Guest Blog by Nachiket Kelkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
When human beings fall into manholes or die in traffic accidents on a highway they are all over the news. We pity and fear such news, and feel sad for the deceased, just because the whole event is so unfortunate. We are angered by the condition of traffic – that continues to remain appalling despite having six-lane highways that look deceptively magnificent. We wonder if these cases could have been avoided. It is therefore even more disturbing that not a single news item has covered a series of major accidents that have happened right in the middle of the Ganga River National ‘Waterway’ (India’s National Waterway No. 1; see Dams, Rivers & People: Feb-March 2016 issue: p. 1-7, 2016 for details[i]) in the last six months.
Over twenty people have died by drowning at the Barari Ghat (Image 1) at Bhagalpur in Bihar in this period. Offering prayers, taking dips, or lunging in for a calm swim, these people have slipped away as their feet have lost the ground all of a sudden. The river, scouring off the silt from under the concrete, has been catapulting their bodies into the deepening abyss on the fringes of the ghats. Many bodies have not even been found. Family members of many, whose bodies were found, must have never suspected that they would have to carry back their kin’s corpses. What made the same Barari Ghat, which people traditionally visited for years, so dangerous suddenly?
Image 1. Barari Ghat at Bhagalpur, November 2015. Photo: Vikramshila Biodiversity Research & Education Centre (VBREC), Bhagalpur, Bihar.
It is for the first time that Bhagalpur’s people are seeing signboards shouting ‘khatarnaak ghat’ and ‘ati-khatarnaak ghat’ (dangerous and extremely dangerous ghats) displayed by the river. Inflatable boats of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) are patrolling the river occasionally. Local fisher folk said that around 20th November 2015, at around the same time when dredging was continuing in the river, and large ships were routinely plying, 5 bathers/ pilgrims died at the Barari ghat when they accidentally slipped off into the river. Our research team (the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre, a civil society organization) saw the NDRF teams searching the area in the inflatables for 2 days, in vain. Finally, the fishers discovered 3 bloated bodies at Rajandipur 4-5 km downriver. In February 2016, villagers reported two more deaths within a few days that followed dredging at Bhagalpur. In March 2016, after a week of intensive maintenance dredging by the Inland Waterways Authority of India, seven people were reported missing or dead from Bhagalpur Ghat, according to Bage Lal Mahaldar, a fisherman from the adjacent Barari village who fishes in the river every day. A few other stray reports from nearby ghats took the tally to over 20 in six months. This is likely a conservative estimate, at best. After hearing these reports, our research team decided to identify what likely mechanisms related to dredging would have caused these sudden accidents. Maybe people had just been careless? Or snakes bit them? Maybe they were killed elsewhere and thrown in the river by armed dacoits who brutally rule the diara region (floodplain) with their signature violence. But multiple evidences indicated otherwise. Bage Lal explained that the river channel close to the ghats where people bathe had deepened a little too much after dredging – and the people who got taken away must have entered this deep chute inadvertently. We had been conducting boat-based depth-profiles of this channel periodically to estimate flow volume, that data also indicated something unexpected.
Image 2. Dredging going on near Kahalgaon (note the rocky islands and NTPC towers in the background) in Bhagalpur district, Bihar. Photo taken on 15th March 2016, by Subhasis Dey (VBREC).
Before going into the details, it is important to first describe what dredging was trying to do. Dredging involves removing bottom sediment from the river mid-channel at locations where vessels do not have the LAD (Least Available Depth, usually greater than 3 m) to ply through. Owing both to the natural variability in flow pattern (e.g. accretion near river bends) and the existing flow volume available in the river (after abstractions upstream), the depths might be shallow at some sections in the channel. So the dredger machines, working like large bulldozers, have to scrape out the bottom sediment, typically in bouts that last 3 to 4 hours at each section (Image 2). After being extracted, the dredged sediment needs to be flown down the river from the mid-channel, and it eventually gets deposited downstream at some location where the flow is low.
For our depth profile, we recorded river depth along predetermined transects (cross-sections of the river) using a hand-held acoustic depth sounder from a rowing boat. After a dense grid of measurement points was obtained, these were interpolated using geo-statistical methods, and a depth surface generated. The grid encompassed areas around the ghats, and about 1 km upstream and downstream of the locations used by the bathers. We also recorded depths in the dredged area and area immediately downstream of that. These measurements were systematically conducted in November 2015 (start of dredging) and March 2016 (peak intensity of dredging). We found that the river depth had reduced in the mid-channel, but increased at the river edge, i.e. at the ghat, creating a rapidly flowing and deep channel of water flow very close to the locations used by people regularly at the ghats (Image 3). In normal circumstances (without dredging), depths should have reduced throughout the cross-section, so that the river depth mid-channel should have still been greater than near the banks. We inferred that the sediment flown down by the dredging operation must have been deposited in the mid-channel as a plug, in turn forcing water to carve out its path along the ghat edge. This appeared to have created the danger zone (Image 3) where the unsuspecting pilgrims had slipped and been dragged away in the current.
Image 3. The change in river depth in a period of 4 months (November 2015 to March 2016) is mapped. The location chosen for depth mapping was exactly below the intensively dredged channel area. Darker blue shades indicate an increase in depth, and pale blue shades shows the shallowing of the river channel. A deep-water danger zone has formed right beside the Barari Ghat (see explanation in text above).
Could these tragedies have been avoided? Perhaps yes. In fact, dredging was not supposed to be happening in the Ganga River throughout this period. Taking into its review the adverse ecological effects of dredging, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had stayed all dredging in the Ganga River National Waterway No. 1 to which the Inland Waterways Authority of India had assured compliance (responding to NGT order dated 17.2.2016). Yet, the ground reality is that dredging has nonetheless continued to date. Not just at Bhagalpur, but we have regularly been observing dredging at Munger, Bariyarpur, and Kahalgaon as well, throughout this period. This just points out the indifference and contempt that the waterways authorities seem to be displaying even to judicial orders.
The effect of dredging has made itself felt in an unprecedented manner this season – even as it is just the beginning of works for the inland waterways development program. This effect has been over and above the already poor river flow in the 2015-16 dry season. And it is not that the effects of dredging will go away if there is more water – but having historically low flows certainly worsens the impacts multiple times. Although an above-average flood is expected in this year’s monsoons, how much water will actually reach and stay in the lower Ganga basin is another matter. Irrigation demands and groundwater extraction in the upstream remain insatiable, there is no attempt to optimize or regulate that. Bridges are planned or being built on the Ganga River at Sultanganj, Bhagalpur (a second bridge) and Bateshwar Sthan. During the construction phase of these bridges, upstream dams do not release much water flow down in the river, to reduce on-site risks from flow surges. This has further aggravated the poor dry-season flow already available. Fishers have been dealing with one of the lowest fish catch seasons in recent years – and are now desperately waiting, nay, longing – for the monsoons to arrive. By even scraping off what remains of river flow, dredging is further endangering the lives and livelihoods of local people who have anyway been never included in any public consultations regarding waterways development plans.
Waterways may seem carbon-friendly when seen superficially, but does the ordinary villager who goes to the Ganga River everyday for meeting his/her livelihood needs really care about that? Conversely, does the waterways authority care about these people? Do they know the impacts that dredging might be having on them and the deaths that are happening? Given what is happening at Bhagalpur today, it is worth asking what the purpose of the waterways exercise is if the current conditions are leading to deaths, loss of livelihoods and risking human lives. How is it that whatever social or ecological assessments have taken place (if any), have not taken into account such direct impacts? It is worth demanding urgent answers to all these questions. If not, what is the grounding of these assessments in realities, and what is their credibility in that case? It is worth asking if the government is planning to solve the problem of the proverbial low roof by cutting its peoples’ heads off.
Tomorrow, if such disastrous dredging is continued and encouraged without adequate human and ecological safeguards and democratic decision making processes, there will be more people who will get wrung into paying mounting costs with their lives and livelihoods. People might at least be able to talk, to demand safety from those involved in dredging-to-death, the Ganga River. But there are other denizens of the river and the river itself who will never be able to do that. From their preferred feeding areas near the Barari Ghat, where on any occasion 15-20 Ganges River dolphins would be easily found on any day until last year, just 5 animals remain today – and that too about two kilometres away from the site – after the last few months have seen the already parched river being further dredged. If people are dying now, river dolphins have perhaps already died from this place. But this too need not shock or affect us: it is quite obvious that there can be no life in a river that is being killed everyday.
Nachiket Kelkar (email@example.com)
PS: Earlier blogs by the author on this subject: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/digging-our-rivers-graves/