Dams · Free flowing rivers · Wild and Scenic Rivers Act

The Singing River: Story of America’s Largest Free-flowing river

As we approached a bridge on the rumbling green river, I concentrated all my senses to my ears. After all, we were about to cross the Singing River. Legend has it that a low humming sounds rise from the Pascagoula River[i], heard only by a few. Poignant stories of love and loss are interwoven into the sounds of the river. Continue reading “The Singing River: Story of America’s Largest Free-flowing river”

Dams · Free flowing rivers · International Water Issues

Mississippi and the Singing River

Mississippi is a phenomenon. A large body of water flowing down a slope towards the sea is perceived as so many disparate things by different people at different times and places.

Some say that if you want to understand the continent, you have to understand this river. Some say this is no river, it is an Ocean. Some say its a Strong Brown God. Continue reading “Mississippi and the Singing River”

Dams · Environmental Flow · Fish Sanctuaries · Free flowing rivers · Ganga · Inland Waterways · Interlinking of RIvers · Karnataka · Kerala

Riverine Fisherfolk as Mascots of flowing rivers and how 4 projects treat them today

When I was documenting a tiny, free-flowing river in Maharashtra Western Ghats named Shastri, the common thread from headwaters to estuary was Fishing! It was everywhere, in all forms, including dozens of fish species and fishing practices, including everyone: men, women, children, otters, crocs, storks. Across the country, buzzing, diversified fisheries with old, complex narratives indicate a rich river. And the palette just gets more vivid, nuanced and colorful with the size of the river.

More than 10 million Indians from some of the most vulnerable groups depend on rivers for their livelihood and nutritional needs. This staggering number can be an underestimate as several riverine fisherfolk do not bring their produce to the market and our livelihood census hardly captures the intricacies of riverine fisheries sector. Despite the huge dependence and critical importance of riverine fisheries, the sector continues being ignored and abused. The reasons behind the exploitation are at the heart of a deeper, more troubling discourse: ownership and appropriation of the river as a natural resource. Continue reading “Riverine Fisherfolk as Mascots of flowing rivers and how 4 projects treat them today”

Dams · Free flowing rivers

अनुपम मिश्र जी का अंतिम वक्तव्यः नदियों को बचाने का अर्थ है समाज को बचाना

अत्यधिक दुखःद समाचार है कि अनुपम मिश्र जी नहीं रहे।  19 दिसंबर 2016 को प्रातः 05:27 पर दिल्ली के एम्स अस्पताल में  उनका देहांत हो गया।

पानी के मुद्दों और भारत की नदियों पर स्पष्ट विचारों वाले, सरल किंतु प्रभावशाली भाषाशैली के धनी, अत्यंत उदार और विनम्र अनुपम जी समान व्यक्तित्व दुर्लभ है।  जैसा रवि चोपड़ा जी ने कहा है वे सही में अनुपम थे।

अनुपम जी भारतीय नदी सप्ताह 2016 के आयोजन समिति के अध्यक्ष थे और वर्ष 2014 भगीरथी प्रयास सम्मान चुनाव समिति के सदस्य थे और वर्ष 2015 में इस समिति के अध्यक्ष बने।

खराब स्वास्थ्य के बावजूद वे भारतीय नदी सप्ताह की आयोजन समिति की बैठकों में वे लगातार उपस्थित रहें, अंतिम बार सितंबर 2016 की बैठक में वे मौजूद थे और भारतीय नदी सप्ताह 28 नवंबर 2016 के शुभांरभ के समय भी वे उपस्थित  रहे , जहॉ पर हमेशा की तरह उन्होने अपना सरल, स्पष्ट किंतु मर्मस्पर्शी व्याख्यान दिया। वे शाररिक रूप से थके और कमजोर थे , इस सबके बावजूद वे आए जो पर्यावरण के प्रति उनके समर्पण की मिसाल है।

व्यक्तिगत तौर पर वे मेरे (हिमांशु ठक्कर) प्रति बहुत उदार थे और मुझे हमेशा प्रेरित करते रहते थे। हमने कभी भी नहीं सोचा था कि एक दिन हमें उनसे अलग होना पडेगा। उनके चले जाने से देश और पर्यावरण को हुई क्षति की भरपाई नामुमकिन है। परंतु उनकी प्रकृति शिक्षा और अनुभव उनके द्वारा रचित स्पष्ट, सरल और सारंगर्भित लेखों और पुस्तकों के माध्यम से हमेशा हमारा मार्गदर्शन करती रहेंगी।

किताबों के समान उनके व्याख्यान भी ज्ञान और अनुभव से भरे हुए प्ररेणास्रोत है। उनके दिखाए मार्ग पर आगे बढ़ते रहने के लिए, दुख की घड़ी में हम, उनके द्वारा भारतीय नदी दिवस (28-30 नवंबर 2016) में दिए गए उनके अंतिम व्याख्यान को, उन्हें श्रृद्धांजलि के तौर पर अर्पित करते हुए, आपके साथ सांझा कर रहे हैं ।

Continue reading “अनुपम मिश्र जी का अंतिम वक्तव्यः नदियों को बचाने का अर्थ है समाज को बचाना”

Dams · Free flowing rivers

Collapsing Hilsa: Economic, ecological and cultural impact of dams

Above: Hilsa fishers in Bangladesh setting out for their journey Photo: with thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

In addition to the Gangetic Fisheries Primer, SANDRP will shortly publish a Primer documenting the Impacts of dams on Riverine Fish and Fisher Communities. One of the most profound impacts of dams on fish is blocking migration routes and perhaps no other fish symbolizes this impact as dramatically as the Hilsa: the Silver Queen of the River.

Glimpses of the impacts of dams on Hilsa in South Asia.


Arguably, Hilsa is not just a tasty and healthy fish species that migrates from the sea up the river to spawn. It is a cultural icon that binds Bengalis, whether from West Bengal or Bangladesh, together in their shared love for Ilish Machch. Pohela Baishakh or the new year day’s meal is not complete without Ilish. Though Hilsa is celebrated fervently by the Bengalis, it is prized in all estuaries of South Asia, from Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari, Cauvery to Indus and Irrawaddy and takes the name of  Chaski, Palva, Ilishii, Palla, Pulasa, etc. It is also found at confluence of Tigris and Euprates in Iran, where it is as prized and known as Sbour. The fish flavours several poems, folklore, songs and phraseologies of the entire South Asia. In cultural terms, the significance of Hilsa is comparable only to Salmon and Mahseer.

Ilish on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr
Ilish fish and rice, a religious offering and cultural fare on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr

Tenualosa ilisha, Hilsa or Indian Shad belongs to the sub family Alosinae of Family Clupeidae. Commercially, it is the most important fisheries in the estuaries, especially in the Ganga-Hooghly region.It occurs in marine, estuarine and riverine environments and is found in Indus of Pakistan, Irrawaddy of Myanmar and Indian rivers like Ganga, Bhagirathi, Hooghly, Rupanarayan, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada, Cauvery, Tapti, coastal rivers like Padma, Jamuna, Meghana, Karnafuly and others in Bangladesh. It is seen to migrate up smaller estuaries like Pennar too.

Hilsa, by habitat, is a marine fish but migrates in estuaries and rivers for spawning, normally inhabiting the lower region of the estuaries and the foreshore areas of the sea. Hilsa ascends the rivers for spawning and the spent fish and their progeny migrate down the river towards lower estuaries and coastal areas, moving in shoals. The peak upstream migration of Hilsa in most of the rivers of the country is generally in the monsoons months of July and August and continues upto October or November. The spring spawners that enter the river for spawning in January-March return to the sea during July-August when these are caught in good numbers. The monsoon spawners that enter the river during September- October return to the sea after spawning and these spent fishes are caught in good numbers during January- March. Similarly, the off springs of spring-spawners make journey for the sea from the river during November- January, whereas the off springs of monsoon spawners return to the sea from the river during July- September. (Bhaumik et al, CIFRI, 2012)

Obstruction to undertaking this spawning migration by dams and barrages has been singled out as the primary reasons for the fall of Hilsa fisheries in India as well as Bangladesh. The trade of this commercially important fish species constitutes upto 1.5% of Bangaldesh’s National Gross Domestic Product and about 2 million fishers are estimated to depend on Hilsa fisheries in Gangetic estuaries. Till August 2014, Bangladesh has stopped Hilsa exports to India to contain astronomic price rises in Bangladesh as the costs of the fish are becoming uncontainable due to its cultural importance on one hand and dwindling supply on the other. India has requested Bangladesh to lift the ban of Hilsa export, but it is yet to relent, due to a number of socio-political reasons. [2]

Fishers setting off for Hilsa from Bnagladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao
Fishers setting off for Hilsa from the Bangladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

One of the main reasons for the phenomenal fall of Hilsa in Gangetic delta has been the Farakka Barrage built by India in the 1970’s, just a few kilometers upstream the India –Bangladesh border, to divert water from Ganga into the Hooghly river, to keep the Kolkata Port at the mouth of Hooghly, free of sediments.

Prior to commissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and Delhi covering a distance of about 1400 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar, near Allahabad, 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[3] single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.

Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI

An obligatory Fish lock provided in Farakka Barrage is non-functional and tagging experiments reveal that Hilsa cannot move across the barrage due to obstruction of three-tire sluice gates.[4] For more on how Farakka has failed its objective and continues to impact livelihoods: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/lessons-from-farakka-as-we-plan-more-barrages-on-ganga/

Fishers who live off the Ganges strongly feel the pressure of dams, personified by Farakka. In north India, ‘Farakka’ –the word doesn’t mean a village on the Bangladesh border anymore, but means destruction by dams. The local Hindi dialects have borrowed new phraseology: “Farakka hua, tabse hilsa toh bas bhabis” (Farakka happened, and then Hilsa exist only in imagined future)”. The same phrase repeats up to the Yamuna River! In a recent status survey of Gangetic fisheries almost 75-80% of fishers singled out ‘Farakka’ as the root cause of all their miseries. They actually referred to multiple barrages built on the respective rivers. But destruction had a common name: Farakka.[5]

Bangladesh has been making several serious attempts to revive Hilsa fisheries and implements a strict fishing ban in certain months to avoid fishing “jatkas” or small Hilsa. It has also declared several Hilsa Sanctuaries to protect the fish and is witnessing small and steady improvements in the population. India has hardly taken any steps to protect this specie. IUCN has led a program called Ecosystems for Life: A Bangladesh-India Initiative and Hilsa fisheries is a part of this project. There is also a Norwegian project on Hilsa Aquaculture [7] ( All prior efforts of Hilsa Aquaculture have failed). However, the primary need to address the giant problem of the Farakka Barrage is being unaddressed. The barrage and reduced freshwater in the downstream is also exacerbating other stressors like sedimentation of the river mouth, high fishing pressure on limited stocks, concentrated pollution, etc.

Hilsa in other Rivers (would taste as sweet!) Hilsa is found not only in Ganges delta but most of the estuaries in India. In all of these places, Hilsa fishery is primarily affected by dams and barrages near the estuaries, blocking spawning migration and reducing freshwater from upstream.

Hilsa in Cauvery: A century of impacts In Tamizh, Hilsa caught at Sea is Kadal Ullam and the one in the River is the Aattu Ullam. Here, the impact of Mettur dam on valuable Hilsa fisheries in the Cauvery has been recorded as early as 1939 in an issue of Current Science, where it is stated: “Unfortunately the effect of the dam (Mettur on Cauvery) on the fisheries below was disastrous. The number of valuable Indian Shad or Hilsa, the most important sea fish ascending the Cauvery for breeding purposes, declined as the high floods which enabled them to ascend the rive no longer occur. The serious decline of fisheries in Cauvery would be evident from the fact that the fishery rental of the river below the dam which used to amount to 80000 Rs. annually has steadily declined since the formation of the dam to about 42,900 rupees.”[8] Puntius species also disappeared in Cauvery post dam, which formed 28% of the landings prior to dam construction.[9]

As per the Report “Fishing the Cauvery: How Mettur Changed it all,” by Ramya Swayamprakash published by SANDRP[10], It was Sir Aruthur Cotton himself, way back in 1867 who alerted the erstwhile government about the damages wrought by weirs on river fisheries. Immediately, Dr. Francis Day was commissioned to investigate the impact on fisheries and subsequently appointed Inspector-General of Fisheries in India. In his report on the fisheries of India and Burma, Day condemned dams as insurmountable barriers to fish passage; he designed a fish passage which was on the Lower Anicut on the Kollidam. The pass was primarily designed for the Hilsa who could not ascend it, as it was too wide. According to the Madras Fisheries department in 1909, the fish pass did not ensure Hilsa migration because of various practical and technical difficulties; in the first place, the expenses for the construction of a fish pass were not commensurate with the expected results and secondly, sufficient water could not be provided for the efficient working of the pass. Interestingly, Hilsa was sought to be cultivated and exported along the lines of the Salmon in north-western United States. So important was the Hilsa that a stuffed specimen made its way into the exhibits sent to the Great Exhibition from the Bombay Presidency, in 1851!

Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Hilsa is unknown on the Cauvery. According to fish biologists, the Hilsa ascended the anicuts on the Cauvery up to Mettur to spawn overcoming the low anicuts. But the coming of the Mettur Dam formed an impassable barrier.

Hilsa in Godavari is known as Pulasa when caught i the river and Vilasa when caught n the sea!  Here too, the fish is declining and main reasons are said to be declining water levels and the Dowleswaram Barrage [11] (Arthur Cotton Barrage). In Andhra villages too Pulasa has a huge cultural significance.

This author made a presentation to the Standing Committee of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament in June 2012 about the impacts of dam on riverine fish and discussed Hilsa, when an MP from Coastal Godavari district in  Andhra Pradesh said, “I know Pulasa! My constituency depends on riverine fisheries like Pulasa, and not marine fisheries, but we end up talking only about marine fish and not river fish and Pulasa and the impacts of upstream projects on livelihoods of river fishers”

Pulasa/ Hilsa of teh Godavari Photo: The Hindu
Pulasa/ Hilsa of the Godavari Photo: The Hindu

In Mahanadi, Orissa, Hilsa has been hit by dams and is recording a declining trend[12]. Paradip recorded about 500 tonnes Hilsa, but prices have increased astronomically.[13]

Hilsa in Narmada, Sardar Sarovar and the proposed Bhadbhut Barrage The narrative of damming the Narmada by the Narmada Valley Projects is one of the most significant stories of an on-going struggle against modifying a river and way of life of her people. Although there are many facets to the story ranging from displacement, false benefits and true costs, forest loss, non-existent rehabilitation and an all-pervasive insensitivity of the government towards weaker communities, the impacts of this project on riverine fisheries have been equally profound. Narmada River system experienced a nearly 70% decline in Hilsa catches in just a decade between 1993 to 2004 ( From 15319 t to 4866 t  ) and this decline was prominently recorded from 1998-99 onwards.[14] As per CIFRI, the most stressed species after Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) construction is the Hilsa and Macrobrachium prawn (Jumbo River Prawn). CIFRI made some prediction about impacts of the dam after 35 years, calling it a ‘critical period’ when fisheries will be nearly lost. Shockingly, these conditions are already being witnessed in Narmada Estuary in Bharuch which records nearly 30%  Inland Fish production. More than 12,000 people from 21 villages in Bharuch alone depend on Narmada Estuary for fisheries.

Assessment of impact of commissioning of Sardar Sarovar dam and other projects in 2009 by CIFRI revealed that SSP will retain 96% of the sediment, adversely affecting biological productivity of the downstream including Narmada estuary.[17] However, already the Sardar Sarovar and upstream dams in Narmada Basin have already resulted in retention of about 95% sediment, cutting off the delta from nutrient rich silt.  Historical  sediment  discharge  of  Narmada  was  61  million  tonnes  and  the  current sediment  discharge  (average  of  last  ten  years  of  the  study)  was  found  to  be  3.23  million  tonnes.[18]

According to CIFRI, “While the annual inflow is 23.68 MAF (1981-1990), it will be reduced to 15.9 MAF after 10th year of SSP, to 4.34 MAF at the 30th year and will cease at the 45th year. This freshwater decline will severely affect Hilsa fishery and prestigious fishery contributed by M rosenbergii (Jumbo River Prawn)”. As freshwater declines, there will be “Steep hike in salinity regime with tidal ingress. Fishery not tuned to such enhanced salinity will succumb to such pressure. Mangroves will also be affected and this will impact marine fish production as Mangroves are nurseries of many marine fish.”

Gujarat Government has agreed to release 600 cusecs water from Sardar Sarovar and Bhadbhut Barrage as environmental flows. There is no study as to whether this amount is sufficient for estuarine balance, for ecological needs of Hilsa or other species, for spawning migration, etc. Also, there is no guarantee that Gujarat will release this meagre quantity. Ironically, the minimum flows of 600 cusecs agreed to be released by Gujarat through SSP come to 532. 9 Million Cubic Metre (MCM) water annually and CIFRI’s warning of a sharp fisheries decline at 30th year was for 4.34 MAF or 5353.4 MCM! So, 532.9 MCM released now as minimum flows is barely 10% of a dire scenario predicted at 30th year of commissioning SSP[i]!

It is hardly a wonder that Hilsa is falling sharply in Narmada Estuary and fishers are directly blaming the Sardar Sarovar for this decline.[19]

Last Straw for Narmada Hilsa: Bhadbhut Barrage: Gujarat Government is planning to build Bhadbhut Barrage about 17 kms from Bharuch, directly affecting the Narmada estuary and the Hilsa and Prawn fishery. The Barrage is planned for SEZ and also water sports and is a part of an infeasible scheme known as the Kalpasar project which plans to dam almost all rivers as they meet the Gulf of Khambat.

Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: "The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people"
Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: “The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people”

The Bhadbhut Barrage is being fiercely opposed by fishers in Bharuch because of its serious impacts on their livelihoods and Hilsa fisheries. Public Hearing of Bhadbhut Barrage was held in July 2013, wherein the fisher community staged a walk out, stressing that the EIA had under-reported Hilsa fisheries in the region, number of fishers and their dependence on the Estuary for fish. The walkout took place immediately after Pravin Tandel, the fisherfolks’ local leader, spoke saying the project would “adversely affect the fish catch, especially Hilsa, once it is implemented. Currently, Hisla fetches Rs 1,200 per kg, and is our main source of livelihood.”[20]

Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org
Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org

Hilsa in the Indus: In the Indus too, Hilsa fisheries, known as Palla are the main stay of local fisher communities. Hilsa fish is a highly contested territory due to declining catches.

Before the construction of the Sukkur Barrage, the Palla used to reach to Multan as per records of 1907. The Sukkur Barrage and then later the Kotri Barrage severely restricted Palla’s range, affecting the fish and its fishers. According to M. R. Quereshi, ex-Director of Marine Fisheries Department of Pakistan, the Palla used to ascend the river (Indus) to spawn in the middle of June but its ascent is now delayed by at least one month owing to late freshets. Kotri Barrage near Hyderabad has severely restricted its breeding range. Like the Cauvery, in Kotri too the fish ladders do not work due to faulty designs and Hilsa is unable to ascend them, consequently prevented from going up to the upper reaches of the river. As a result the Hilsa fishery is being depleted and immediate action is imperative to increase its production. “Failing this, the fish will eventually disappear from the river.”

Palla fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK
Palla/Hilsa fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK

To conclude, the fate of this silvery fish hangs in a fine balance. Not only does the Hilsa enjoy huge cultural significance, it also supports millions of livelihoods. In the United States, several dams, like the recent Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha, have been decommissioned for their impacts on migrating fish and dependent communities. Elwha river dams came down in a biggest decommissioning effort because the indigenous Klallam tribe asserted its rights on traditional Salmon fisheries which were blocked by these dams. In Japan too, Arase Dam was decommissioned because of its impact on Ayu fish and fishers.

What has happened in India to the Hilsa fish and fishers is far more serious.

Hilsa has a striking ecological, economic and cultural significance. Till date, ranching or farming of Hilsa has not worked. Till date, fisher communities continue to face conflicts, hardships and risks, go deeper and deeper in the sea to gather a few Hilsa. Till date, dam operations have not changed, nor have the fish passes been designed, built, operated or monitored to help the fish.  Till date, none of the fisher communities who suffered colossal losses when a dam affected Hilsa, have been compensated for their loss.

Is it not time to rethink these dams, to help the fish and our fishers?

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

Hilsa as a sacred offereing Photo from Flickr, with thanks to the contributor
Hilsa as a sacred offering Photo from Flickr, with thanks to Arup Kanjilal


[1] Dugan, 2008, Quoted in FAO Report No. 7, Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture for food security and nutrition, 2014

[2]  Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to share the Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the neighbouring country has imposed a ban on export of the silver-scaled fish.

[3] Ghosh, 1976 quoted in Review of the biology and fisheries of Hilsa, Upper Bengal Estuary, FAO, 1985

[4] Bhaumik and Sharma, Present status of Hilsa in the Hooghly Bhagirathi River, CIFRI, 2012

[5] Nachiket Kelkar, Thirsty Rivers, Bygone Fishes, Hungry Societies, Dams Rivers and People, December 2012 https://sandrp.in/rivers/Thirsty_Rivers_Bygone_Fishes_Hungry_Societies_Nachiket_Kelkar_Dec2012.pdf

[6] Pathak et al, Riverirne Ecology and Fisheries, vis a vis hydrodynamic alterations: Impacts and Remedial measures, CIFRI, 2010

[7] http://www.nofima.no/filearchive/Rapport%2002-2013.pdf

[8] B. Sundara Raj, The Mettur Dam Fisheries, Current Science, October 1939

[9] Sugunan, Reservoir Fisheries of India, FAO, 1995

[10]  Ramya Swayamprakash, Fishing the Cauvery, How Mettur changed it all, SANDRP, June 2014

[11] http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/pricey-pulasa-is-now-everyones-favourite/article6235820.ece

[12] A Raisd,On Mahseer of Hirakud, Fishing Chime, August 2005 http://www.fishingchimes.com/onmah.htm

[13] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Is-Hilsa-fish-on-its-way-out/articleshow/21932621.cms


[15] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[16] EIA of Bhadbhut Barrage by NEERI, 2013

[17] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[18] Gupta et al, quoted in Dandekar, Thakkar, Shrinking and Sinking Deltas: Major role of Dams in delta subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise, SANDRP, 2014 https://sandrp.in/Shrinking_and_sinking_delta_major_role_of_Dams_May_2014.pdf

[19] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-08/news/33100832_1_hilsa-catch-utpal-bhaumik-hilsa-prices

[20] http://www.counterview.net/2013/07/fisherfolk-walk-of-out-public-hearing.html

[i] While we do not know the schedule through which Gujarat Government plans to release this water, the fact remains that this figure of 600 cusecs is not supported by any studies.

Free flowing rivers · Ganga · Ministry of Environment and Forests · Ministry of Water Resources · Uttarakhand

Will this Ganga manthan help the River?

Uma Bharti at GM

The one day Ganga Manthan[1] organized by the National Mission for Clean Ganga on July 7, 2014 was described by Union Minister[2] Sushri Uma Bharti & Union Minister[3] Shri Nitin Gadkari as “Historical”. The Union Environment Minister, who has one of the most crucial role in achieving a rejuvenated Ganga, was supposed to be there, but could not come at any stage.

I attended the full day meeting with a lingering question: Will this help the river? Even some of the ardent skeptics said that Uma ji has emotional, spiritual and religious attachment with the cause of Ganga.

At the conclave attended by close to a thousand people, the story of how Ms. Bharti came back to the BJP party about a year back to work for the cause of Ganga, and how she was promised a year back that if their party came to power, Ganga will get a separate ministry and she its charge was narrated repeatedly by both Ms Bharti and Mr Gadkari at least twice. It was also stated that the government has the commitment, the will & all the money to make the Ganga clean (Nirmal) and perennial (aviral). There were  also repeated statements by both ministers about the officials being so committed to the cause of Ganga. These, in essence, were the basic positive assets of this government to achieve Ganga Rejuvenation.

While it was good to see large gathering involving various sections of the society, including many independent non government voices, missing were some key stakeholders: Ganga basin state governments, farmers groups, Ministry of Urban Development, fisher-folk groups, boats-people representatives. Another key constituency missing was Ministry of Agriculture, since agriculture is major user of water & irrigation and responsible for water diversion and at the same time major non point source polluter through use of chemicals and fertilizers.

Rejuvenation does not mean just nirmal and aviral But if the task is Rejuvenation of River Ganga, are these assets sufficient? What exactly does Rejuvenation of River Ganga mean? There were no answers to this question at the meeting. The government did not even seem bothered about these questions. Are Nirmal and Aviral Ganga sufficient objectives to achieve Rejuvenation of Ganga? The answer is clearly no, for, even a pipleline or canal carrying perennial flow of water can claim that distinction. A rejuvenated river will need much more than that, but the government has nothing else to offer for a rejuvenated river.

Even for Aviral Ganga, the government had absolutely nothing to offer. In the information package shared with the participants, the only thing relevant to Aviral Ganga was the extended summary of draft “Ganga River Basin Management Plan” being prepared by consortium of seven IITs in collaboration with some 11 other organisations. This is led by Dr Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur. While standing with Dr Tare and Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh at the lunch, I said, the problem with Ganga is not of technology[4], but of governance. Despite being a proud IITian myself, I have no hesitation in saying that IITs do not have expertise in governance issues, so how can the IIT Consortium help in fix a governance problem? Having read the full Draft Plan of the IIT consortium, it only further strengthens the view that it was wrong decision of Jairam Ramesh to give this task to IIT Consortium.

Agenda for further destruction As a matter of fact, while this government has yet to take a step that will truly help rejuvenation of Ganga, they have declared their agenda that will possibly further destroy the river. This was clear on June 6, 2014, within ten days of new government taking over when a PIB press release[5] announced, “Shri Gadkari said it is proposed to conduct dredging to provide a width of 45 meters and for a three (3) meters draft (depth) to enable transport of passengers and goods between Varanasi and Hoogly on river Ganga in the first stage of its development and eleven terminals are proposed to be constructed along the banks. He said barrages are proposed to be constructed at every 100 Kms.” This was a shocking and arrogant announcement. There is nothing in public domain about this Rs 6000 crores plan, no details as to what exactly is planned, where the barrages are planned, why are they needed, what are their environmental impacts, what are the social impacts, what are the riverine impacts, what is the cost and benefits, who will pay the costs and who will reap the benefits, where is public consultation….there is absolutely nothing in public domain and here is a nine day old government declaring such massive plan! By July 7, 2014, the PIB Press Release declared that the depth will now by 5 meters and not three announced earlier. The PIB PR now said, “He (Mr Gadkari) said barrages are proposed to be constructed at every 100 Kms on the river. Shri Gadkari said his Ministry has sent a proposal in this regard to World Bank for the development of Allahabad- Haldia corridor.”

The minister possibly does not know that there is just one barrage on the Allahabad-Haldia 1500 km long stretch, namely the Farakka barrage and Bangladesh had threatened India to take the matter about building this barrage to the UN! Moreover, that barrage, everyone accepts, has not even achieved the basic objective it was supposed to achieve, namely navigability of Kolkata port, but has had many other severe impacts.

Nitin Gadkari at GM

At Ganga Manthan, Mr Gadkari dropped a bombshell[6] when he said this plan is already in advanced stage of appraisal with the World Bank! He said the government hopes to get Rs 4000 crores from the World Bank!! The World Bank has zero track record in achieving any clean river anywhere in the world, after spending billions of dollars every year. In India itself it stands guilty of destroying many rivers. A more inauspicious start to the Ganga Manthan possibly could not have been possible. At the Ganga Manthan itself, there was opposition to this plan, as The Hindu[7] has reported.But Ms Uma Bharti finds nothing amiss about this as was clear by her answers at the press conference. But what about at least some semblance of participatory democracy?

Business as usual at NMCG and NGBRA will not help In reality, this is not all. While this Manthan for Ganga Rejuvenation is happening, the NMCG and NGBRA[8] (National Ganga River Basin Authority) go on with their work in business as usual fashion. So in Varanasi, the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam is going about its task of floating and examining the bids for five-part sewer laying and Sewage Treatment Plants with the help of JICA money. In Kanpur, the effort to divert several streams to Pandu is going on. In Allahabad, “the draft final ESAMP sewerage works for sewerage districts” A & C could be found on the NGBRA website. In Patna, the World Bank is funding the sewerage projects of Pahari in Patna & river front development and the draft social and environmental impact assessments could be found on NGBRA website. All of this (except the Varanasi packages, which are funded by Japanese aid agency) is going on under USD 1 Billion World Bank Funded NBGRA project.

So the business as usual that is going on for 40 years is now going to help rejuvenate Ganga!

The NMCG announced that the Manthan, a “National Dialogue on Ganga”, was supposed “to facilitate interaction with various stakeholders”, “to discuss the issues & solutions to the task of Ganga Rejuvenation”, “to prepare road map for preparation of a comprehensive plan”. The website said the Ganga is “holiest of Rivers”, “purifier of mortal beings” & “living godess”, but now “seriously polluted” and in “extreme environmental stress”.

Where is the dialogue? However, the way the meeting was organized, there was essentially no dialogue. After the inaugural plenary session, the participants were divided among four groups: 1. spiritual leaders, 2. environmentalists, NGOs, water conservationists, 3. scientists, academicians and technocrats, and administrators; 4. public representatives.

I went to the second group and there, when someone pointedly asked, if there is any representative of the government present, there was no response! In fact it was positively shocking that the first panel member that spoke in this group was Dr Arun Kumar of AHEC (Alternate Hydro Energy Centre) whose work on Ganga basin cumulative impact assessment is so discredited that even the official agencies like the Expert Appraisal Committee of MoEF, the Inter-ministerial Group on Ganga, the Expert Body appointed by the Supreme Court after the June 2013 flood disaster and the Supreme Court itself has criticized it or found it unreliable. NMCG has discredited itself by appointing such a person to give an overview of achievement of Ganga Action Plans.

GM stage

Ms Bharti apologized in the beginning for hurriedly-called meeting. But the least she could have ensured was a credible process that will ensure that the officials have to show application of mind to the various suggestions received and conduct of the meeting in credible and confidence inspiring way. But the meeting did not inspire confidence that there will be any credible process that will ensure that there is application of mind to the various inputs given. Many of the participants did not have any opportunity to speak.

Recommendations for the government on Ganga

1. Make an honest effort to learn from the past. Why have the efforts of last 40 years since the passage of Water Pollution Act 1974 not helped Ganga? Similarly why did the GAP I, NRCP, GAP II, NGBRA not helped make the Ganga clean (nirmal) or perennial (aviral)?

2. Understand & recognise that Ganga is a river and what are the essential characteristics of a Ganga that it needs to rejuvenate it as a river. At Ganga Manthan, in post lunch session in the room where the fourth group for public representatives was sitting, I was sitting next to an official of Ministry of Water Resources and I casually asked him does the ministry of water resources understand what is a river? He first said yes, but when I said you are only dealing with water and nowhere in your work have we seen any value for rivers, he said ok, but we can do it in collaboration with MoEF. The trouble is, even MoEF does not understand rivers. [It was also strange to see in this session Mr Madhav Chitale (former Water Resources Secretary) describing Tennessee Valley Authority of 1933 as an effort to clean the river! Such misrepresentation going unchallenged was shocking.] It should be remembered that it is this ministry of water resources through which Sushri Uma Bharti has to achieve a rejuvenated Ganga!

3. Ganga is not 2525 km long river: We kept hearing this sentence that Ganga is 2525 km length of river and Mr Bhurelal in fact said we need to limit ourselves to discussing how to make this stretch clean. The trouble is, if the tributaries are not healthy rivers, how can the main stem of Ganga be rejuvenated? As Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan said, Ganga is not 2525 km, but much more than 25000 km including all the tributaries, as Yamuna is not 1400 km long but 13470 km long including all the tributaries.

4. Ganga in Mountains: Learn the lessons from Uttarakhand disaster, that affected the headwaters of the Ganga river. The Expert body constituted by the MoEF under Dr Ravi Chopra has a lot to say there. Revisit all the existing, under construction and planned projects in the whole basin.

5. Farakka barrage: It is well known that the barrage did not serve the basic purpose it was created for, namely making the Kolkata port navigable. But it has created such havoc in upstream and downstream for millions of people that some of the Bihar MPs of previous Lok Sabhas talked about decommissioning of the barrage in the debate on Ganga. But this government wants to make many more barrages! First do a post facto assessment of the Farakka barrage and its current costs, benefits and risks.

6. Formulate an Urban Water Policy: The footprint of the urban areas on the rivers is increasing in multiple ways, but we have no urban water policy. Some key elements that such a policy will include: Reducing transmission & Distribution losses, water audit from RWA upwards, Rainwater harvesting, decentralised and eco-friendly ways of sewage treatment and recycle, groundwater recharge and bottom up management, demand side management, protection of local water bodies, protection of riverbeds, floodplains and forest areas & democratisation of the Urban water utilities.  As the working report for the 12th Five Year Plan on Urban water said, no Urban areas should be allowed to have external water till they exhaust their local potential, including recycling of the treated  sewage and other demand side and supply side options. The footprint of the urban areas will increase exponentially if we do not urgently on this front.

7. Agriculture is the biggest user of water and our government encourages use of chemicals and pesticides in agriculture. Most of these chemicals end up in water bodies including rivers. If we do not want our rivers to be dumping grounds for these chemicals, the government should encourage organic farming. Similarly, in stead of encouraging water intensive cropping patterns and methods, government needs to encourage low water use crops and methods like System of Rice Intensification (SRI). SRI is applicable for many crops and can reduce water need by upto 50% and yet increase yields and incomes of farmers. But the government has shown no interest in encouraging SRI. Such methods can free up a lot of water for the river. Similarly, under the influence of powerful sugar lobby, we are producing more sugarcane and sugar than we need and than we are exporting the same at subsidized rates! So essentially we are exporting water at huge subsidized rates, that too from Ganga, but we have no water for the river!

8. Irrigation is the biggest user of water. At Bhimgoda, Bijnor and Narora barrages, we are diverting almost all the water in the river for irrigation. But we have no water for the river. If we change our water resources development and agriculture policies, it is possible to restrict these diversions to 50% and release the rest for the river. We need to review all this.

9. The IIT consortium report is seriously flawed and is not likely to help the river.

10. We need to define the path of the riverbed or right of way for the river, based on its need to carry 100 year flood and silt. In absence of such a defined space for the river, there are a lot of encroachments. There is also no river regulation law to regulate this riverways land. This is urgently required.

11. Our Pollution Control Boards and related mechanism is not known to have achieved a single clean river or nala in 40 years of their existence, anywhere in the country. This is because of the completely non transparent, unaccountable, non participatory and exclusive bodies, where people whose lives are affected by the pollution have no role. A complete revamp of this is required to make its management inclusive from block level upwards, and answerable to the local people through clearly defined management system.

12. One of the major reason for the failure of the GAP, NRCP and NGBRA is that their functioning is top down, with absolutely no clearly defined norms for transparency, accountability, participation and inclusive management. Unless we completely change this, no amount of money, no amount of technology, no amount of infrastructure or institutions is going to help the Ganga. We need management system for every STP, every freshwater plant, every city and town, every 3-5 km of the river, every tributary and so on. At least 50% members of the management committees for each of them should be from outside the government, including community members. The people whose lives and livelihoods depend on river including fisherfolk, boatspeople, river bed cultivators, local sand miners, communities depending on river for different water needs have to be represented in such management system. That will also create an ownership in river rejuvenation effort. This is also applicable to urban areas and all the tributaries.

13. This is also true for our environmental governance of dams, hydropower projects, flood control projects, water supply projects, and so on. Today there is no credible environmental management at planning, appraisal, construction, operation or decommissioning stage.

14. River of course needs water. Urgently. Chart out a road map to achieve 50% of freshwater releases from all dams and barrages in two years. Also no sewage water or effluents entering the river in two years.

In the concluding plenary, after listening to the reports from four groups (there were a lot of positive and useful suggestions there), Ms Uma Bharti and Mr Gadkari said that they won’t make any announcement today but they will ensure that the good suggestions that have come will be given to the decision-makers who will create a road map. This is very vague and unconvincing process with no credible transparency. The least the ministers could have assured is a confidence-inspiring process that would transparently ensure that the decision makers have applied their minds to the suggestions. But even that was not promised.

Despite this seemingly gloomy outcome, considering that the NMCG has invited[9] suggestions even after the meeting, I am going to send this blog link to them and wait for their response! Ganga definitely needs a lot of sewa from all of us if the river is to have any better future.

Himanshu Thakkar (ht.sandrp@gmail.com)


[1] For details, see: http://www.gangamanthan.in/

[2] Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation

[3] Union Minister of Road Transport & Highways, Shipping, Rural Development, Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water & Sanitation

[4] It’s worth noting here that Mr Gadkari seems to have abiding faith in technology, he said that this is an age of technology and there are technological solutions for all problems! This possibly shows where we are heading!

[5] Title: “Development of River Ganga for Tourism, Transport and to make it Environment Friendly”

[6] PIB PR on July 7, 2014; http://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/ganga-clean-up-may-cost-rs-80-000-crore-114070700889_1.html

[7] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/plan-for-navigation-in-ganga-basin-questioned/article6187510.ece

[8] http://moef.nic.in/sites/default/files/ngrba/index.html

[9] NMCG would welcome any further suggestions, ideas, write-up etc from all interested person through email: info@gangamanthan.in

[10] Also the views of NGBRA expert member B D Tripathi that also questions Dr Vinod Tare and IIT consortium report on Ganga: http://www.thenewsminute.com/technologies/72

http://www.thenewsminute.com/technologies/71: Ganga clean up more about governance than technology: Himanshu Thakkar

http://www.thenewsminute.com/technologies/70: Experts flay Uma Bharti’s Ganga Manthan clean up plan

Free flowing rivers · Hydropeaking · Hydropower

“If its peaking, its not an ROR!” Interview with Dr. Thomas Hardy, IAHR and Texas State University

At the 10th International Symposium on Ecohydraulics in Trondheim, Norway in June 2014, SANDRP talked with Dr. Thomas Hardy, Past President of the Ecohydraulics Section of the International Association for Hydro-Environment Engineering and Research (IAHR), and The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment Endowed Professor in Environmental Flows at Texas State University.

Dr. Hardy holds advanced degrees (MS and PhD) in both aquatic ecology and civil engineer and has been at the forefront globally, for linking issues related to hydraulics and hydropower with ecosystems. Here he talks about issues like state-of-art mitigation measures being put to use across the world for mitigating impacts of hydropower, evolution of Ecohydraulics and the dangers of “Putting dams at the wrong place”

We see some significant mitigation measures, some of which include decommissioning, for addressing impacts of hydropower coming from over the world. How did this system evolve? What was the role of various actors and did this happen suo motto from the companies?

Since the last two decades, we have recognized the environmental consequences of hydropower. The cost benefits analyses of many projects is getting skewed, we have been witnessing the ecological costs of many of such projects are exceeding their economic benefits. For example, in the 5 dams in a cascade on the Klamath River, the economic value of the salmon fisheries being destroyed was more than the hydropower benefits from the dams. A lot of mitigation measures have come from countries like Norway and countries like US have also seen them, and we are always keeping our eyes open for better solutions.

Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from : http://blog.oregonlive.com/)
Fish Ladder at John Day Dam (from : http://blog.oregonlive.com/)

While it’s accepted that there will be impacts of any intervention, we need to be honest about the scale of the impacts and who pays the price for these impacts.

About the suo motto role of companies, unfortunately, I have not seen very many companies adopting better environmental standards by themselves without consistent pressures and constant monitoring from people and the government. A lot of credit to increased performance of hydropower mitigation measures goes to NGOs, civil society groups, indigenous communities and the citizens themselves for raising these issues with the companies as well as governments to adopt better standards for their rivers. The advent of social media continues to help a lot to this end.

In the US, a lot of changes were also driven by aboriginal communities who protected their fishing rights or riverine ecosystems. For example in the Klamath River, the aboriginal tribes upheld their traditional fishing rights of salmon which were affected by the dams. This led to not only changes in dam operation, but a spurt of work on fish ladders, passes, eflows and decommissioning. Having said that, we have also committed some massive mistakes, the cost of which have been great. The mitigation measures we are trying to put in now are very costly. Making wise decisions about siting dams and including mitigation measures at the level of designing itself is not only effective, but its also comparatively cheaper. In that sense, it is encouraging to see China being more concerned about the impacts of its hydropower on the environment.

From: http://stopwintufraud.blogspot.in/
From: http://stopwintufraud.blogspot.in/

It is claimed that Run of the River projects are environmentally better than storage type HEPs. There are some such projects which undertake massive peaking. How can the impacts of massive scale of hydro-peaking be mitigated?

Firstly, if its peaking, its not an ROR. [1]An ROR by definition cannot store water and cannot change the hydrographs of a river on a timescale. If it’s doing that, it’s not an ROR and should not be labelled as such. Period. If anyone is doing that, I would question their motives in being less than truthful. It’s also a matter of wrong green labels to these projects. So we need to remember that RORs do not change the downstream hydrograph and hence cannot peak.

How about the contention that ramping up and down reduces peaking capabilities of the project?

Well, there is no free lunch. There is a cost to doing business, cost of doing good business, and only this will keep it running in the long term. No one would deny that all developmental activities entail environmental costs, but we to understand the range of environmental and social costs, put them on table and then take a wise decision, taking everyone on board.

As for ramping rates affecting peaking operations, power demands do not fluctuate hugely from established patterns on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis and the companies have a pretty good forecast idea of the range of demand. Based on this, if the peaking is supposedly for 3 hours, up ramping can be started an hour earlier, so that we get the benefits of 3 hours peaking. Same goes for down ramping, you need to coordinate it that way. Of course this will mean some change of efficiency, but like I said, there is no free lunch and surely government and companies are concerned about safety of their people downstream these projects.

Safety concerns of peaking opeartions, apart from the ecological concerns, are very important to consider. In case of  the Milner Dam on the Snake River in the US, I actually had a group of students and fishermen stand and then wade in a river and we then worked on the releases from the dam which gave sufficient time for these people to get out of the river. There is no option to safety measures. They are of paramount importance.

When we develop rivers in a cascade, would it help if we maintain free flowing stretches between projects?

Well it’s a relative question, which is all about siting your projects. In the first place, don’t put a dam in the wrong place! That’s most important. After that, placing of other dams will be specific to the ecological uniqueness of that river. But we need guidelines which say at least some percentage of the upper watershed should be conserved and not exposed to impacts like peaking. It may be better to entirely protect the tributaries of a heavily dammed basin, rather than adopting a cut and stitch approach. FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) is now routinely including impacts of hydropeaking on fish and other organisms like benthic macroinvertebrates while relicensing and also licensing.[2]

Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From USGS.gov
Decommissioning of the Glines canyon Dam on the Elwha River From USGS.gov

How is the monitoring mechanism around mitigation measures developed in the US? Do communities have a role to play here?

Monitoring is well developed and an important part of the licensing process. The company can do annual monitoring themselves, or they can outsource this to an external entity.  Monitoring advisory Committees are mandatory for projects and this committee includes representatives from the company, wildlife groups, aboriginal groups, regulators, etc. The membership to this committee is pretty flexible. If a group has significant reasons and wants to be a part of the monitoring committee, it can do so. This committee monitors environmental management plans and also guides the company in this process.The issue is about making the companies and government accountable to the society.

There has been a flood of eflows methodologies, Which one would you describe as the state of art methodology at this moment?

ELOHA is robust and well developed for this moment, but there is no one size fits all method, the assessment method depends on the data, time and resources available. The main point is that even eflows entail consensus generation and equitable sharing of resources and here too, the community should be playing a main role.

When the dam building pressures are too high, there is little point in hurrying through studies. In extreme cases, it is wise to put a moratorium on on-going development, try and fathom what we have lost and will be losing, look at the environmental and social consequences of this loss and then decide on the way forward. These things cannot be hurried into.

At places like Columbia River systems, we realize that we have changed the entire river basin, but the mitigation measures have been developed, put in place and are working. So, that’s good. But in other places, we realize that the social, ecological and even economic costs we are paying for developing dams are just not worth the costs. In those cases, we need to bring them down. This has happened too.

Interviewed by Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

(The trip was possible due to generous support from Both ENDS)


[1] Text book definition of ROR: ““Run-of-river” refers to a mode of operation in which the hydro plant uses only the water that is available in the natural flow of the river, “Run-of-river” implies that there is no water storage and that power fluctuates with the stream flow.”

NOTE: Contrast this with the Indian Bureau of Standards definition of ROR, which allows pondage for even weekly fluctuations of demands and then claiming that this “does not alter the river course materially”. This is a blunder as that sort of pondage and resultant peaking hydrograph changes the downstream character of the river completely. even weekly storage and then peaking as ROR!

[2] http://www.northfieldrelicensing.com/NorthfieldRelicensing/Lists/Documents/Attachments/47/20130228-5329(28100604).pdf: The Turners Falls Project is currently operated with a minimum flow release that was not based on biological criteria or field study. Further, the project generates power in a peaking mode resulting in significant with-in day flow fluctuations between the minimum and project capacity on hourly or daily basis. The large and rapid changes in flow releases from hydropower dams are known to cause adverse effects on habitat and biota downstream of the project. Effects on spawning behavior could include suspension of spawning activity, poor fertilization, flushing of eggs into unsuitable habitat due to higher peaking discharges, eggs dropping out into unsuitable substrate and being covered by sediment deposition and/or eggs becoming stranded on de-watered shoal areas as peak flows subside.

Free flowing rivers

Community Fish Sanctuaries: Protecting the fish….and their rivers

21 November 2013: World Fisheries Day 

A small bus load of pilgrims descended at Walen Kondh and bought the usual Prasad from a shack by the river. They crossed a suspension bridge over a deep gorge of Kal Nadi and went to the derelict temple of Vardayini Mata on the other bank.

Kal River at Walen Kondh. Photo: Author
Kal River at Walen Kondh. Photo: Author

Then a few girls among them did something unusual. Instead of offering the Prasad at the temple, they came to the ridge of the gorge and clapped a few times, peering into the river below. In a matter of seconds, there was frantic thrashing in the waters as a huge school of endangered Mahseer fish congregated swiftly. The devotees then threw in fistfuls of puffed rice to hundreds of Mahseer below. For the devotees, these fish are sacred:  the children of Varadayini Mata.

Temple of Varadayini Mata . Photo: Author
Temple of Varadayini Mata . Photo: Author

Walen Kondh in Mahad Taluka of Raigad District in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra is one of the several critical community fish sanctuaries of India that protect the Mahseer fish. These sanctuaries have been successful in conserving not only the fish, but also stretches of rivers through their unique actions which find no support from the establishment and limited recognition from the conservation community.

Devotees offering puffed rice to Mahseer below. Photo : Author
Devotees offering puffed rice to Mahseer below. Photo : Author

Deccan Mahseer (Tor Khudree) is classified as an endangered specie by IUCN[i]. It does not feature in the schedule of species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) which is not a surprise as the Act represents freshwater diversity very poorly. However, many researchers, fisher folk and anglers have recorded that Tor Khudree and associated Mahseer species (Tor tor, Tor putitora, etc) which were once plentiful in rivers across Western Ghats, peninsular and central India, HimalayanRivers as well as floodplains, has now reduced drastically.

One of the major reasons behind the collapse of fish species like Mahseer is dam construction. Mahseer species migrate in the upstream to smaller streams for spawning (breeding). They need a flood pulse to undertake this migration. While other factors like pollution, overfishing, etc. have contributed to the decline, the multiple impacts of dams in terms of blocking migration paths, reduction of water levels in the downstream, submergence of pools in the upstream, changes in natural hydrograph and flood pulses, changes in sedimentation, etc., have been the primary reasons behind this collapse. (SANDRP’s report on Impact of Dams on Fisheries: sandrp.in/dams/Impacts_of_Dams_on_Riverine_Fisheries_in_India_ParineetaDandekar_Sept2012.pdf)

Fall of Mahseer has affected the ecology, local livelihoods, angling and recreational fishing in the rivers. While Hoshangabad on the banks of Narmada recorded 5-6 tonnes of Mahseer landings every year, it has been nearly wiped out from these places now[ii]. Mahseer used to form the majority of catch in these parts and has been severely affected by reservoirs like Tawa, Bargi, Sardar Sarovar and other Naramada projects. However, hardly any efforts are being made to reverse this situation. According to Shashank Ogale, who set up and managed Mahseer hatcheries in Tata Dams for more than 20 years, there are next to none functional Mahseer hatcheries in the country. This is despite the fact that dam proponents show an expense of crores of rupees to set up hatcheries as a part of their Environment Management Plan. After granting clearances, which are also based on these EMPs, MoEF does not bother to monitor the functioning and efficiency of these hatcheries or the impacts of dams on fish diversity and fisheries[iii].

In such a scenario, community conserved fish sanctuaries which are scattered across the country are playing a very important role in conserving various species of Mahseer as well as stretches of rivers. Unfortunately, most of these sanctuaries get no protection by the State Governments, Forest Departments or the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This is at a time when freshwater diversity is declining at the fastest rate globally[iv]. Ministry of Environment and Forests has done precious little in conserving or protecting riverine diversity, fisheries or rivers from the onslaught of dams. These sanctuaries keep getting submerged, dried up or fragmented by newly planned dams and State Fisheries Departments don’t bat an eyelid before giving a no-objection certificate (NOC) to projects which will spell doom for these sanctuaries.

Renole Pujari from Walen Kondh tells me that they have received no support or protection from the government to conserve Walen Kondh Sanctuary, however the community sanctions are so strong that not only is fishing banned across 2 kilometers from this stretch, but people are not even allowed to get down to the water, near these fish. He only hopes that this stretch of Kal nadi[v] is not destroyed by dams and chemical pollution like the neighboring Savitri River which flows through the chemical MIDC at Mahad.  Fish kills are a regular feature of Savitri River.[vi]

In Maharashtra, Tilase is one more such small village in Wada Taluka of Thane district which protects Mahseer fish in Vaitarna River. The stretch is downstream of Upper Vaitarna Dam which supplies water to Mumbai. Local youths told me that fish kills occur here when water releases from Upper Vaitarna decrease. Downstream this stretch, Middle Vaitarna Dam has now come up and the sanctuary is now sandwiched between the two projects. Social sanctions here are so strict that a net cannot be put in the waters, even to check the species. Fish Sanctuaries also existed in Alandi and at Pandharpur along teh Bhima, but have been wiped out. In Vidarbha, several Dev dohs (Sacred Pools) exist in Rivers like Adan, Kathani, Wainganga, etc., where fishing is banned.

Small community fish sanctuary on Vaitarna River Photo: Author
Small community fish sanctuary on Vaitarna River Photo: Author

Accoridng to Rajendra Kerkar, Goa too has community conserved fish sanctuaries protecting the Mahseer at ‘Pistyachi Kon’ nesteled between Bhimgad and Mhadei Sanctuaries. It receives no protection.

In Orissa, along the Mahanadi on the banks of the leaning temple of Huma exists the Huma Mahseer Sanctuary. On the banks is a stone statue of a lady cutting a Mahseer fish. Legend goes that the one who fishes in this stretch will meet the same fate, like King Midas! Hirakud Dam has already affected this sanctuary and the proposed Lower Suktel Dam will make things worse.

Stone Statue at a fish sanctuary on the banks on mahanadi in Orissa Photo: Wikimedia
Stone Statue at a fish sanctuary on the banks on Mahanadi in Orissa Photo: Wikimedia

Karnataka possible has the highest number of community fish sanctuaries in the Western Ghats. Nakur Gaya and Yenekkal fish sanctuaries exist on the banks of Kumardhara in Dakshin Kannada. In Yenekal, local gram panchayat has built a small weir with wooden gates for maintaining water levels for the fish. The weir is so small that the fish can migrate over it in the monsoons. Both these sanctuaries are threatened by the numerous mini hydel projects coming across the region, especially the 24.75 MW Kukke Mini Hydel Project near Hosmata[vii]. Fisheries Department however has given an NOC to this and many other mini hydels coming across the region without even attempting to study their impacts on Mahseer and other fish.

Congragation of Mahseer at Yenekkal Fish Sanctuary on Kumardhara River Photo: Author
Congregation of Mahseer at Yenekkal Fish Sanctuary on Kumardhara River Photo: Author

200 MW Gundia Hydel project will also affect the entire hydrograph of Kumaradhara-Gundia rivers. Here. The EIA done by KPCL (Karnataka Power Corporation Limited) says that there are no rare and endangered fish in the area. 5 new fish have been discovered in the region just in the past one year!

Child feeding fish at Shringeri fish sanctuary, Tunga River Photo: Author
Child feeding fish at Shringeri fish sanctuary, Tunga River Photo: Author

Karappura Fish Sanctuary in Mysore was submerged by the Kabini reservoir while the Shimoga Agrahara Sanctuary collapsed due to dwindling water levels which resulted after construction of Tunga Anicut 12 kilometers upstream from here.[viii]

Lovely Tunga River at Chippalgudde fish Sanctuary Photo: Author
Lovely Tunga River at Chippalgudde fish Sanctuary Photo: Author

Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh too have temple fish sanctuaries, notably the Baijanath Temple complex on the banks on River Gomti in Uttarakhand conserves Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora) and supports a small fish sanctuary on its banks. Many isolated fish sanctuaries are also reported from the Ramganaga and Kosi area near Corbett. However, it is also reported that now these sites are used by anglers and the temples receive revenue in return. In Jogindernagar, a town in Mandi distirct of Himachal Pradesh, lies a lake known as Machchiyal, fed by River Uhl. This lake is supposed to be the abode of Machendru Devta, the Fish God. Fish are fed and worshipped here regularly and fishing is strictly prohibited in the lake.  Machchiyal supports a large population of the Himalayan Mahseer. There is a Temple of Machendru Devta on the lake bank with ancient idols of fish-god.

Congregation of Mahseer at Baijnath Temple Sancatury on Gomti RIver Photo: Malvika Chauhan
Congregation of Mahseer at Baijnath Temple Sancatury on Gomti RIver Photo: Malvika Chauhan

In the remote Tawang in Aruncahal Pradesh in the North East corner of India flows a beautiful river Nyamjangchu. Buddhist Monpas rever the river as well as the fish in Nyamjangchu. Fish in the Nyamjangchu are not hunted. The river is threatened by the proposed 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydel project which will divert or submerge nearly the entire length of this river flowing through India. Even premier research institutes like CIFRI (Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute) have done a shoddy study and supported the project and have not raised the issue of impact of this dam on fish diversity.[ix]

On the occasion of World Fisheries Day 2013, we urge to the MoEF to document the existing sanctuaries and grant immediate protection to all the existing fish sanctuaries in the country, protecting them from the onslaught of dams and other pressures.  We had sent a similar submission to the moEF which was endorsed by several Fisheries Scientists and activists across the country in 2012, we’ve received no response from the MoEF on it till date (https://sandrp.in/rivers/MoEF_EAC_Submission_Fisheries_Nov2012.pdf, sandrp.in/rivers/World_Fisheries_Day_PR_Nov2012.pdf).

These sanctuaries stand testimony to the fact that community conservation is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of protecting ecosystems. The sanctuaries and their keepers deserve respect and recognition.

– Parineeta Dandekar ( parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)


Additional Information:
1. IISC Bangalore has developed an excellent data base on the status of fish sanctuaries in Western Ghats. This needs more updation. http://www.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/sahyadri_enews/newsletter/issue11/hotspot/fish/

[iii] sandrp.in/dams/Impacts_of_Dams_on_Riverine_Fisheries_in_India_ParineetaDandekar_Sept2012.pdf


[viii] Shyama Bhat Kolari, Development and management of Freshwater Fish Sanctuaries in India, 2005

Free flowing rivers · Western Ghats

Ecological value of free flowing Aghanashini for estuarine communities and beyond

Comparing ecological goods and services of a dammed Vs undammed river estuary is important for a number of reasons. This sort of post facto analysis is seldom done in our country. That is why a case study by Mahima Bhat, V. N. Nayak et al (Mahima Bhat, 2012) comparing Aghanashini and Sharvathi estuaries titled “Impact of Hydroelectric Dams on Fisheries in the Sharavathi Estuary of Uttara Kannada District, South-West India” is an important study (http://www.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/lake2012/fullpaper/mahima_fullpaper.pdf). The researchers are a part of Wetlands and Energy Group of the Centre for Ecological Science, Indian Institute of Sciences, Bangalore. The study went on for one year in which the researchers studied and compared productivity, ecological goods and services and fish diversity of Aghanashini and Sharavathi Estuaries. They have talked with the fisher folk and listened to what they had to say about impacts of dams on Sharavathi on the fish catch and productivity of the Sharavathi estuary.

Estuary of River Aghanashini Courtesy; The Hindu
Estuary of River Aghanashini Courtesy; The Hindu

Due to a number of peoples protests supported by some well-researched studies by Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc, Aghanashini River, small west flowing river of the Western Ghats is as yet in a free flowing, undammed condition. The stretches river also has recently been declared conservation reserve. In many senses, West-flowing River basins of Western Ghats in Karnataka have set inspiring examples. Plans of building a hydel dam on BedthiRiver, also in coastal Karnataka were dropped due to extensive studies and advocacy of groups which demonstrated that the river is of higher value than the dam. (Read Vijay Paranjpye’s book on the subject: Foresight at Bedthi)

Free flowing rivers are the rivers which do not have any dams or barrages on their course. In its dam onslaught, India has few free flowing rivers left. We do not have any policy or law to protect these last remaining free flowing rivers. Many countries across the world have specific laws to protect free flowing rivers that they have. To know more about free flowing rivers and policy tools across the world to protect these, see: http://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/where-rivers-run-free-1670

Western Ghats has few free flowing rivers like Shastri (Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra) and Aghanashini (Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka). The range of services provided by these rivers is often neglected. In reality, they support livelihoods of communities around them as well as rich biodiversity. Studies indicate that free flowing rivers are more resilient to challenges posed by Climate Change than their dammed counterparts.

Collection of mussels from Aghanashini Estuary. Not only a significant source of income, but also protein
Collection of mussels from Aghanashini Estuary. Not only a significant source of income, but also protein Photo: CES, IISc

The paper tries to evaluate the ecological as well as economic status of Aghanashini/ Tadri river estuary and that of Sharavathi Estuary. River Sharavathi has cascade of hydel dams on its main stem and tributaries, most of them belonging to the Karnataka Power Corporation Limited, together with an installed capacity of 1469.2 MW (for a map of the basin with HEP locations, see: https://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Sharavathy150411.jpg). The dam that is closest to the estuary is the Gerusouppa HEP (240 MW), the dam that is farthest is Linganamakki (55 MW).

Table 1Flow Chart of 1469.2 MW Sharavathi Hydroelectric Projects Source: KPCL


These dams submerged a huge area of land, forests and villages. Linganmakki Dam submerged 326.34 sq km, Talakalele: 7.77sq km and Gerusoppa submerged 5.96 sq. km respectively. The Linganamakki reservoir resulted in the full or partial submergence of 99 villages in the Sagar and 76 villages in the Hosanagar taluks of Shimoga district, also causing the displacement of 12000 people. The Talakalale reservoir resulted in the full or partial submergence of 3 villages in the Sagar taluk. Whereas, the Gerusoppa reservoir the submerged 5.96 sq. km of tropical evergreen to semi-evergreen forests. In addition, for the Sharavathi Tail Race project, 4.72 sq. km of forest and 0.08 sq. km of other lands was also acquired for the township, roads, etc. (http://www.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/water/paper/Cumulative/studyarea.htm) The land taken for Chakra dam, Savehaklu dam (both upstream of Linkanmakki dam) and Kargal Anicut and Sirur balancing reservoir would be additional.

Submergence area of Linganmakki Reservoir Photo: Sabarish Raghupathy

The dams have no system of releasing environmental flows, mimicking the natural hydrograph of the river for people and communities in the downstream.

Geographically the Uttar Kannada district of Karnataka has 4 estuaries. From north to south, these are Kali, Bedthi/ Gangavali, Aghanashini/ Tadri and Sharavathi estuaries. Distance between Kali and Bedthi estuary is 32 km, just 10 km further south, we have Aghanashini/ Tadri estuary and further 24km south we have Sharavathi estuary.

Projects on Sharavathi Map: SANDRP
Projects on Sharavathi Map: SANDRP
Sharvathi Projects: CES, IISc
Sharvathi Projects: CES, IISc

Important findings of the study:

Please note that the comparison given below is only with respect to some specific aspects of estuaries of the two river basins and not with respect to the whole river basins and cost benefits of the hydropower projects in case of Sharavathi basin. The implied impacts mentioned here on the Sharavathi basin is not with respect to what was the situation before the projects were taken up. It needs to be added that such impacts were not taken into account while taking decisions about the projects, while doing cost benefit analysis of the projects, while undertaking social and environmental impact assessments or while formulating social and environmental management plans.

1.    Free flowing river supports more biodiversity:

90 fish species were observed in Aghanashini estuary while the number of different fish species observed in Sharavathi estuary is only 43, nearly 50% less than Aghanashini. Sharavathi had specifically lower populations of marine species migrating up river. This is attributed to near-freshwater salinity of Sharavathi Estuary, maintained due to constant inflow of water from upstream hydel projects, even in peak summer.

2.    Free flowing River supports more river dependant livelihoods, than its dammed counterpart

Aghanashini Estuary supports 20 fishing villages, while there are only 10 fishing villages in Sharavathi Estuary. Fisherfolk in Aghanashini are more than 6000, while Sharavathi estuary supports only 283 fisherfolk. Gathering of edible bivalves, a major economic activity in Aghanashini estuary has gone extinct in Sharavathi.

3. Estuarine salinity is highly modified in the river with hydel projects:

Aghanashini’s salinity increases during non-monsoon months – since it is a rain-fed river. This salinity makes conditions favorable for marine fish and other animals to travel upstream the estuary. The salinity of the Aghanashini reaches the peak value of 24-34 ppt[1] during April- May.

Sharvathi: the study finds that even in peak summer months, the salinity of Sharavathi Estuary remains under 1 ppt, due to the continuous release of dammed freshwater from the turbines into the river while producing power. Hydropower projects affect the hydrograph as well as salinity in a river. Due to this drastic change in salinity, only the organisms which have a high tolerance for freshwater are found in Sharavathi estuary. Fishes and estuarine organisms such as crabs, bivalves etc. have a specific range of tolerance towards salinity.  These freshwater conditions affect the species of fish that migrate upstream in the Sharavathi estuary.

4.    Estuary of a Free flowing river is highly productive in ecological terms than its dammed counter part

The open estuarine part of Aghanashini, measuring 1977 ha, excluding saltpans, rice, and aquaculture, has annual fisheries (including bivalves) income to the tune of estimated Rs 1,095,072,000 or about Rs 1095 million, at Rs 553,905/ ha, in Sharavathi, 977 ha of open estuary produces only Rs 12,852,500 income or Rs 12.85 million, at an abysmally low rate of Rs 13,155/ ha in comparison. Shrimp aquaculture is widespread in Aghanashini, while practically non-existent in Sharavathi.

The study recommends exercising caution in “execution of hydroelectric projects in the west flowing rivers from Western Ghats to avoid fisheries collapse and dislocations in local livelihoods and economy.”

The study mainly attributes fall in fisheries to salinity changes in Sharavathi following cascade of dams. There may be other major underlying reasons contributing to this, including change in entire hydrological regime of the river and estuary, which affects fisheries, change in sediment load, sediment trapping by upstream dams, blockage to upstream and downstream migration of fish, pollution, differing and changing water use pattern, including groundwater uses, etc. The study mentions some of these reasons, although it’s done rather sketchily. There needs to be more thorough analysis of these factors.

In conclusion Value of a river is not only limited to the hydropower it can produce. Rivers have been providing free and invualble services to communities and societies at large since time immemorial. These services cannot always be converted into monitory terms, due to their complex and interconnected nature. At times, it is also not advisable to attempt that. However it is high time that free flowing rivers are at least recognized as important repositories of biodiversity and as highly useful ecosystems from anthropogenic view, offering goods and services for free, in addition to providing habitat for aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity.

Unfortunately, India’s environmental impact assessments, costs and benefit analysis surrounding dams and hydel projects do not give any value to a flowing river. The value of a river is assumed to be zero! The social impact assessment also needs to take into account the impact of the project on livelihoods of the people dependent on downstream river and rehabilitation plans needs to take such impacts into account. None of this is happening today.

There is an urgent need of a policy to protect the last remaining free flowing rivers in our country and understand the range of goods and services such Rivers can provide to communities and ecosystems currently and in future with changing climate.

Estuary of the free flowing Shashtri River in Maharashtra
Estuary of the free flowing Shashtri River in Maharashtra Photo: SANDRP

About Wetlands and Energy Group, CES, IISC: Wetlands and Energy Group of the IISc, currently under the leadership of Dr. T.V. Ramchandra has been working on groundbreaking research which is connected to the real challenges faced by regions like Western Ghats.  When the gap between research and challenges faced by biodiversity on the ground is widening day by day, such research by IISc is indeed laudable.

Their initial study on Aghanashini Estuary: http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/pubs/ETR/ETR35/ETR35.pdf

On impacts of Gundia Hydel Project: http://www.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/pubs/ces_tr/TR122/introduction.htm

On Cumulative Impact Assessment of Sharavathi projects: http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/energy/sharavathi/svati.htm

On impacts of Kukke I and Kukke II Hydel projects: http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/biodiversity/pubs/ETR/ETR54/intervention.htm


-Parineeta Dandekar, Damodar Pujari

[1] Parts per trillion: 1 ppt= 10-12