Dams · Fish

Sushri Uma Bhartiji: Hilsa, Fisherfolk and Ganga deserve more than promise of a Fish Ladder by CIFRI!

On the 3rd of August 2016, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Sushri Uma Bharti ji made some interesting remarks in her answer to a question about impact of Ganga Waterways Project on Biodiversity (Please see SANDRP’s detailed report on the same issue here). Her brief speech can be seen here: https://youtu.be/ohEOMfay71I

Courtesy: Asianetnews.tv

Unfortunately, while she talked at length about pollution issues, Delhi Government’s non-cooperation with the Center, etc, she had nothing substantial to say about the impact of dredging, water traffic, etc., on more than 1000 kilometers of Ganga flowing through several protected areas and fish habitats.

Having said that, Sushri Umaji raised some very important points about the Farakka Barrage. The Barrage was commissioned in 1975 across the Ganga River in West Bengal just before it enters Bangladesh  and its impact on Hilsa Fisheries on which, in her own words, “Lakhs and Lakhs of fisherfolk depended”. She is not far from truth. (SANDRP’s report on Collapsing Hilsa Fisheries here.)

She further said that health of Ganga should not be tested only in labs, but Ganga’s biodiversity should be a living scale to gauge the success of Ganga Rejuvenation. Again, a very good thought.

From here on, she declared with much happiness that a Fish Ladder will be installed at the Farakka Barrage to facilitate upstream and downstream movement of Hilsa Fish. Hilsa, like the Salmon is an anadromous migrant which means that it comes up from the sea upriver to breed and returns to the sea after its breeding is complete. As has been documented for decades, the major obstacle of Farakka Barrage single-handedly destroyed a thriving fishing industry in West Bengal, Bihar and even further upstream in India and majorly so in downstream Bangladesh.

Sushri Umaji said that the Ministry has been working with Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) and has initiated a project called Aqualife with CIFRI which will specifically look at the well being of aquatic biodiversity in the Ganga. She added that three locations have been finalised for this.

Fish Ladder at the Farakka Barrage will also be set up with the help of CIFRI to help Hilsa and “Lakhs and Lakhs of Fisherfolk” right till Chambal, she promised.

This is a rare occasion when a Minister has agreed openly that a Dam killed a rich and thriving fishery. Indeed, Farakka’s impact on fisherfolk in multiple states in India as well as in downstream Bangladesh has been disastrous. Recently Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has openly called for the review of usefulness of Farakka Barrage as it has “more disadvantages than advantages”. (See details here)

As per Sushri Umaji’s announcement, MoWR will be partnering with CIFRI for setting up a fish ladder.

Among the many questions this raises, some key ones are: can CIFRI be a useful partner in this? Does it have the credibility? Or confidence inspiring track record? Can a fish ladder help Hilsa Fisheries at Farakka? 

Is the Hon. Minister aware that Farakka Barrage already has a Fish Lock, about which CIFRI has full knowledge, but even after being in the same state and having a dedicated Lab on Hilsa, CIFRI has not tried to work on this existing Fish Lock or Farakka Barrage.

I have visited CIFRI and Farakka Barrage (in November 2014) to understand exactly the same issues. A brief snapshot from the visit pertaining to Hilsa is presented below. CIFRI is a Premier Institute under the ICAR for conservation and propagation of freshwater fisheries in India. It is headquartered in Barrackpore, West Bengal.

It is clear that if CIFRI wanted to, it could have worked on the already existing Fish Lock (not ladder, but Lock) on Farakka Barrage since long. The institute had also set up a Hilsa Hatchery at Farakka, but despite being in the same state and despite decline of Hilsa being such a Major tragic issue and despite it being entirely CIFRI’s mandate, the Institute did not do anything about it.

I had specifically talked with the Director, CIFRI, requesting the organisation to take necessary steps to conserve inland and riverine fish species, be more proactive in the meetings of MoEF and CC’s Expert Appraisal committee which recommends Environmental Clearance to Dams and Hydropower Projects and had also mentioned the fate of Hilsa and Farakka Barrage. I was met with totally disappointing response.

In addition, CIFRI has also been conducting highly compromised and poor quality studies on Environmental Flows for rivers, basically catering to Hydropower Lobby, rather than working to protect riverine fisheries, which is its mandate. One of its study was so poor (done for the 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydroelectric Project in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh) that the Hon. National Green Tribunal asked the Developer to redo the study. From all this it is clear that CIFRI has neither confidence inspiring track record nor credibility. 

Can the same organisation which took no interest either in Hilsa or in Farakka Fish Lock or Environmental Flows, be entrusted with the responsibility of setting up a Fish Ladder at Farakka?

On Farakka and Hilsa: “There is 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. 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 or anywhere else!

Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot
Discussions about Hilsa and Farakka Barrage with the Fishermen at Farakka Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

Prior to comHilsamissioning 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. This story of injustice to the riverine fisherfolk is of course common to all dams and hydropower projects. 

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 life cycle.

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 Project (FBP) 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.

Farakka Barrage Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

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 Project Authority or the MoWR or the CWC or the Kolkata Port Trust or Inland Waterways Authority of India compensate them? Who will hold CIFRI accountable for this fisheries disaster?

Dejected Fisherman upstream Farakka Barrage. He says Hilsa is nearly wiped out from here and there is intense conflict for the meager catch. Photo: Author

According to Dr. P.K. Parua ( past Superintending Engineer of Farakka ), 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 wide 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.


Further in her speech Sushri Umaji made some shockingly wrong remarks about “Dolphins being blinded by pollution in Ganga” or her aim of introducing “Dolphins with eyes”. Gangetic Dolphins have poor, nearly no eyesight and it is their ecological niche, not an impact of pollution. Its is sad to see the Minister so ill informed about these issues. However, the Minister can always polish her knowledge about Ganga and her creatures, but the fish may not have time enough for CIFRI to make one more unsuccessful attempt at setting up a ladder.

For Aviral Flow of Ganga and reinstating Hilsa Fisheries, a more honest, comprehensive, people centric and accountable approach is needed. There is none today.


We request Sushri Uma Bharti ji to look at issues of Farakka Barrage through a more holistic, comprehensive, honest lens. Other than providing some water to Kolkata and some irrigation (which were in any case not the core objectives of Farakka Barrage and for which other options can be explored), the Barrage has failed in most of its other roles: be it sustaining navigability of the Kolkata Port or stopping salt water or silt intrusion or facilitating navigation, etc. On the other hand, its adverse impacts could be seen in multiple states in India as well as in Bangladesh. Chief Minister of Bihar himself has questioned the usefulness of the Barrage. During a debate in Parliament on Ganga during UPA II, some Bihar MPs in fact advocated need to decommission the barrage.

In this situation, we request Sushri Umaji not to rely on agencies like CIFRI with no credible track record or promise fish ladder  when it has not been successful anywhere. In stead, we suggest that the Union Minister should Commission an independent review of the usefulness of the Farakka Barrage, as suggested by Bihar Chief Minister. The review can explore all options including:

  • Explore the feasibility of various options for achieving environment flow and achieve upstream downstream connectivity options. This could involve change in operational parameters of the Farakka barrage.
  • Explore the possibility of partial operational decommissioning of Farakka Barrage, maintaining the railway line and highway on the Barrage, but opening most of its gates. This will ease a number of issues like silt retention and resultant floods in the upstream and severe erosion related problems in the downstream, while solving the Hilsa migration issue.
  • Explore the possibility of complete structural decommissioning of Farakka Barrage, in consultation with Experts and communities from West Bengal, Port Trust of India, Kolkata Municipal Corporation, etc.
  • Involve a multidisciplinary team of experts to provide suggestions about Hilsa Migration and design of the fish ladder. Team can include organisations and experts like Suneel Chaudhary from Bhagalpur University, WWF, WII, etc.
  • Involve international experts in designing the fish lock or ladder and train the barrage operating staff in operating the locks or monitoring the ladders.

We are sure that simply putting up a Fish Ladder, without assessing the experience and usefulness of the barrage wont help.

We hope that the Hon Minister sees merit in the suggestions above.

Parineeta Dandekar (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com), SANDRP

One thought on “Sushri Uma Bhartiji: Hilsa, Fisherfolk and Ganga deserve more than promise of a Fish Ladder by CIFRI!

  1. Thanks for such a beautiful article.I have heard Umaji’s speech in LS in U tube.But your detail analysis deserve commendation.


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