(Feature image by Nishant Panwar, Vikas Nagar, shows Yamuna River in upper reaches in Jan. 2019)
On April 11, 2019, is the birthday of Yamuna river. The Yamuna Jayanti comes every year on the sixth day of ‘Chaitra’ (summer) Navratra. The Kapat (door) of famous Yamnotri shrine would be opened this year on May 7 for Char Dham Yatra.
In April-May 2019 India will vote to elect 17th Lok Sabha or Parliament. On April 11, the 1st of the 7 polling days, the home state of Yamuna river, Uttrakhand and the districts of Western Uttar Pradesh through which Yamuna river flows, will vote.
The two other states heavily dependent and Yamuna river, Haryana and Delhi will see voting on May 12. The district Mathura, Agra, Etawa, Kanpur, Hamirpur, Fatehpur and Allahabad of Uttar Pradesh located along Yamuna river will witness voting from second (April 18) to sixth phase on May 12.
The NDA government come to power in May 2014 promising clean Ganga and Yamuna. The thousands of devotees of Mathura and residents of Agra were especially convinced of a promise of clean flowing Yamuna river. People were also hopeful that the government of the same party, BJP, in centre and in key basin states of Yamuna (Uttarakhand, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh) would bring a change in the situation. But over the five years, things have only deteriorated further. In fact, under the present government apart from dams and pollution a illegal sand mining has emerged as equally dangerous threat for the Yamuna rivers from upper reaches through middle and lower stretches.
On the occasion of Yamuna Jayanti, the Yamuna Nadi Mitra Mandli (YNMM) a voluntary group of villagers and concerned; established along the length of Yamuna by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan is highlighting the issues affecting the Yamuna river and riparian communities which have remained unaddressed during past five years and none of the political parties even now have remotely focused on these. They also warn that ignoring the problems of Yamuna and dependent community will soon affect every state and dependent people in a significant way apart from endangering the river itself.
The state of Kerala experienced extreme precipitation events during the 2018 South West monsoon period with multiple episodes culminating in devastating floods across the state during 14th-18th August 2018. This year, with an early onset of monsoons that dovetailed with strong summer showers, the state received about 41% excess rainfall (2394 mm against the normal of 1700 mm) during the period June 1st to August 22nd . Almost all of its reservoirs were near full storage by mid-July.
The heavy downpour and the uncontrolled opening of the spillway gates of almost all reservoirs that inundated huge stretches of river banks and floodplains, along with massive landslides across the Western Ghats affected more than 1.5 million people, with close to 500 human casualties, immense losses to property, livelihoods and resource security apart from the extensive damage to forests, wildlife and biodiversity. Maximum destruction was observed along the rivers of Periyar, Chalakudy and Pamba, all having multiple dams on their tributaries. The debate is still on as to the various reasons, both manmade and natural, behind the floods and the resultant wide-ranging casualties [2,3,4,5,6]. Meanwhile things have taken a rather unexpected turn in the flood ravaged state.
Last Sunday of every September is celebrated as ‘World Rivers Day’. It is a recent phenomenon, but in many senses more significant than World Water Day. While ‘Water’ is seen more as a resource than the life-blood of the global ecosystem, ‘River’ provides water with its ecological, social, cultural and spiritual context. One this day, SANDRP looks at India’s ‘National River’ Ganga. The river seems to be a symbol of all that is right and wrong with water governance in India. It depicts crystallisation of challenges faced by rivers across the country, albeit at a much larger scale. The rich canvass and the deep spiritual value of Ganga for many cultures make it more riveting. The new government at the centre has declared that rejuvenation of the Ganga River is one of its priorities. However, in addition to several infrastructure projects planned and ongoing on the river and its tributaries (Ganga is not just 2525 kms long river, its is more than 25,000 kms long, with all its tributaries), the new Government is planing to build a series of barrages on the River to make it navigable, from Haldia, at the mouth of Hooghly, a major distributary of the Ganga to Allahabad which is some 1620 kms upstream from Haldia. Before we go further into the advantages or the disadvantages of more barrages on Ganga, let us take a look at what one only existing Barrage on this 1620 km stretch of the river, The Farakka Barrage, has done to the river in the past 39 years since the Barrage was commissioned. Let us see how we have managed the issues which have arisen, how human lives have been impacted, what has been our response, how the main objective of building the barrage has been frustrated, how we have dealt with this realization, how the Barrage has furthered more conflicts and how a thriving fishing activity has been nearly killed by Farakka in the upstream as well as in the downstream. SANDRP visited the region of Farakka Barrage, Malda, Murshidabad, talked with the affected people, fisherfolk, authorities at the Barrage as well as the Director and other officials at the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) to understand the complex issues. Prior to detailed analysis, here’s looking at Ganga, Hooghly and Farakka in photos.
Farakka Barrage was commissioned in 1975 to transfer 40,000 cusecs ( Cubic Feet per second) of water from Ganga into its distributary Hooghly to save the Kolkata Port on the Hooghly from silting up. The barrage is just 16 kms upstream from Bangladesh border.
As a part of Farakka Barrage Project, an afflux bund was constructed over several rivers upstream of Farakka, like Choto Bhagirathi, Pagla, etc., to divert water into the Barrage. The complete diversion of water killed these rivers in the downstream, severely affecting people. Here we see Choto Bhagirathi flowing after many years, thanks to a pipeline and sluice sanctioned this year to supply meager water to the river. This does not help the fish though, there are hardly any left.
Not withstanding the anti-erosion works completed upstream the Farakka Barrage in Malda, the Ganga has deposited huge sediment load in the upstream of the barrage and this has accelerated the swing in its channel. The channel is swinging rapidly to the left bank, eroding and eating away thousands of hectares of villages, farms, mango plantations and chars (islands) in the way, endangering the Barrage itself. Although sediment-laden Ganga has a history of changing courses, this has been aggravated to a great extent by the sedimentation and obsrtuction caused by Farakka.
Even before you arrive at the heavily guarded Barrage, you can see the heavily silted river, with cattle grazing peacefully on islands (chars) just 500 meters-1 km upstream of the barrage. According to River Expert Kalyan Rudra, Farakka hordes nearly 350 million tonnes of sediment flow of Ganga every year in the upstream!!
The Barrage also severely affected navigation through the river. A separate ship lock was made on the Feeder Canal and it is managed by Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI). Hardly any ships pass through due to high sedimentation.
Downstream the barrage, due to trapping of silt in the upstream, silt free water erodes banks with vengeance, especially the left bank. We saw several anti-erosion measures failing miserably in front of the river’s fury.
Farakka has profoundly changed the character, sediment regime and flow of Ganga. It is affecting lives of lakhs of people in India and Bangladesh through cycles of erosion, sedimentation, floods and affected fishing. Our response to the issue has been dismal. We have not conducted a single review of costs, benefits and impacts of Farakka Project so far. In addition to Farakka , Lower Ganga (Narora), Middle Ganga, Upper Ganga Barrages (Bhimgoda), Kanpur Barrage, Hydropower projects in Uttarakhand and other upstream states have affected the river in most profound ways. If we want to rejuvenate the Ganga, we need to institute a credible independent review the existing Barrages, not plan new ones. May be we can begin with a demand for such a review for Farakka on urgent basis. One World Rivers Day, let us wish for a long and healthy flow for the Ganga River, a symbol of all flowing rivers in India!
An edited version of this article and photoessay on The Nowhere People — Environmental Refugees around Farakka, was published in the Mint on March 28th, 2015. Here it is in full: http://www.ficusmedia.com/traildiaries/2015/03/28/the-nowhere-people/
This article was made possible with a grant from The Third Pole and Asia Foundation.
Arati Kumar Rao