakka, but they never worked as planned. He believes that a bare 60 feet fish lock for a barrage that is more than 2.6 kms long is of little use. There should have been more fish locks planned. He also lamented about the non-functionality of Hilsa Fish Hatchery set up at the banks of the barrage. (We were not even told about the presence of this structure by any of the officials or other concerned persons we met and possibly it has now fallen to complete disrepair now.) He said despite Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) is based in West Bengal and has a special cell to study Hilsa, they or the Fisheries Department have taken no interest in the functioning of the hatchery or the Fish Locks.
2. Vikramshila Dolhin Sanctuary, Bhagalpur
Bhagalpur is barely 150 kms upriver from Farakka and Dr. Sunil Chaudhary, a past Member of the Sate Wildlife Board of Bihar has been working relentlessly on conservation of Gangetic Dolphins, as well as rights of traditional fisherfolk in Bihar and around Vikramshila region.[xv] SANDRP discussed the issue of Farakka and additional barrages with him. Dr. Chaudhary states that not only barrages, but the dredging itself will have serious impacts on Dolphins. Impacts of Farakka Barrage on fish and fisherfolk in Bihar is still being felt. No Hilsa reach here from Farakka and a generation of fisherfolk has suffered due to this. Forget more barrages on the Ganga, we need a review of Farakka Barrage itself as Ganga Mukti Andolan has been asking for years now.
Any work affecting Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary will require clearance from State Wildlife Board, State Wildlife Warden and National Board for Wildlife. We hope that such permissions are not given without due diligence and independent application of mind and at least whatever remains of Ganga is maintained.
The issues arising out of Farakka are extremely serious. Our planners and decision makers may claim that many of the impacts were not foreseen (Not entirely true). But the issue cannot be ignored any longer. We need a credible independent review of the development effectiveness of Farakka Barrage, including costs, benefits and impacts.
What we seem to be doing now is to repeat the mistakes of the past with new barrages planned on the Ganga.
The existing Upper Ganga Barrage (Bhimgouda Barrage) has dried up the river in the downstream. The river is diverted in a canal, where people take ritual baths, while the original riverbed is used as a parking lot.
The Lower Ganga (Narora Barrage) has severely affected fish migration & dried up the river in the downstream at least in lean season. The Barrage has a fish ladder, but there is no monitoring or concern as to whether it is working or not. In its report to the World Bank, Uttar Pradesh Government has said that the “condition of the barrage is poor” and has lamented about increased siltation in the upstream of the barrage and the inability to flush the sediments due to poor condition of its gates.[xvi].
Beyond doubt, the existing barrages, especially the Farakka Barrage have had massive impacts on the river, its ecosystems and its people. We have many critical lessons to learn from these experiences. In stead, we are pushing for more barrages on a river which will only compound existing problems.
Ganga is much more than a waterway or a powerhouse. It is a river, supporting not only urban areas and industries, but rural communities, the basin, the ecosystem and myriad organisms in its wake and it needs to be respected as an ecosystem first, rather than for sentimental reasons like mother or goddess.
The Ganga is being fettered at its origin in the Uttarakhand by over 300 hydropower dams. In addition, if it is again dammed many times over times in its main channel, then the government will not have to worry about River Rejuvenation Plan. There will be no river left for rejuvenation.
“We deal with rivers with utmost unconcern and disrespect… India Rivers Week and India Rivers Forum is most welcome, will look forward to participate in it” says Jairam Ramesh at the India Rivers Week 2014 inauguration
Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh, giving the inaugural address at the first ever India Rivers week emphasized “Ours is a paradoxical society. While we show a lot of respect for rivers socially, we deal with rivers with utmost unconcern and disrespect… India Rivers Week and India Rivers Forum is most welcome, will look forward to participate in it… If we want to save our rivers, the first step is to ensure that no untreated industrial effluent or sewage finds its way into our rivers.” Speaking on development objectives and the growing energy needs of India, he clarified, “Hydro projects may be a painful choice, but we cannot close our doors to it. What we can do is ensure stricter environmental regulations & their enforcement, a cumulative assessment at ‘basin’ and not ‘project’ level and the minimum environmental flow in the river itself.” He was critical of the current dispensation to dismantle all environmental regulations.
Former Union Minister Jairam Ramesh speaking at the India Rivers Week-2014
Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India stressed in his keynote said that rivers are, ”more than just water, and an integral part of our social, historical and cultural fabric.” He spoke on how we obstruct river flow, encroach flood plains, inflict pollution, and hold a economical, cavalier attitude towards it. In other words, “As an American engineer rightly said, we enjoy pushing rivers around,” he added.
Over 125 River experts, planners, researchers, artists, enthusiasts and activists from different parts of the country have congregated at first ever India Rivers Week being held in Delhi during 24-27 November to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country. The event is being organized by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai office), and Peoples Science Institute, Dehradun.
Recently the Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley during his budget presentation pitched for inter-linking of rivers saying the move can yield “rich dividend”. Jairam Ramesh, former Minister, MOEF however stated “We seem to be indulging in the romance of ILR. We need to be more cautious in hurrying up the proposed Inter Linking Rivers projects,” he said, “and understand their ecological and environmental consequences better.” He urged for more debates on water agreement treatise and better co operation within states and also between the neighboring countries.
“Not only are our rivers misunderstood but mistreated and thoroughly abused”, said Manoj Misra, Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. “We need to move beyond the understanding a river simply in terms of water.” What makes this event significant is that the practitioners gathered here, through their experience sharing session and discussions, “will generate, adopt and present a Nation River Charter at the end of the meeting.”
Manoj Mishra, PEACE Institute, at the India Rivers Week-2014
This is the first of conclave to enable learning and promote river restoration skills and actions from sharing and exchange of ideas, experiences and practices. “There has been 76% reduction in aquatic biodiversity over the years. That figure is higher than the loss of terrestrial or marine biodiversity, showing the crisis rivers are facing and we need to act fast to address this crisis”, added Ravi Singh CEO, WWF in his welcoming opening remarks.
Lack of true understanding and appreciation – amongst planners, decision makers, various government departments as well as the common man – of rivers as ecological systems that provide a number of ecological and economic services is a major reason for the sorry state of our rivers. No wonder, there exists no national policy or law that could provide our rivers security from death, degradation and unsustainable and unfair exploitation.
Ravi Agarwal, Toxics link, reiterated, “Rivers are diverse eco systems, where water is just a common defining system”, and hoped this ‘unique meeting’ would debate thoroughly on this complex issue.
A recent appraisal has found that there is no river in any of the top 50 cities in the country that is not sick or dying with river Yamuna in Delhi-Mathura-Agra and Ganga in Kanpur-Varanasi-Patna leading the list. Widespread devastations in Uttarakhand (June 2013) and J&K (Sept 2014) and Assam-Meghalaya in North East (September 2014) bring home the fact that disturbed rivers can become dangerous and highly devastating.
Dams, diversions, bumper-to-bumper hydro projects, diverted natural flows, encroached flood plains, embanked river channels, degraded catchments, destruction of local water systems and pollution of various kinds are causing this. Climate change uncertainties are expected to further compromise the integrity of our rivers.
Ramaswamy Iyer observed, “Disputes rarely come in question when a river is free flowing. Only when water distribution come into play, as in the case of large projects, and issues of power crop in, do conflicts increase.” Speaking strongly against the ‘run of the river hydro projects’, and their ‘green’ tag , he wondered “Can we survive the death of our rivers?”
Rivers have been dammed, diverted, channelized, encroached and polluted no end. Rivers, as ecosystems, have been poorly appreciated. With ‘Rivers in crisis’ as the theme, the Conference endeavors to devise an India Charter for Rivers and initiate an India Rivers Forum for Restoration of Rivers.
The compilation ‘My River Journey’, containing river journey accounts of 47 of the participants has been prepared, published and distributed at the IRW-2014, conclave on 24 Nov, 2014.
Above: KKJS Activists receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award from Justice Madan Lokur Photo: IRW
We are happy to share the story of Koel Karo Resistance even as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan gets the Bhagirath Prayas Samman at First India Rivers Week (IRW) meeting at Delhi on Nov 26, 2014. The Award is being given by Justice Madan Lokur of Supreme Court of India. The Award includes a citation, a scroll and cash prize. KKJS is one of he three awardees, the only organisation to get this award this year. IRW is being organised by Peace Institute, WWF-India, INTACH, Toxics Link and SANDRP. It is honour for the exemplary work done to protect a river. The citation says:
The Organisers of India Rivers Week 2014 have great pleasure in awarding the
BHAGIRATH PRAYAS SAMMAN
To Koel Karo Jan Sangathan
in appreciation of its dedicated, valiant, untiring efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo
Koel and Karo are tributaries of river Brahmani in the state of Jharkhand
threatened by the Koel Karo hydroelectric projects.
Koel Karo Jan Sangathan was born in 1976 as a community mobilisation
effort to conserve their sacred sites and
to look at alternative development paths in place of the proposed Koel Karo dam.
The Sangathan has carried on a long and heroic struggle in the face of
enormous pressures from the
vested interests, battling tremendous odds to forge one of India’s foremost
to save rivers, riverine communities and their culture. In Feb 2001,
8 people died in police firing
during the struggle. The project remains cancelled due to the struggle.
The Sangathan has demonstrated the use of many innovative methods of struggle
including people’s curfew and people’s check points. The Sangathan has successfully
mobilised support from villagers, academicians and political parties to ensure that t
heir rivers are still flowing free and pristine. Women of the river basin have played a
key role in the Sangathan’s work.
It is an honour to recognize and celebrate the
extraordinary and truly Bhagirathan efforts of the
Koel Karo Sangathan in ensuring the
integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo.
A brief story on the long and arduous struggle
According to the people of Munda tribe in Jharkhand, the whole planet was once under water. It is Sing-Bonga, the god of the Mundaris, who fashioned the earth with some clay from the bottom of the ocean. This he then populated with plants, trees, birds, animals, and finally, with human beings.
Thus is it that the Mundaris live on the land gifted to them by the Father of all human beings. Over the centuries, the already-sacred landscape became dotted with clusters of sasandiri- the stones marking the resting places of ancestors located at places specified by Sing-Bonga.
For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the Mundaris had to wage a long and hard struggle against the State to protect this sacred trust. Unlike how many other similar stories go, this ends in victory. That too, is a testament to the strength of the Mundaris and their deep connection with their lands.
The project: The story begins in the 1950s, when a hydro-electricity project was first conceptualised by the Bihar State Electricity Board. This project aimed to generate 710 MW of electricity by the construction of two earthen dams at a then-estimated cost of 157 crores. Of these, one was a 55-meter high dam on north Karo and the second was a 44-meter high dam on south Koel River.
The real cost of the project was far more than what any project report could budget for, and this was to be paid by the soon-to-be displaced Munda tribals. The 1973 project report estimated that 125 villages would be affected. This was contested by the locals who stated that 256 villages would be affected. Also at stake were approximately 152 sarnas (sites for ritual festivities) and 300 sasandhris (Mathews, 2011).
The people: The Mundari were largely ignored when the project was being finalised. Roads were built and offices established without consulting the villagers. It is only when land began to be bought up that the people of the affected villages came to know of the plans for their ancestral lands. At that time, probably because they were unaware of the full implications of the project, the Mundari were not opposed to the dam in principle. What disturbed them was the opacity and corruption in the land acquisition.
The struggle: This corruption caused the residents of the Koel and Karo rivers to form a group each to safeguard their interests. The dissatisfaction increased when the survey work led to damage of crops in the area. The two groups came together in 1976 as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan (Koel Karo People’s Organization) KKJS to offer united resistance to the construction work and demand that work be entrusted to local people. It is also around this time that incidents such as deaths due to drowning near Kutku dam and lack of proper rehabilitation for the displaced of Subarnarekha dam opened the Mundaris eyes to the danger that this construction posed to their way of life. Extensive agitation in the following years led to work being stopped in 1979 till the issues could be resolved. The following year responsibility for the project passed from the Bihar State Electricity Board to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, causing a setback to the negotiations.
Till 1984, the villagers successfully prevented any work on the site using a variety of non-violent means despite the presence of troops sent in by the State officials to enable the land acquisition officials. The Mundharis worked to prevent the troops and officials from having access to water, firewood and even preventing them from going out into the forest to defecate. “We told them they can’t defecate on our sacred groves..”, said Soma Munda of the KKJS in an interview.
In August 1984, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of force to acquire land. The Government of Bihar then offered to build two ‘model villages’ for the Mundharis to decide whether they would agree to relocate. The KKJS retorted that it would first be essential to relocate the sasandiri. The two ‘model villages’ were never built, and things were at a standstill for the next decade.
Matters picked up again in 1995 when the then Prime Minister, PV Narsimha Rao declared his intention to lay the foundation stone of the Koel Karo project. The Mundaris resisted this by astonishingly simple and effective means- nearly 25,000 people lay down on the roads effectively blocking access.
In December 2000, the state of Jharkhand was carved out of Bihar. Just two months later, in February 2001, the police fired 75 rounds (unofficial estimates say 150) on a peaceful crowd at Tapkara killing eight people and injuring more than 30 (PUCL,2002). The Tapkara shooting understandably sparked censure from the country and may have forced the government’s decision regarding the dam.
The result: In August 2003, the Koel Karo project was scrapped, ostensibly for financial reasons; The price had escalated from Rs.157 crores in 1976 to Rs.3,000 crores in 2003. However, the KKJS as well as several others who have been linked with the struggle consider the sustained resistance to be the primary reason for the project being scrapped. It took another seven years for the government to shut down all offices and reassign staff. But on 21st July 2010 the Koel Karo project became history.
The reason why: Koel Karo is today one of the very rare instances in India where tribal peoples have successfully persuaded the government to shelve a sanctioned project. This is not due to any dearth of such similar struggles by equally determined people throughout the country. What is the difference?
One reason put forth by anthropologists is the strong sense of tribal identity. The Mundari have a strong and democratic tribal leadership system which continues today. They have a history of asserting their rights since the 19th century. The Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1903) which safeguard the rights of tribals to their land is just one of the instances where they have brought pressure to bear on the government to maintain their tribal identity. In that respect, they see very little difference in colonial rule and the current government, both being secondary to tribal government. This is the reason that the Koel Karo struggle was able to mobilise people in their thousands and present such an united front. While the tribal governance may account for the united resistance put up by the Mundharis, their motivation however came from a far older source.
It came from Sing-Bonga Himself. The Mundharis quite simply had no option but to hold on to their land. It is here that their ancestors were, and all through the resistance, not once did Sing-Bonga appear in a dream and give them permission to relocate the sasandiri. This deep and inviolable connection with the land was key to the struggle and manifested itself in the resistance slogans. Initially, the slogan was “Jaan denge par jamin nahin denge (we will give our lives, but not our lands)”. After Tapkara, they changed it to “Jaan bhi nahin denge, jamin bhi nahin denge, dam ko rok lenge” (we will give neither our lives nor our lands but we will stop the dam)”.
The struggle was lead by a number of tribal and non tribal leaders, notable amongst them is Ms. Dayamani Barla, who was involved with Koel Karo since 1990s. She says, “The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?’
Later when Ms. Barla was imprisoned while upholding tribal rights, she wrote from the prison, ” I never overlooked the questions raised by the Jharkand people. The flowing water of the Koyal, Karo and Chata rivers is a witness to this. I learnt to write with my fingers in the mud and sand of this land. On the banks of the river Karo, while grazing my sheep, I learnt to bathe and swim. The shade of grass and trees covered with dew filled in the sky, gave me love.”
Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan puts the success of this movement down to persistence. The Mundharis successfully kept up an unrelenting and non-violent resistance for nearly three decades. To put this into perspective, it is in December 1929- only 18 years before achieving freedom- that the Indian National Congress passed a resolution calling for complete independence. Even dominion status was only demanded since 1916, when the All India Home Rule League was established. By that count, the Koel Karo struggle has lasted as long as India’s struggle for self-rule in one way or another.
And finally, Dharmadhikary points out one overwhelming lesson that present and future struggles can learn from Koel Karo. ‘Such struggles,’ he says ‘can be won.’
– Chicu Lokgariwar, email@example.com
Author is with India Water Portal and is based in Uttarakhand
Godavari, the Dakshin Vahini Ganga, originates at an elevation of 1067 meters in the Brahmagiri Hills of the Western Ghats in Nashik District of Maharashtra and continues its journey over 1465 kms in the south east to meet the Bay of Bengal at Narasapuram in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Like many Indian rivers, Godavari’s origin is consecrated with a Shiva Temple, the Trimbakeshwar, which is also one of the 12 Jyotirlingas (most of them near a river). And like many other rivers, it has an elaborate myth and a hymn in its honour. The river has a sister, Gautami, right at its origin in Maharashtra and again a distributary called Gautami right where the river falls into the sea in Andhra Pradesh!
The river mainstem, longest in Peninsular India, travels through three states, Maharashtra, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, while its basin includes Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, parts of Chattisgarh and Odisha. It traverse through 3 agroclimatic zones, 6 agro ecological zones and supports an astounding array of biodiversity and communities. More than 60 million people call Godavari Basin their home. The basin includes important towns like Nashik, Nagpur, Wardha, Nanded and Chandrapur from Maharashtra and Bhadrachalam, Nizamabad, Mancherial & Ramagundam in Telangana, Rajahmundry & Narsapur in Andhra Pradesh and Seoni & Balaghat in Madhya Pradesh.
The river is considered no less than a sister to Ganga and I remember as a child, elders always referring to Godavari as Ganga. Nashik is important religiously not only as the birth place of this Dakshin Vahini Ganga, where she refused to fall into the Arabian Sea, but also because of the deep association of the city with Ramayana. Nashik was believed to be a part of Dandakaranya where Lord Ram resided for nearly 14 years in Vanavasa. All along the river in places like Tapovan, one can find glimpses of this ancient myth worshipped today. On the banks of Godavari in Nashik also stands the KalaRam Mandir where, in 1930, Babasaheb Ambedkar launched the KalaRam Mandir Entry Satyagraha, storming the temple which was thus far restricted for the depressed classes. Indeed, Godavari has borne witness to several remarkable happenings at her origin itself.
In her middle reaches in Nanded, Takth Sri Hazur Sahib graces the banks of the river where Guru Gobind Singh breathed his last. The place is one of the five holy places in Sikkhism. In Telangana and Andhra too the banks have numerous mosques, temples and ghats of historical significance like Kotilingala in Karimnagar, Telangana, at the confluence of Peddavagu and Godavari. This was the first capital of the Satavahanas circa 230 BC. Most of the important towns in Satavahana era are along the Godavari. Sadly today the Koti Lingala is facing threat of submergence from Sripada Yellampalli Irrigation project. At Dhawaleswaram the river divides into two branches, the Gautami and Vasishta. Between the two lies the Godavari Central Delta. The two arms split into branches as they approach the sea dividing the Central Delta into a number of islands.
Anne Feldhaus sums up the historical legacy of many cultures and religions of this upper Godavari Valley and Marathwada eloquently. She says: “This is the area that Cakradhar, the founder of the Mahanubhav sect (circa 12-13th Century), referred to as the “Ganga valley” that is, the (upper) valley of the Godavari, the northernmost of the great rivers that flow from northwest to southeast across the Deccan Plateau. In Cakradhar’s time, what is now Marathwada was the core of the Yadava kingdom, with its capital at Devgiri (subsequently called Daulatabad). Paithan, the capital of the much earlier kingdom of the Satavahanas (first century B.C.E. to third century C.E.) is also found in Marathwada, on the Godavari river, as is Nanded, the site of the grave of the seventeenth-century Sikh leader Govind Singh. The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb’s city, Aurangabad, is now the principal city of Marathwada in Godavari basin, which is also home to the Buddhist (and Jain and Hindu) caves at Ajanta and Ellora (called Verul in Marathi) and to the major Sufi shrines at Khuldabad.” (From: Feldhaus, Anne, in History of Sacred places in India as reflected in traditional literature, Edited by Hans Bakker, 1990)
Godavari Basin accounts for nearly 9.5% of the total geographical area of the country and extends over states of Maharashtra (48.7%), Andhra Pradesh & Telangana (23.7%), Chhattisgarh (12.4%) and Odisha (5.7%) in addition to smaller parts in Madhya Pradesh (7.8%) and Karnataka (1.4%)
Table-I: Important Tributaries of Godavari
Name of Tributary
Around 32% of Godavari basin area lies in the elevation zone of 500-750 m. Average annual rainfall (1971-2005) is 1096.92 mm. While the high rainfall zone of Western Ghats the annual rainfall varies from 1000 to 3000 mm region on the east of Western Ghats falls in the rain shadow area which experiences less than 600 mm rainfall. About 60% of the basin is covered with agricultural land. Forest area is about 29.78% and water bodies occupy 2.06% of the total basin area.
Sub Basins: The Godavari basin is divided into 8 sub-basins. Principal tributaries are listed in Table-I above.
Geography of the basin: The basin is bounded by the Mahadeo Hills of the Satpura Range in the north, the Western Ghats in the west, Eastern Ghats of the Dandakaranya region of Odisha, Chattisgarh and Andhra in the east. The onterior part of the basin lies in Maharashtra and in a snese the Godavari basin bisects the plateau of Maharasthra.The basin also covers the Vidarbha Plain and the forest covered Wainganga valley. The area is rich in natural vegetation that covers the rugged hilly land.
Wildlife sanctuaries/ Protected areas/ National Parks in the basin: Godavari basin supports significant forest are in the Central India much of this is in the belt of eastern Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Telangana states. Wainganga, one of the most important tributary of the Godavari is the stage of Kipling’s Jungle Book. Wainganga basin is home to three tiger reserves viz. Tadoba and Pench National Park in Maharashtra and Indravati National Park in Chhattisgarh. Table-II lists these areas.
Table-II: Wildlife sanctuaries/ Protected areas/ National Parks in the basin:
Wildlife sanctuaries/ Protected areas/ National Parks
Tadoba National Park (Tiger Reserve)
Bor Wildlife Sactuary
Navegaon Wildlife Sanctuary
Nagzira Wildlife Sanctuary
Pench National Park (Tiger Reserve)
Bhairamgarh Wildlife Sanctuary
Kanger Ghati National Park
Indravati National Park (Tiger Reserve)
Pamed Wildlife Sanctuary
Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary
Papikonda Wildlife Sanctuary
Kinnerasani Wildlife Sanctuary
Pocharam Wildlife Santuary
Manjira Bird Sanctuary
Eturnagaram Wildlife Sanctuary
Kawal Wildlife Sanctuary
Siwaram Wildlife Sanctuary
Pranhita Wildlife Sanctuary
Siwaram Wildlife Sanctuary
Fish and Fisheries in the Basin: Godavari Basin is rich in fish species. The estuarine zone itself is habitat for nearly 228 species, some of which are marine. While the upper stretch of the river is nearly completely dependent on reservoir water releases for fisheries the middle zone has species like Carps, Mahseer, and prawns. Delta, in times of floods and monsoon has rich fisheries of prawns, large sized carps, catfishes, Puntius species, etc. According to CIFRI reports (Selvaraj, 2000, River Godavari: Environment and Fishery, CIFRI), dams like Polavaram will affect a number of species like prawns, which would get severely restricted, Hilsa and carps. The impacts of Polavaram on the lives of thousands of migrating fisherfolk has been documented. Hilsa, or the Pulasa, as it is called in the local language is famed in the estuary.
Major Challenges faced by the Godavari and it inhabitants
1. Dams, Barrages and Anicuts
Dams are a primary challenge faced by a river due to the profound ways in which they affect the hydrology, ecology, sociology, continuum of the river.
According to MoWR (Ministry of Water Resources), so far nearly 921 Dams, 28 Barrages, 18 Weirs, 1 Anicut, 62 Lifts and 16 Powerhouses have been constructed in the basin for irrigation, diversion or, storage purpose. The basin has 70 Major Irrigation Projects and 216 Minor Irrigation Projects.
One of the oldest barrage in the basin as well as the country is the Dowleshwaram Barrage also known as Arthur Cotton Barrage, situated on the Godavari Delta near Rajamundry, Andhra Pradesh. Godavari barrage has come up by remodeling the Dowleshwarmam barrage and irrigates the Godavari Delta. The barrage does not have a fish lift or a pass and does not releases eflows in the downstream, starving the delta of sediment and water and blocking migration of the fames Pulasa, Hilsa fish.
Other important projects include Sri Ram Sagar Project or the Pochampadu project in Nizamabad, Telnagana and the Jayakwadi Project in Paithan, Maharahstra. Jayakwadi project boasts of the one of the longest dam walls in the country, running more than 10 kms, which has resulted in massive evaporation losses from the reservoir. The project was built displacing 70 villages and is now in the eye of the storm as intra state water disputes heat up in Maharashtra. In the upstream of Jayakawadi are more than 11 large dams in the districts of Nashik and Ahmednagar, which is a cane and grape growing region. Downstream Jayakawadi too are several projects on the Godavari and tributaries in Maharashtra like 11 barrages on Godavari, Vishnupuri, Upper Penganga, etc. The massive GosiKhurd Dam coming up on Wainganga River, one of the biggest tributary of Godavari, is mired is corruption charges. The project will submerge more than 100 villages and is witnessing stiff resistance from the region.
The Nizamsagar multipurpose project is constructed in Nizamabad district in Telengana on Manjira River in 1931. Kaddam Reservoir is constructed on the Kaddam River in Adilabad district of Andhra Pradesh. The dam broke in a year after construction in 1958, by 4.6 cms water flowing over the crest. Upper Indravati multipurpose project on the Indravati in Odisha diverts waters of the Indravati into the Mahanadi for power generation. Upper Kolab dam was completed in 1990 on Kolab River, Orissa, it has a live storage capacity of 935 MCM. At FRL, the reservoir water spread covers 114 sq. km. The dam displaced more than 50,000 people in the Koraput district of Odisha, who were already distressed by a number projects in Odisha. Hydro projects in the Sileru river, a tributary of Godavari in Odishna has displaced thousands of tribals till date. Thee projects include Machkund (120 MW), Balimela (510 MW), Upper Sileru (240 MW), Donkarayi (25 MW) and Lower Sileru hydro (460 MW) power project.
According to this disturbing report, about 20,000 people from 6 grampanchayats, predominantly tribal are cut off from the main land for several years, first by the Machkund Hydro electric project and then by Balimela Project. They hire a ferry to get to mainland and in 2010, this ferry was targeted and attacked by the maoists.
The basins is also witnessing massive conflicts over water. Perhaps Godavari is the first basin in the country to witness a long drawn and oft repeated intrastate water conflict between stakeholders upstream of Jayakwadi and those downstream. The conflict does not seem to subside with entrenched positions, proliferation of water intensive crops like sugarcane and lack of open communication and transparency from the administration. Lower Penganga project, which is set to displace more than 20 villages in the fertile belt of Yavatmal is also witnessing a huge protest against the dam project. Gosikhurd project on Wainganga too is witnessing massive struggle not only from the farmers upstream, but also fisherfolk who fish in the rich Wainganga at present. The upcoming Pranahita-Chevella link, a part of the Jalyagnam project in the present Telanagana is likely to see conflicts as Maharashtra appears to be the loser, losing forest lands, protected area and tribals villages for no tangible gains. Already, water sharing conflicts between newly formed Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are on the anvil.
Jalyagnam project, an intricate plan of over 78 dam projects and lift irrigation schemes mostly on Godavari has also been in the eye of the storm for huge corruption charges, massive displacement and contractor-friendly nature, ignoring the deep impacts on the river and its people.
Other planned projects include: Polavaram, a project which can submerge 276 villages in Telangana, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, displacing nearly 1,50,000 people! The EIA of the project was majorly flawed, the Public Hearing was rigged and there is huge local opposition to the project. Hydel projects like Bhopalpatanam and Ichampalli projects on Indravati River can submerge near nearly 2 lakh acres of land, mostly forest land.
3. Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal: In April 1969, the Central Government constituted the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (GWDT) to address water sharing disputes between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. While the disputes were before the Tribunal, the party States themselves, after negotiations entered into agreements from time to time on the utilisation of the waters of the Godavari and its tributaries. Incorporating these agreements in the final adjudication GWDT gave the final verdict in the year 1980 and ordered that the agreements should be observed and carried out by all concerned. Different sub-basins from the catchments intercepted by major/medium projects proposed on various tributaries by the States have been generally allocated among the respective States. However GWDT verdict lacks actual water use monitoring mechanism to implement the agreements in true spirit[i]
4. Water Quality and Pollution:
Like all rivers across India, Godavari too faces severe pollution from urban and rural sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial effluents. In Maharashtra upper stretch of Godavari from Nashik District to Paithan has been declared as priority I critically polluted stretch by CPCB with BOD ranging from 6 mg/l to 36 mg/l[ii]. A petition has been filed in the high court by few activists from the city against Nashik Municipal Corporation (NMC), Municipal Commissioner, Government of India (GoI), Government of Maharashtra (GoM), and Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC) for failure on their part to clean the pollution of the river[iii].
In Andhra Pradesh stretch flowing from District of Rajamundry has been declared as priority-IV critically polluted stretch with BOD 6 mg/l.
Water quality of Manjara from Latur city in Maharashtra to Karnataka border and also at Sangareddy, at Wardha’s confluence with river Pangangato downstream of Sirpur in Maharashtra and of Indravati at Bodhghat in Madhya Pradesh has been deteriorated.In Vidarbha, the several thermal power plant, including the ones run by the state discharge fly ash and highly contaminated wastes right into the tributaries of the basin.
5. Subsiding Delta due to upstream dams:
The Godavari and Krishna rivers, which are the second and third largest river systems in India after the Ganga, have built their deltas adjacent to each other almost merging into one large delta complex in the central part of the east coast of India.This delta is one of the most fertile and is a densely populated zone of intense economic activity. Delta plain of the river Godavari occupies an area of 1700 sq.km. River Godavari gets divided into two main distributaries, viz. Gautami and Vasishta.
Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the deltaic branches of Gouthami and Godavari rivers at Kakinada Bay. It has extensive marshes and mangroves extending in an area of about 235.Sq.Kms
There has been almost a three-fold reduction in suspended sediment loads entering the delta due to trapping from upstream dams. This is leading into coatsla erosion, Effective Sea Level Rise, more flood risks, fisheries reduction, etc. Sediment load at the delat has reduced from 150·2 million tons during 1970–1979 to 57·2 million tons by 2000–2006. Experts like Syvistki et al classify Godavari delta as “Deltas in greater risk: reduction in aggradation where rates no longer exceed relative sea-level rise”. Decline in historic sediments of Godavari post damming has been as high as 74%!
From the origin in Western Ghats to its mouth at the Eastern coast, Godavari traverses a major part of Peninsular India and nourishes several rich cultures and social milieus: from Marathi in Deccan plateau to ancient tribal culture in central India to a vibrant delta system near Rajamundhry. The River is fettered in many dams all along its length and across its basin which have been responsible for human sufferings, ecological impacts, livelihood struggles and conflicts.
The basin is facing several major issues, but the river is also resilient. Let us hope that inhabitants of the Godavari basin are empowered to solve the problems of their river.
Reliable data and information that is both correct and validated on ground, is a pre requisite to understand any feature or activity. And for a river, a constantly evolving and truly complex entity, it becomes even more crucial. The wellness quotient of rivers, their present health status, all these and more can only be understood, once we have the rudimentary knowledge of the river and the basins that they form.
A step in this direction has been taken up by the India WRIS (Water Resources Information System) project (A joint venture between Central Water Commission and Indian Space Research Organisation), that aims “to provide a ‘Single Window Solution’ for water resources data & information in a standardized national GIS framework”[i]. This project has generated 20 basin level reports that share important information on the salient features of the basin, their division into sub basins, the river systems that flow through it and the water resource structures, such as irrigation & hydro electric projects in the basin. Another crucial inclusion is the length of major rivers in each basin, which have been GIS calculated (Geographic information system)[ii] and in a few reports the place of origin of the rivers too is mentioned. (Ganga Basin Report). This is an improvement over the earlier documented river lengths that included the canal length along with the river lengths, in earlier CWC documents (e.g. water and related statistics)!
The Basin reports include basin level maps which also show the proposed inter basin transfer links and the major water resource structures & projects. Individual maps at the sub basin level mark the rivers & their watersheds. The report gives details on the topography, climate, the land use / land cover area , and also the information on hydro meteorological stations like groundwater observation cells, flood forecasting sites and even water tourism sites.
These reports can be downloaded from the WRIS site.[iii]
The reports are an attempt to document the water resources data & information for a better and more integrated planning, at the basin level. A table below tabulates some important parameters from the 20 basin reports.
Missing Dams! It can be seen from table on next page that total number of dams in all the 20 basins come to 4572. Assuming that this includes all the completed large dams in India by Dec 2013 (WRIS report is dated March 2014), if we look at the number of large dams in India as in Dec 2013 in the National Register of Large Dams (NRLD), the figure is 4845. This leaves a difference of 273 large dams, which are missing from the WRIS list! This seems like a big descripancy. Unfortunately, since NRLD gives only statewise list and does not provide river basin wise list and since WRIS list provides only river basin wise list and does not provide the names of districts and states, it is not possible to check which are the missing dams, but WRIS need to answer that.
Sub Basins These 20 basins have been further delineated into a number of sub basins. The sub basins details include the geographical extent of the sub basin, the rivers flowing in it, the states that they travel through, number and size range of watersheds and also the details of dams, weirs, barrages, anicuts, lifts & power houses, accompanied by maps at this level. The irrigation and hydro electric projects in the area are detailed and mapped for greater convenience. The sub basin list is given here to get a detailed picure.
Indus Basin Sub-basins:
Beas Sub Basin
Chenab Sub Basin
Ghaghar and others Sub Basin
Gilgit Sub Basin
Jhelum Sub Basin
Lower Indus Sub Basin
Ravi Sub Basin
Shyok Sub Basin
Satluj Lower Sub Basin
Satluj Upper Sub Basin
Upper Indus Sub Basin
No. of sub basins
No. of watersheds
No. of water resource structures
No. of water resource projects
Indus (Upto border)
Barak & others basin
Subernarekha & Burhabalang
Brahmani & Baitarni
Brahmani & Baitarni
WFR Tapi to Tadri
Many independent rivers flowing
WFR Tadri to Kanyakumari
EFR Mahanadi_ Pennar
EFR Pennar _ Kanyakumari
WFR Kutch _ Saurashtra
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan
Many independent rivers flowing
Minor rivers draining into Myanmar(Burma) & Bangladesh
Many independent rivers flowing
* Extension, Renovation and Modernization ** Data has been accumulated from the individual Basin Reports from India WRIS[iv]
Ghaghara confluence to Gomti confluence
Gandak & others
Above Ramganaga Confluence
Bhagirathi & others ( Ganga Lower)
Upstream of Gomti confluence to Muzaffarnagar
Kali Sindh and others up to Confluence with Parbati
Brahmaputra Basin It is strange to see that the profile divides this huge basin into just two sub basins, when it could have easily divided into many others like: Lohit, Kameng, Siang, Subansiri, Tawang, Pare, Teesta, Manas, Sankosh, among others.
Barak & Others Basin
Barak and Others
Kynchiang & Other south flowing rivers
Naochchara & Others
Pranhita and others
Bhima Lower Sub-basin
Bhima Upper Sub-basin
Krishna Lower Sub-basin
Krishna Middle Sub-basin
Krishna Upper Sub-basin
Tungabhadra Lower Sub-basin
Tungabhadra upper Sub-basin
Subernarekha Basin No sub-basins.
Brahmani & Baitarani Basin
Mahanadi Upper Sub- basin
Mahanadi Middle Sub- basin
Mahanadi Lower Sub- basin
Pennar Upper Sub-basin
Pennar Lower Sub-basin
Mahi Upper Sub-basin
Mahi Lower Sub-basin
Sabarmati Upper Sub- basin
Sabarmati Lower Sub-basin
Narmada Upper Sub-basin
Narmada Middle Sub-basin
Narmada Lower Sub-basin
Upper Tapi Sub- Basin
Middle Tapi Sub- Basin
Lower Tapi Sub- Basin
West flowing rivers from Tapi to Tadri Basin
Bhastol & other Sub- basin
Vasisthi & other Sub- basin
West flowing rivers from Tadri to Kanyakumari Basin
Netravati and others Sub- basin
Varrar and others Sub- basin
Periyar and others Sub- basin
East flowing rivers between Mahanadi & Pennar Basin
Vamsadhara & other Sub- basin
Nagvati & other Sub- basin
East Flowing River between Godavari and Krishna Sub- basin
East flowing River between Krishna and Pennar Sub- basin
East flowing rivers between Pennar and Kanyakumari Basin
Palar and other Sub-basin
Ponnaiyar and other Sub-basin
Vaippar and other Sub-basin
Pamba and other Sub-basin
West Flowing Rivers of Kutch and Saurashtra including Luni Basin
Luni Upper Sub-basin
Luni Lower Sub-basin
Drainage of Rann Sub-basin
Bhadar and other West Flowing Rivers
Shetrunji and other East Flowing Rivers Sub-basin
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan Due to very flat terrain and non-existence of permanent drainage network, this basin has not been further sub divided.
Minor rivers draining into Myanmar and Bangladesh
Imphal and Others sub basin
Karnaphuli and Others sub basin
Mangpui Lui and Others sub basin
Muhury and Others sub basin
Narmada Basin: Some details To understand the compiled information at the basin level, we take a look at the one of the basin level reports, the Narmada Basin Report[v] (dated March 2014) as an illustrative example. An overview of the basin area right at the beginning, gives its geographical location, shape, size, topography, climate & population. This basic relevant information is tabulated in a concise table for easy access, as given below:
River information The major river flowing in the basin, the Narmada River (also called Rewa) that flows through the 3 states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra & Gujarat, its length (1333 km) and the length of its 19 major tributaries out of a total of 41 is given, based on GIS calculations. There is also a clear river network map of the Narmada basin that demarcates the 3 sub basins along with the watersheds, and shows the dams / weirs /barrages and the rivers in the basin.
Narmada Upper Sub-Basin, with 16 watersheds
Narmada Middle Sub-Basin, having 63 watersheds
Narmada Lower Sub-Basin, with 71 watersheds
The surface water bodies details include the size (less than 25 ha to more than 2500 ha) and type (Tanks, lakes, reservoirs, abandoned quarries or ponds) of existing bodies. Nearly 91.8% of these are tanks.
Irrigation Projects The water resource projects in the basin are as follows:
21 Major Irrigation Projects
23 Medium Irrigation Projects
1 ERM Project
6 Hydro-Electric Projects
Interestingly description is only of the major and medium irrigation projects, information on minor projects is completely absent. An attempt to include the details of minor irrigation projects would have made the report more useful. The reports seem to not understand the significance of the smaller projects and their importance for the people and in the conext of the River Basin too.
Water resource structures The number and type of big manmade structures in the basin is given. These are a total of 277 dams, 2 barrages, 2 weirs and 4 lifts, of which again the major structures are marked on a map, and details given as in table below. Dams are classified on the basis of storage and purpose they are used for, and the dam numbers are available at sub basin level.
The report gives tabulated data for each of the dams, which is supposed to have name of the river, height, length, purpose, year of commissioning, etc. Since GIS is the strength of ISRO, they could have easily given latitude and longitudes of each dam, but they have not. Shockingly, in case of 186 of the dams, name of the river on which it is built is given as ‘Local Nallah’, and in case of 10 they have left the column blank. This means for nearly 71% (196 out of 277) of the dams they do not even know the name of the river they are build on. This is actually an improvement over the performance of CWC. The CWC’s National Register of Large Dams[vi], we just checked, mentions Narmada only 13 times (for 12 dams of Gujarat and 1 dam of Madhya Pradesh).[vii]
It is well known that Narmada Basin is the theatre of India’s longest and most famous anti dam movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan. The movement involves opposition to Sardar Sarovar, Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Maheshwar, Jobat dams, among others. Such social aspects should also form part of any river basin report.
Surface water quality There are 19 surface water quality observation sites in the basin, that collect water data and the report spells out , “As compared to the other rivers, the quality of Narmada water is quite good. Even near the point of origin, the quality of river water was in class ‘C’ in the year 2001 while it was in class ‘B’ in earlier years. As was observed for most other rivers, in case of Narmada also, BOD and Total Coliform are critical parameters.” This shows that even in Narmada Basin, water quality is deteriorating. The statement also remains vague in absence of specifics.
Inter basin transfer links Details of the Par-Tapi-Narmada Link, which is a 401 km long gravity canal and its proposal to transfer 1,350 MCM (Million Cubic metre) of water from ‘surplus rivers’ to ‘water deficit’ areas is given, along with a map. How has the conclusion of surplus or deficit been reached? Does the assessment exhaust all the options including rainwater harvesting, watershed development, groundwater recharge, better cropping patterns and methods, demand side management, optimising use of existing infrastructure, etc? Is this is the least cost option? Does the water balance include groundwater? Who all will be affected by this or even how much land area will be affected by this proposal, there is absolutely no talk of this? No answers in the report.
There’s more to a river There is no information in basin reports on the regulating or statutory bodies that have a say in the basin in the report. However, some information on the existing organisations and inter-state agreements at the various basin level is given at another WRIS location.[viii]
The Basin reports for 20 basins are clearly an asset for understanding and analysing water resource situation. However, there is no mention of the numerous ecological, social and environmental services these rivers provide us with. The demographic details of the basin are available, but there is no information on the flora and fauna, who also need and thrive on the river waters. A good navigation tool for water resource information and river management projects at basin level, nevertheless, for a broader and more comprehensive outlook these reports should have included the following essential aspects too:
River status: The present water quality & pollution level of the major rivers as well as their tributaries
River governance: The local committees, civil bodies and institutions that play a role in river basin development
River safety measures: Effect of the existing and planned river management projects on the state of the river, people and society.
River ecology: Status of biodiversity, and other ecological aspects of the rivers
By law, rivers in India belong to the government, however, government has no particular agency that governs our rivers. Our constitution or law does not provide any direct protection to rivers. A large number of entities at centre and state level take decisions that affect our rivers but they do not even seem aware of such impacts. That the decisions and working of a large number of agencies affect the rivers is expected considering the landscape level existence of rivers and society’s wide ranging needs for water and other services provided by the rivers. But the complete neglect of the rivers is certainly not expected. More importantly, people seem to have no role in governance of our rivers! There seems to be neither an understanding nor a recognition that lives and livelihoods of so many people depend on rivers. Nor an understanding as to what is a river and what are its role in the ecosystem, in current and future well being of the society. These blindspots about our understanding of rivers get reflected in our governance of rivers.
India remains an agrarian country, and our water use practices have prioritised use of water for irrigation. Archaic water laws during the British rule looked at water as a resource to be exploited under the jurisdiction of the government. The 1873 Northern India Canal and Drainage Act, stated ‘use and control for public purposes the water of all rivers and streams flowing in natural channels’ as a right of the Government, without any credible and democratic way of deciding what is public purpose. In the same vein the Madhya Pradesh Irrigation Act of 1931 asserted direct state control over water, which find an echo even today in the Bihar Irrigation Act, of 1997 that stresses that all rights in surface water vest with the Government. In fact post colonial water governance did not see any break from the past and essentially the same paradigm prevalant during colonial times continued after independence.
Water in India, as per our constitution is a state (government) subject, and by the same logic water laws in the country too are mostly state based. Thus the state has the constitutional power to make laws, to implement & regulate water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage & hydropower. However, there is nothing in the constitution or law that shows an understanding of what is a river, what services it provides or if there is anything worth conserving in rivers. There is no legal protection for rivers in India.
Moreover as most of the rivers flow through more than one states, the rivers become cause of major interstate disputes when they are seen as sites of big dams. Smaller projects are rarely the reason for intractable interstate disputes. Unfortunately, in post-indepednence India, politicians love big dams and they are seen as most important, if not the only saleable development projects.
The centre can intervene for any interstate differences by constituting a Water Dispute Tribunal for the mediation of the water dispute, but only if invited to do so by the state government. It is within the Central Government powers to regulate and develop inter-State rivers under entry 56 of the constitution, but these powers are rarely used. Entry 56 reads: “Regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest.”
Instead many different regulatory mechanisms have been harnessed and committees formed under various ministries for water management in inter state river basins.
Let’s take a tour of the various agencies involved in governance of rivers in India.
AT THE CENTRE:
Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation
It is the apex body at the union level responsible for the country’s water resources and its functions from the river perspective are:
Rejuvenation of Ganga River and also National Ganga River Basin Authority
To resolve differences relating to inter-state rivers
To oversee implementation of inter-state projects occasionally
To manage, monitor and sanction funds for centrally funded schemes like Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Program, Command Area Development, Rehabilitation of Water Bodies, Bharat Nirman, etc.
Operation of central network for flood forecasting and warning on inter-state rivers (CWC task)
Preparation of flood control master plans for the Ganga and the Brahmaputra
Talks and negotiations on river waters with neighbouring countries
Operation of the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, Ganga Water Treaty with Bangladesh, Mahakali, Kosi, Gandak and other treaties with Nepal, Water Cooperation with Bhutan, Exchange of Data with China under MoU, etc.
There are a plethora of offices/bodies under the water resource ministry, who work under their control. These include the following:
Central Water Commission (CWC) Supposed to be a premier Technical Organization, the CWC is responsible for schemes for control, conservation and utilization of all water resources for various purposes, which includes flood control & irrigation, and overall planning& development of river basins. It also monitors the river water quality at 396 stations located in all the major river basins of India. It is also responsible for co-ordination with states for establishing River Basin Organisations , like
This gives a misleading picture that for practically every river basin there is a basin organisation. In reality, review of CWC annual reports show that there is hardly any activity of these organisations, they in any case do not work to protect the rivers.
A multidisciplinary scientific organization for the scientific & sustainable development and management of India’s ground water resources. A Central Ground Water Authority has been in 1996 through a Supreme Court order with powers under Environment Protection Act, 1986. On the face of it, CGWB and CGWA may not have any direct role in governance of rivers, the fact is they have a huge role. Firstly, destruction of rivers mean that the groundwater recharge that happens by flowing rivers would stop. CGWB and CGWA should be concerned about this, but have shown no such concern. Secondly, when there is over exploitation of groundwater, it has impact on flow of downstream rivers, particularly in lean season and in low rainfall areas.
Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS): A principal central agency that provides R&D, and deals with research, services and support pertaining to projects on water resources, energy & water borne transport including those related to rivers.
Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CMRS): It deals with field explorations, laboratory investigations and research in the field of geotechnical engineering and civil engineering materials, particularly for construction of river valley projects and safety evaluation of existing dams.
Set up in 1981-82, the main task of this organisation is to do studies related to inter-linking of rivers. In that sense, it is an anti-river organisation! An autonomous society, some of NWDA’s river related functions include to:
Carry out detailed surveys about the quantum of water that can be transferred to other basins/States
Prepare feasibility report of the various components of the scheme relating to Peninsular Rivers development and Himalayan Rivers development
Prepare detailed project report of river link proposals
Prepare pre-feasibility/feasibility report of the intra-state links
NWDA has not been confident enough to put any of its work in public domain. Some feasibility reports are out following repeated Supreme Court orders in 2002. A perusal of some of these studies shows that it has no concern for the rivers or the services provided by the rivers. It sees all water flowing to the sea as a waste! Which means rivers are a wasteful resource! In its environment impact assessments or in its cost benefit analysis there is no accounting of the services of rivers that would be destroyed if the proposed project go ahead!
National Institute of Hydrology (NIH)
A “premier” Institute in the area of hydrology and water resources, it aids, promotes & coordinates work in the field of hydrology and water resources development. However, it is not known to stand up or speak up for rivers. Its classification of rivers, as mentioned in an earlier blog, leaves a lot to be desired. The non participatory tendencies of NIH was apparent in the way it organised a workshop on Environment Flows in Oct 2013. NIH did not find it necessary to invite even the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for the workshop! NIH also parterned with CIFRI for a flawed assessment of e-flows for Teesta IV project, among other such studies.
Farakka Barrage Authority It is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Farakka Barrage Project, (FBP), which regulate the flow of water to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly through the feeder canal to maintain navigability of the Kolkata Port.
National Water Academy Earlier known as Central Training Unit, it has been established to impart in house training to water resources personnel from government organisations. Its curriculum includes watershed management, flood forecast &management, environmental management for river valley projects and workshop on River Basin Organisations.
Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) The techno-economic appraisal of irrigation, flood control and multipurpose projects proposed by the State/ Central Governments or other organisations is done by TAC of Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, for Irrigation, Flood Control and Multipurpose Projects and thereafter make appropriate recommendation. Once found acceptable by the TAC, it is recommended for investment clearance by the Planning Commission and inclusion in the Five Year Plan/Annual Plan. In the functioning of TAC, lack of transparency, participatory governance is the norm. TAC has no member from outside the government, nor does it put up its agenda or minutes of the meeings in public domain. At the initiative of SANDRP, following a letter written to the government in April 2011, minutes of some of the TAC meetings were for the first time put up in public domain, but even that has stopped since July 2012.
Interstate River Basin Boards For several Inter State Basins, Boards have been set up for co-ordination and implementation and to deal with individual basins/ projects/ interstate disputes. Some of them are listed here.
Bansagar Control Board for execution of Bansagar Dam on Sone river and connected works
Betwa River Board for the execution of the Rajghat Dam Project
Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB), which refers to the reach of Yamuna from its origin at Yamunotri to Okhla Barrage at Delhi and includes all the states in this basin.
The Brahmaputra Board: Its objective is planning & integrated implementation of measures for control of floods and bank erosion in Brahmaputra and for matters connected therewith
Narmada Control Authority (NCA): For proper implementation of the decisions & directions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. There are number of supporting statutory mechanisms: Environment Sub Group of NCA, Rehabilitation Sub Group of NCA, Review Committee of NCA and Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee.
The Tungabhadra Board: Regulates water for irrigation, hydro-power generation and other uses from the Tungabhadra reservoir
Ganga Flood Conrol Commission has been set up for specific tasks related to floods in the Ganga basin, including coordination with upstream Nepal.
Public Sector Enterprises under Union Ministry of Water Resources:
Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) Limited: Provides consultancy services in Water Resources, Power and Infrastructure Sectors. The shoddy work of WAPCOS in doing environmental impact assessment and cumulative basin level impact assessment has been repeatedly highlighted by SANDRP. WAPCOS is also involved in Water projects that India funds abroad including in Afghanistan, Bhutan, etc. During a recent visit to Bhutan, SANDRP heard similar complaints about shoddy EIAs and over charging by WAPCOS and also about Bhutan government having no option, but to give the work to WAPCOS, since India as a funder was dictating the terms.
National Projects Construction Corporation Limited (NPCC): Carries out infrastructure work and other related activities for development of the nation that includes dam construction
Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC)
The nodal agency that plans, promotes, co-ordinates and oversees the implementation of the country’s environmental & forestry policies and programmes, its primary concern is implementation of policies and programmes relating to conserve our natural resources that includes rivers.
The ministry also accords environment and forest clearance to hydropower projects and dams all over India. The Environment Clearnace is given by the ministry for hydropower projects above 50 MW and for irrigation projects with command area above 10 000 ha. For the environment appraisal of these projects, the ministry has set up Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydropower Projects. The functioning of the ministry and EAC on this score is most shoddy, inadequate, inconsistent and far from any concern for rivers. In fact if you pick up Environmental Impact Assessment of any project cleared by the EAC and the ministry, you would not find anything about the value of rivers in any of its reports.
The Forest Department (FD) under MoEF & CC governs rivers that flow through the forests. Since a huge about 23% of land of the country or about 76 million ha of land comes under this department a very large segment of India’s rivers come under the FD. However, there is no evidence of FD taking any action to protect the rivers or aquatic biodiversity. In fact we have been reading the FD proposals for diversion of forest land that come before the Forest Advisory Committee over the years and we see absolutely no concern or even recognition of the impact of such diversions on rivers or aquatic biodiversity, the FD does not even seem to acknowledge the existence of river and aquatic biodiversity.
The Wildlife Department (WLD) under MoEF & CC has powers under the Wildlife Act of 1972 to have their say whenever any activity or development project affects the aquatic life in protected areas or even flows into or out of any protected areas. However there is little evidence to show that WLD has used these powers to protect rivers, flows & aquatic life therein even as projects are well into implementation, without even taking consent of the Chief Wildlife Warden, State Board of Wildlife or National Board of Wildlife.
The MoEF & CC has been sitting for years over a proposal to notify River Regulation Zone for protection so that riverbeds and floodplains are protected.
National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) The name is misleading here, as the name suggests it works for conservation of rivers, but its only focus is pollution. So either the name is misleading or it reflects poor understanding of the government when they equate river conservation with pollution control work. It is supposed to be governed by National River Conservaion Authority, chaired by Prime Minister, but that authority has never met during the 10 years of UPA government and now almost six months of NDA government. This shows how much of a priority rivers are for the government.
Under the MoEF & CC, NRCD works for conservation of rivers, lakes and wetlands through 2 central schemes:
National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) : To improve water quality of rivers through implementation of pollution abatement schemes in identified polluted stretches of rivers
National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA): To conserve aquatic ecosystems (lakes and wetlands)
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)
A statutory organisation, under MoEF & CC, the CPCB sets standards and regulations for prevention and control of pollution. It also monitors water quality of all important water bodies located on 206 rivers of the country. CPCB, along with state pollution control boards and the whole pollution control machinery were set up following the 1974 water pollution control act. 40 years after setting up of this elaborate bureaucracy, we have not heard of a single success story where this machinery has achieved a clean river. However, there are large number of examples of its failure and the machinery being a den of corruption. The Supreme Court of India on Oct 29, 2014 said: “This is an institutional failure and your story is a complete story of failure, frustration and disaster.”
National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA)
Set up in 2009 through a notification under Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, it’s functions include development of a Ganga River Basin Management Plan, regulation of activities aimed at prevention, control and abatement of pollution, to maintain water flow and quality and to take measures relevant to the river ecology in the Ganga basin states. So far there has been absoltely no sign of impact of functioning of this authority on the Ganga. The authority met just three times during first five years of its existence and frustated independent members twice resigned. The NDA government at the centre that took office in May 2014 reconstituted it without either public process or even public information, in fact even the earlier members did not know they have been removed!
Water Quality Assessment Authority
Established under EPA 1986 in 2001, WQAA’s functions include issuing direction and taking measures on the following matters:
Investigate and carry out research on problems of water pollution
Prepare manuals, codes or guides to prevent, control and for abatement of water pollution
Direct agencies to take measures to restore water quality of the river / water bodies
Restrict water abstraction of treated sewage / trade effluent on land, rivers and other water bodies to mitigate crisis of water quality
Maintain minimum discharge for sustenance of aquatic life forms in riverine system
Utilize self-assimilation capacities at the critical river stretches to minimise cost of effluent treatment
Review the status of quality of national water resources (both surface water & ground water) and identify “Hot Spots” for taking necessary actions
It is amazing that more than 13 years after constitution of WQAA, we see no sign of its functioning either on the state of our rivers or in governance of our rivers.
Ministry of Power
MoP is primarily responsible for the development of electrical energy in the country and all matters relating to hydro-electric power (except small/mini/micro hydel projects of and below 25 MW capacity). It also deals with matters relating to these agencies:
Central Electricity Authority
CEA accords techno economic clearance to hydropower projects under Electricity Act 2003. The Section 8(2) of the Act states, “The (Central Electricity) Authority shall, before concurring in any (hydropower) scheme submitted to it under sub-section (1) have particular regard to, whether or not in its opinion,- (a) the proposed river-works will prejudice the prospects for the best ultimate development of the river or its tributaries for power generation, consistent with the requirements of drinking water, irrigation, navigation, flood-control, or other public purposes, and for this purpose the Authority shall satisfy itself, after consultation with the State Government, the Central Government, or such other agencies as it may deem appropriate, that an adequate study has been made of the optimum location of dams and other river-works”. (Emphasis added.)
This provision could have been used for the protection of rivers, since it requires the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) to give concurrence to hydro projects only after satisfying that the proposal is optimum with respect to all other uses of the rivers. Unfortunately, as the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) found out through applications under the Right to Information Act, while giving concurrence to hydropower schemes under this Act, the CEA consults only two organisations, namely the Geological Society of India (GSI) and the Central Water Commission (CWC). GSI and CWC evaluate the scheme from specific parameters of geology and hydrology, but do not look at basin wide issues as required under the Act. The CEA itself is not capable of ensuring basin wide optimisation that the Act requires, nor does it consult the concerned stakeholders. Thus the Act is not being followed.
The Damodar Valley Corporation
The Bhakra Beas Management Board (except matters relating to irrigation)
National Thermal Power Corporation Limited
National Hydro-electric Power Corporation Limited
North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited
Tehri Hydro Development Corporation
Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.
Power Grid Corporation of India Limited
Power Finance Corporation Limited
Centra and state electricity regulatory commissions
All of these authorities, involved in sanctioning, developing, regulating, financing and operating hydropower projects have direct impact on rivers.
Ministry of Agriculture (MoA)
Agriculture remains the biggest user of water in India. MoA is the apex body for formulation and administration of the rules,regulations and laws relating to agriculture in India, it’s portfolio also includes research on matters relating to irrigation, flood control, anti-water-logging, drainage, soil and water conservation, watershed development and anti-erosion.
This department under MoA also looks at Riverine fisheries on which more than 10 million Indians depend directly. The Department or corresponding State Fisheries Departments in respective states have absolutely no interest in welfare of rivers, despite the fact that damming and pollution is directly affecting fish yield. We looked at the way how Maharashtra Fisheries Department functions vis a vis rivers and Riverine Fisheries and we were clearly told that rivers are not a part of their jurisdiction!
Department of Agriculture And Cooperation
It focuses on sustaining the current momentum by stabilizing food grain production to ensure food security. Its water related agenda includes increased availability of irrigation water leading to increase in the irrigated area, farm productivity and crop production.
Soil and Land Use Survey of India (SLUSI), a pivotal organisation under it carries out survey and soil conservation activities for catchment of river valley projects & flood prone rivers for demarcation of watersheds.
Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE)
It coordinates and promotes agricultural research and education.
Ministry of Rural Development
Though this nodal Ministry is mainly responsible for most of the development and welfare activities in the rural areas, water supply & sanitation schemes involve the rivers as a water source or affects rivers directly or indirectly. In some areas, projects involve rivers, as in the case of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) in Madhya Pradesh, which was to revive a river in Khargone district, and increase surface flows.
Ministry of Urban Development
The apex body for formulation and administration of the rules and regulations and laws relating to the housing and urban development, of which urban water supply & sanitation is an essential division. Increasingly, Urban areas are dependent for its water sources on rivers from farther and farther areas and they are invariably dumping mostly untreated sewage and even solid waste into the nearby rivers without any impunity. Urban areas are also destroying the water bodies in the cities and encroaching on the floodplains and even riverbeds.
National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI)
NEERI conducts research and innovations in environmental science and engineering to help find solutions to environmental pollution and natural resource problems. It has 5 zonal laboratories at Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. NEERI is also into the Environmental Impact Assessment business and some of the EIAs it has done of hydropoer projects are pretty shoddy.
State Level Agencies
As per India’s constitution, water remains a state subject and hence state governmnet role in the fate of rivers is also very crucial. At each state level, the involved agencies related to Rivers include the following :
Environment Department: Responsibility includes environment protection, pollution monitoring, control abatement and awareness. The department is also involved in regulating and sanctioning hydropower projects of 25-50 MW capacity and also smaller irrigation projects through State Environment Impact Assessment Agency and State Environment Appraisal Agency.
State Pollution Control Boards
SPCBs have been set up in all states under the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974. At the State level, this board is responsible for implementation of legislations relating to prevention & control of environmental pollution, and conservation of natural resources. The SPCBs are also required to give consent to establish and consent to operate for all the major projects, including dams and hydropower projects. They also conduct public hearings required under the EIA notification of Sept 2006. As mentioned earlier, we do not see a success story in functioning of any SPCB in either achieving a clean river or protection of rivers.
Water Resources (or Irrigation) Department: Aim is to regulate water resources within the State (e.g. Department of Irrigation, Government of Punjab) as per State Water Policy and to facilitate & ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilization of water resources. Some special state level agencies include the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority. Besides these, there are Irrigation Development Corporations, to accelerate the completion of irrigation projects in Maharashtra State. Such corporations have been set up in a number of states including Karnataka, Gujarat, among others.
Power Department: Responsible for generation, transmission, distribution and despatching of electric power supply, including hydropower, for example Energy & Power Department of Sikkim and Power & Electricity Department, Mizoram. Some states have also set up state level corporations for hydropower development (e.g. Himachal Pradesh Power Development Corporation).
Judiciary, Media, Religion, Civil Society & Society at large All these agencies also have a big role in deciding the fate of our rivers and need to play that role effectively. Unfortunately, considering the state of our rivers, we can conclude that inspite of some notable exceptions in case of all these, in general, we have not succeedded in protecting our rivers.
As far as role of political parties & leaders are concerned, we do not seem to have even any positive exceptions in terms of achieving better state of our rivers.
Some rare bright lights in this scenario, apart from community efforts at coordination, communication and governance include the WRIS (Water Resources Information System of India), a joint venture between MoWR and ISRO. The site is indeed a useful reference for information about many basins in the country (although the claimed focus is on “Water Resources” and not rivers!). It also includes Watershed Atlas, River Basin Atlas of the country and individual basin profiles which look comprehensive.
In Conclusion: Rivers are more than just a water source We have a complex network of river systems in the country. The myriad government agencies listed here majorly affect rivers, and a close co ordination and involvement between these institutions is essential to implement any river policy or project to ensure continued existence and sustenance of rivers. River management and their judicious use encompasses a whole lot of diverse characteristics and these fall under the jurisdiction of many of the above mentioned agencies, who need to work in a together in a cohesive manner. The river governance need to be democratic and communities should have a key role in informed, participatory decision making. This is certainly possible if there is a will.
Even though humans have built homes and civilisations along river banks since time immemorial, and water has been vital for life and growth, used for drinking, irrigation, transportation and energy sources, our society and governance system seem to have failed to understand the true value of our rivers. Today, these rivers that are our lifeline seem to be more often misused than used.
The fact that a large number of entities are involved in governing the fate of the rivers should not be such a problem as long as each of them is aware that their decisions are affecting the fate of the rivers and that they are involved in governing the rivers. The second major problem is that there are no river specific, legally empowered coordinating agency that will ensure that rivers continue to survive and exist in a healthy state. In effect, while the government has monoploy over rivers, it is not bothered to ensure continued and healthy existence for rivers.
We may have created these techno legal frameworks for our short sighted priorities, but what would be a first step of help for rivers is recognition of rivers, its services, need for their continued and sustained existence and legal protection for the same. A legally empowered and participatory coordination mechanism that is willing to understand and speak from the rivers perspective, for each river could also help. An agency that will understand and appreciate rivers, rather than see it as a simple linear source of water, power or transport system.
Even though the new NDA govt at the centre since May 2014 has claimed that river rejuvenation is its priority, we see that the government so far has only indulged in tokenism and symbolism. On the contrary, in terms of deeds a large of their actions are against the interest of sustained existence of rivers.
Who has not seen a river? And who has then, not been moved by a fierce emotion? The common man sees its life granting blessed form, the government or CWC engineer sees in it as a potential dam project, the hydropower developers a site for hydro project, a farmer his crop vitality, fisher folk, boatspeople and river bed cultivators a source of livelihood, the industry & urban water utilities view it as their personal waste basket, the real estate developer as a potential land grab site, a sand miner as a source of sand and the distraught villager his lifeline. In earlier days, film makers used to see it as site for filming some memorable songs, but these days even that has become a rarity.
Rivers truly are a complex entity that invoke varied emotions and responses!
A river shifts in colour, shape, size, flow pattern of water, silt, nutrients and biota, in fact all its variables seem to change with time and space. The perceptions differ as one moves from mountains to plains to the deltas. The same stream displays a wide variance of characteristics that depend upon the land it flows through and the micro climate along its banks. Rivers many a times seem to mirror the local flavour of the land they flow through. Or is it the local flavour that changes with river flow? Clearly both are interdependent.
Today, as we talk of rivers, their rejuvenation and try to figure out their ecological flow and their health quotient , a good beginning to understand the existing rivers would be their classification modules. What defines a river? Which factors are used for their classification? How do we actually classify our rivers?
As far as the first of these questions is concerned, none of the official agencies have tried to define a river!
Possiby, the first post independence classification of river basins was attempted in 1949 by precuser institute of current Central Water Commission (CWC). Since then various organisations have followed their own methodology and criteria for basin classification and arrived at different numbers.
NIH (National Institute of Hydrology), Roorkee organises our 7 major rivers, that is the Brahmaputra (apparently this includes the Ganga and the Meghna), Godavri, Krishna & Mahanadi (that flow into the Bay of Bengal), and the Indus, Narmada & Tapi (which drain into the Arabian Sea) , along with their tributaries to make up the entire river system in our country. This is clearly problematic and chaotic, since it leaves out vast areas of the country and the rivers that flow through them.
A quick look at the classification based on these 3 aspects –origin, topography and the basin they form.
Based on Origin or Source
Depending on the origin or where they begin their journey from, there are the Himalayan (perennial) rivers that rise from the Himalayas and the Peninsular rivers that originate from the Indian plateau. The Himalayan rivers include the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra river systems along with their tributaries, which are fed throughout the year by melting ice and rainfall. They are swift, have great erosion capacity and carry huge amounts of silt & sand. They meander along the flat land, create large fertile flood plains in their wake and their banks are dotted by major towns and cities.
The peninsular rivers, on the other hand are more or less dependent on rain. These are gentler in their flow, follow a relatively straighter path, have comparatively less gradient and include Narmada, Tapi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauveri and Mahanadi rivers, among many others.
Based on topography
The Himalayan Rivers flow throughout the year, are prone to flooding and include Indus and the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna.
The Deccan Rivers include the Narmada and Tapi rivers that flow westwards into the Arabian Sea, and the Brahmani, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar & Cauvery that fall into the Bay of Bengal.
The Coastal Rivers are comparatively small in size and numerous in number, with nearly 600 flowing on the west coast itself.
Rivers of the Inland Drainage Basin are centered in western Rajasthan, parts of Kutch in Gujarat and mostly disappear before they reach the sea as the rainfall here is scarce. Some of them drain into salt lakes or simply get lost in the vast desert sands.
Island Rivers Rivers of our islands: A&N islands & Lakshadip group of islands
The Narmada River System comprises of the Narmada River that represents the traditional boundary between North & South India and which empties into the Arabian Sea in Bharuch district of Gujarat. Tapi river of the Tapi River System rises in the eastern Satpura Range of Madhya Pradesh and then empties into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, Gujarat. Its major tributaries are Purna, Girna , Panzara , Waghur , Bori and Aner rivers.
Also called the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga, Godavari of the Godavari River System, originates at Trambakeshwar, Maharashtra and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Summers find the river dry, while monsoons widen the river course. Its major tributaries include Indravati, Pranahita, Manjira, Bindusara and Sabari rivers.
The Krishna River System includes Krishna river, one of the longest rivers of the country,that originates at Mahabaleswar, Maharashtra, and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi, Andhra Pradesh. Tungabhadra River, formed by Tunga and Bhadra rivers, is one of its principal tributary. Others are Koyna, Bhima, Mallaprabha, Ghataprabha, Yerla, Warna, Dindi, Musi and Dudhganga rivers.
The Kaveri River System has the Kaveri (or Cauvery) river whose source is Talakaveri in the Western Ghats and it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It has many tributaries including Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Amaravati. The Mahanadi of the Mahanadi River System, a river of eastern India rises in the Satpura Range and flows east into the Bay of Bengal.
Broader definition: Catchment area size
River basins are widely recognized as a practical hydrological unit. And these can also be grouped, based on the size of their catchment areas (CA). This easy to understand river system classification divides them into the following categories as tabulated below:
CA in sq km
No. of river basins
CA in million sq. Km
% Run off
Major river basin
CA > 20,000
Minor (Coastal areas)
Flow is uncertain & most lost in desert
Major river basins include the perennial Himalayan rivers- Indus, Ganga & Brahmaputra, the 7 river systems of central India, the Sabarmati, the Mahi, Narmada & Tapi on the west coast and the Subarnekha, Brahmani & the Mahanadi on the east coast and the 4 river basins of Godavri, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery, which takes the total to 14. The medium river basins include 23 east flowing rivers such as Baitarni, Matai & Palar. A few important west flowing rivers are Shetrunji, Bhadra, Vaitarna & Kalinadi. The minor river basins include the numerous, but essentially small streams that flow in the coastal areas. In the East coast, the land width between the sea and the mountains is about 100 km, while in the West coast, it ranges between 10 to 40 km. The desert rivers flow for a distance and then disappear in the desert of Rajasthan or Rann of Kutch, generally without meeting the sea.
A need for details
Under India-WRIS (Water Resources Information System) project too, the river basin has been taken as the basic hydrological unit, but the country has been divided into 6 water resource regions, 25 basins and 101 sub basins, which are an extension of the earlier 20 basins delineated by CWC, as detailed in the ‘River basin Atlas of India’.  The details of the individual catchment area of these 20 river basins is tabulated here:
CA (Sq. Km)
River Length, km
Indus (Upto border)
Barak & others
Brahmani & Baitarni
West flowing rivers from Tapi to Tadri
Many independent rivers
West flowing rivers from Tadri to Kanyakumari
East flowing rivers Between Mahanadi & pennar
East flowing rivers Between Pennar & Kanyakumari
W flowing rivers of Kutch & Saurashtra includes Luni
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan
Many independent rivers
Minor rivers draining into Myanmar & Bangladesh
Many independent rivers
Note: 1. River Length is only for the main stem of the river, does not include tributaries, etc.
Area of inland drainage in Rajasthan is not given in this reference, it has been arrived at by inference.
Indus basin is constibuted by six main rivers: Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum and Indus itself. Some tributaries of this system form independent catchment in India (e.g. Tawi river in Chenab basin) as these confluence with the main river only in downstream of the border.
Of course these methods only classify rivers based on their physical & geographical attributes, their drainage area, river length, volume of water carried and tributary details. For a detailed study of a river, what is also needed is its ecological assessment. The methods for river classification may be varied and still evolving, but this information is fundamental to better understand and map the rivers that criss cross across the country.
And definitely a first step to try and understand our rivers!