Ganga

Lessons from Farakka as we plan more barrages on Ganga

Introduction

“When Farakka barrage was built, the engineers did not plan for such massive silt. But it has become one of the biggest problems of the barrage now” said Dr. P.K. Parua[1]. And he should know as he has been associated with the barrage for nearly 38 years and retired as the General Manager of Farakka Barrage Project (FBP). I remembered the vast island of silt in the middle of the river barely a kilometer upstream of the Barrage and the people who told us their homes were devastated by the swinging river.

Silt Islands just upstream the Barrage. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP
Silt Islands just upstream the Barrage. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP

Though called a barrage, Farakka Barrage is a large dam as per ICOLD, WCD and CWC definitions, with associated large dimensions and impacts. To call it a Barrage is misleading.

Commissioned in 1975[i] across Ganga in Murshidabad District of West Bengal and just 16 kms upstream of the Bangladesh Border, Farakka Barrage has been mired in controversies from the very beginning. Its role is singular: to transfer 40,000 cusecs water from Ganga to its distributary Bhagirathi-Hooghly (hence forth referred as Hooghly). And to make Hoogly river navigable from Kolkata port upstream till Farakka barrage. It was thought that this water will push the silt that is eating up the Kolkata Port and will protect the Port for navigation and economy. In reality, Kolkata Port continues to decay and the barrage has had such severe and unforeseen impacts on the people of India and Bangladesh that the call to review Farakka Barrage entirely is getting louder by the day.

A lot has been written about Farakka Barrage by Indian (and many times by Bangladeshi) authors, so why are we discussing Farakka again? Because Political leaders like Shri. Nitin Gadkari have stated that there are plans of building a barrage after every 100 kms in Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad, a 1600 kms stretch. So we are looking at possibly 15 more barrages on Ganga. But before taking decision about building any other such structure, we need to understand the range of impacts a single barrage has had on the lives of millions of people and how inadequate has been our response in addressing these impacts. Farakka holds critical lessons for Indian politicians, policy-makers, international groups and financial institutions like World Bank dreaming of making a string of barrages across a river which has one of the highest silt loads, densest population and the largest deltas in the world.

Ganga as a “Waterway” Government of India is planning to aggressively develop 1620 kilometers of National River Ganga as “National Waterway 1” (NW1). There is a profound difference between a Highway and Waterway. A highway is simply a road while NW1 is actually River Ganga, performing several other functions, it is important to recognise how the NW1 would affect these functions and the river itself. NW 1 spans from Haldia, near the mouth of Ganga Estuary in West Bengal, to Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, passing through four states and cities of Haldia, Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, Buxar, Patna, Ghazipur, Varanasi and Allahabad.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI)[ii] plans to use this waterway for the transport of “coal, fly-ash, food grains, cement, stone chips, oil and over dimensional cargo.” Not surprisingly, companies keenly interested in using this waterway include “thermal power plants, cement companies, fertilizer companies, oil companies” etc.  In order to make this stretch navigable, IWAI plans initiatives like “river training and conservancy, structural improvement, dredging, and Construction of terminals at Allahabad, Varansai, Gazipur in Uttar Pradesh, Sahibganj in Bihar and Katwa in West Bengal.”

Although this plan was on paper for some years, the new government has approached the World Bank for support of nearly Rs 4200 Crores (700 million dollar) for its implementation. In July 2014, the World Bank agreed to fund initial 50 million dollars including technical support (thus creating work for its own experts!). World Bank Team has already visited Patna for this project and joint meeting of IWAI and World Bank has taken place at Varanasi[iii]. No public consultation has been held thus far.

Although River Navigation has nothing to do with River Rejuvenation, Shri. Nitin Gadkari, Union Surface Transport & Shipping Minister with additional portfolio of Rural Development, who played an active role in the Ganga Manthan, announced this navigation plan as a part of ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’.[iv]

He also announced that the plan entails erecting barrages (dams) on the Ganga at every 100 kilometer interval from Haldia to Allahabad. This would mean damming the Ganga rough about 15-16 times, to maintain water levels and navigability.[v]

If the plan moves ahead, it may escape environmental clearance as the very limited EIA Notification 2006, being actively amended for dilution by the Modi government, includes only irrigation and hydropower dams in its ambit. This does not mean that these barrages will not have severe impacts on the river, its people and its ecosystems. Far from it. SANDRP has written about the impacts of Upper Ganga Barrage at Bhimgouda, the Lower Ganga Barrage at Narora and the Farakka Barrage in Murshidabad, West Bengal (SANDRP’s Report on Farakka, 1999: https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf).

The analysis at hand is based on official documents and research, site visit, interviews and discussions with experts and local people.

  • Farakka Barrage, in the backdrop of proposed Barrages

Farakka Barrage, 2.62 kms long, commissioned in 1975 has a unique purpose. The barrage was built for diverting waters of Ganga into its distributary The Hooghly/ Bhagirtahi, for flushing sediments and maintaining the navigability of Kolkata Port (& Hooghly River) which lies at the mouth of Hooghly. Records about high sedimentation in Hooghly can be traced back to 17th Century, but is known to increase following building of Damodar Dams in post independent India. Construction of a barrage on Ganga and diverting its waters into Hooghly was suggested in the 19th Century by Sir Arthur Cotton. After independence, the historic Kolkata port was becoming hugely silted due to sluggish freshwater from upstream on the one hand and and strong saline intrusion from the sea on the other. At that time, Farakka Barrage was thought to be an answer to these problems.

Farakka Barrage
The Farakka Barrage. Photo: Author

Even then, some lone voices highlighted the possible impacts of Farakka Barrage. Notably Mr. Kapil Bhattacharya, Engineer-in-Chief of West Bengal had warned about absence of sufficient water, catastrophic floods and sedimentation in the upstream back in 70s.  When Pakistan (current Bangladesh was part of Pakistan during 1947-1971) upheld his views, he was branded as a traitor and lost his job. He had highlighted that one of the main reasons why Hooghly was desiccating was Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) dams on Damodar and Roopnarayan Rivers.

The Farakka Barrage completed in 1975 has 109 gates, and a feeder canal of 38.1 kms emanating from the right bank, carrying water from Ganga to Hooghly. There is one more barrage at Jangipur in the downstream and afflux bunds in the upstream of Farakka, diverting waters of all smaller rivers like Pagla and Choto Bhagirathi into Farakka, effectively drying them in the downstream.

The Feeder canal is supposed to divert 40,000 cusecs water continuously from Ganga into Bhagirathi/ Hooghly. Hooghly-Bhagirathi itself is not a small river. It is a system drained by 7 tributaries like Pagla, Bansloi, Mayurakshi, Ajoy, Damodar, Rupnarayan, Haldi and the two offshoots of Ganga – Jalangi and Churni.

Location of Farakka Barrage  Depiction From : Rudra,
Location of Farakka Barrage Depiction From : Rudra, Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts
  • Impacts and performance of Farakka Barrage

Several grave questions are being posed on the utility of the barrage itself and its impacts. Some of the main points are illustrated below:

  1. Hooghly estuary cannot be made silt-free by 40,000 cusecs from Farakka only

River Expert Dr. Kalyan Rudra, an authority on rivers in Bengal, especially their interactions with sediment, says that the initial objective of Farakka of flushing silt from the mouth of Hooghly has been “frustrated”[vi]. This assessment has been supported by many, including the past Superintending Engineer of Farakka Dr. P.K. Parua (Pers. Comm.) According to Kolkata Port Trust, the dredging of silt at Kolkata Port has been rising from 6.40 million cubic meters (MCM) annually from Pre-Farakka days to four time increase at 21.88 MCM annually during 1999-2003.

The answer, according to Dr. Rudra, lies in the fact that freshwater flow brought by the Hooghly Estuary, even with 40,000 cusecs from Farakka is just too meagre to flush sediments deep down the estuary. The difference between volumes of freshwater brought by Hooghly, as against the tide bringing saline water from south to north is as much as 1:78,  making any deep flushing due to freshwater nearly impossible. Dams in the Hooghly Bhagirathi Basin by Damodar Valley Corporation have further arrested freshwater which could have naturally replenished Hooghly estuary. At the same time the stated aims of Damodar Valley Corporation, fashioned on the lines of Tennessee Valley Authority have not been fulfilled.

Currently, the functioning of Kolkata Port and Haldia port is entirely at the mercy of Dredging Corporation of India (DCI) to desilt the river to maintain sufficient draft (allowable depth of a ship’s keel under water). DCI gets about Rs 300-350 Crores per year for dredging the channel, although several problems have been unearthed like dumping the excavated silt back in the estuary from where it is washed back in the channel. In 2009, the Government of India had actually written to the Kolkata Port Trust, saying that it has become a “liability” and it should explain why it should continue to receive dredging subsidies. A PIL has been filed[vii] in 2013 in Kolkata High Court to save Kolkata and Haldia ports by intensive dredging.

Dredging the National Waterway I Photo: WRIS
Dredging the National Waterway I Photo: WRIS

It is clear that 40,000 cusecs water from Farakka is not able to help the Kolkata Port much as was envisaged earlier. SANDRP tried to talk with officials at the Kolkata Port Trust, but they declined answering any questions saying that Farakka is a bilateral issue.

This has led to a situation where we have the barrage and the impacts of two countries and millions of people, without even achieving objective for which the project was developed.

2. Sedimentation in the upstream of Farakka Barrage and its massive implications for India and Bangladesh

It is estimated that Ganga carries a silt load of 736 Million Tonnes (MT) annually, out of which about 328 MT of sediment gets deposited in the upstream of Farakka Barrage ANNUALLY[viii]. This annual addition of enormous sediment in the upstream of the barrage has made the river extremely shallow and any ship transport past Farakka has become nearly impossible. As we saw during our visit, islands/chars have formed barely a kilometer upstream the barrage, where animals graze, making any transport nearly impossible.

This massive retention of sediments has resulted in a two-pronged problem:

3. Contribution to delta subsidence and rising sea level in Bangladesh and India

Water released below Farakka barrage has significantly less silt load as about 328 MT silt gets deposited at Farakka. This water has a higher eroding capacity and erodes downstream riverbed. But there is an additional problem: World Heritage site of Sunderbans at the mouth of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, shared between India and Bangladesh is witnessing possibly the first and highest numbers of Climate Change refugees in the world due to Ingressing Sea which is eating away at smaller islands and the delta. Part reason for this delta subsidence is sea level rise due to global warming and related changes, but the driving reason for encroaching seas is not only sea level rise, but the sinking river delta due to trapping sediment in the upstream dams and barrages like Farakka. The role of river sediments in building deltas is crucial. Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghana Delta is subsiding rapidly and is categorized as a ‘Delta in Peril’ by experts like Syvitski et al, due to reduction in sediments reaching the delta and compaction of delta, furthering sea level rise. According to recent studies, the rate of relative sea level rise per year in the Ganga Brahmaputra delta is in the range of 8-18 mm per year, one the highest in the world. The related sediment reduction has been a whopping 30% in the twentieth century. (SANDRPs report on Delta Subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise due to sediment trapping by dams: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/sinking-and-shrinking-deltas-major-role-of-dams-in-abetting-delta-subsidence-and-effective-sea-level-rise/)

Farakka Barrage has been highlighted as one of the causes for this blocking of sediments at an important juncture. Any role played by Farakka in delta subsidence of GBM Delta has a massive impact on millions of people residing in this delta. According to Prof. Md. Khallequzamman (Pers Comm.), the amount of sediment influx flowing into Bangladesh from upper reaches in India has dropped from 2 billion tons per year in the 1960s to less than 1 billion tons per year in recent years, which is not enough to keep pace with rising sea.[ix]

4. Erosion in the Upstream of the barrage due to Sedimentation

Farakka Barrage is getting silted up due to millions of tonnes of sediment being deposited in the upstream annually. Ganga has been a meandering river, changing courses over centuries, forming paleo channel and ox bows. This deposition of sediment in the upstream is accelerating swinging of Ganga alarmingly to the left bank of the river. This is leading to tremendous erosion in Malda and surrounding regions. More than 4000 hectares of land in Malda has been eroded by the Ganga since 1970s. The river has also breached 8 embankments. Although a number of authors have conclusively written about this and even Legislative Assembly of West Bengal has been unequivocal in saying that “It is accepted all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”, Central Water Commission trivializes this fact and does not accept any responsibility of Farakka.The only issue CWC seems to be bothered about is the health of the barrage itself which is compromised by erosion on the left bank. In official correspondences of CWC and MoWR scrutinized by SANDRP, the agencies do not mention anything about plight of thousands of people, who are refugees of a swinging river, but are only concerned about the strength of the barrage.[x]

According to Audit Report on Farakka Barrage by Indian Audit and Accounts Departments, between 2006-2012, the “Unintended Consequences” of Farakka include:

  • Induced water through feeder canal raised water level of Bhagirathi by about  5 meters near Jangipur and does not allow Bansloi and Pagla to join Bhagirtahi freely. A new wetland due to congestion formed Ahiron Beel which has submerged fertile land.
  • The barrage has trapped substantial sediment and hence river in changing course. In homogenous situation the oscillation of river is secular but it gets aggravated due to Farakka Barrage. On account of Rajmahal hills on right bank and Farakka barrage on the channel, the river erodes the left bank.
  • The 10 day cycle of increased and decreased release of water from the Barrage has resulted in a complex phenomenon of recharging  ground water by river and then receiving base flow from groundwater ( when river is low). The frequent change in water level on account of 10 day altered flow adversely affects the rivers hydro geomorphology leading to escalating bank erosion.
  • River bed height in Farakka pondage has increased and the river is compensating this reduction by expanding its cross section sideways
Bank Erosion and Embakment breach at Hiranandpur Phot with thanks: Soumya Desarkar
Bank Erosion and Embakment breach at Hiranandpur Phot with thanks: Soumya Desarkar

5. Erosion Downstream of the barrage, leading to loss of life and property:

Sedimentation upstream the barrage, coupled with natural swing of Ganga has meant that the river is swinging to the left, encroaching the left bank, leading to erosion in thousands of villages, roads, fields  in the downstream of the Barrage in India as well as Bangladesh, causing annual floods. The Irrigation Department West Bengal (Report of the Irrigation Dept for 1997-2001) itself has agreed not only about this erosion due to Farakka Barrage, but has also cautioned about the possibility of outflanking of the Farakka Barrage itself.  Many experts maintain the eminent possibility of Ganga outflanking the barrage to flow through its old course of the 15th century, which will reduce the barrage to just a bridge.

On our visit to Farakka, Kedarnath Mandal, a veteran activist working on issued of Ganga and Farakka accompanied us to see extensive erosion in the left bank of the river in the upstream at Simultola as well as downstream in Chauk Bahadurpur. In both these regions, the eroding river has paid little heed to the erosion control measures on the banks. Huge boulders have been swept with the current, destabilizing land in their wake.

AntiErosion_Downstream
Washing away erosion control measures at Chow Bahadurpur downstream FBP Photo: Author

We saw extensive bank erosion in the left bank on the downstream where all measures like bull headed spurs, dip trees, porcupines, gunny bags, geo-synthetic covers, boulders bars, boulder crates with nets, etc. have been eroded.

In all this din, the people residing in the chars, their leaders like Kedarnath Mandal, River experts and even the Legislative Council of West Bengal maintain that though erosion and changing courses is a character of Ganga, it has worsened and accelerated hugely since Farakka Barrage. In fact the 13th Legislative Assembly Committee (2004) in its 7th Report notes “It is accepted at all levels that the construction of Farakka Barrage is solely responsible behind the erosion of river Ganges in Malda district”.

6. Near Impossibility of desilting Farakka Barrage

To say that the challenge of desilting Farakka Barrage is Herculean, will be an understatement. The irreversible circle of events is highlighted by the fact that in order to have any appreciable impact, the amount of sediment lifted from the barrage should be at least twice the amount deposited per year, if the project is to be completed even in thirty years. But that seems impossible. According to Dr. Rudra, “Doing so will require a fourteen lane dedicated highway from Malda to Gangasagar” and the transport cost alone “would be nearly twice the revenue earned by Government of India in a year.” Dr. P.K. Parua also accepts that desilting the barrage will be next to impossible.

Such is the scale of sedimentation at Farakka.

7. Source of conflict with Bangladesh

Experts and authorities from Bangladesh have been raising the issue of impact of Farakka for several years now. Farakka Barrage not only obstructs the flow of sediments in Bangladesh, but also diverts waters of Ganga away from Bangladesh delta, depriving millions of fisherfolk and farmers from their livelihood. Water sharing from Farakka, particularly in lean season is now governed by Ganges Water Treaty of 1996. The Treaty holds force between 1 January to 31st May each year and water sharing calculations are based on 10 day flows. Some experts from Bangladesh have maintained that Ganges Water Treaty is not being implemented properly and Bangladesh is receiving less water than its due.[xi]  There are issues raised by the Indian side as well of dwindling water availability. All in all, the barrage and the resultant Treaty continues to be a source of impacts for the river and people of the two nations.

  • Meeting officials at Farakka Barrage

SANDRP met with the Authorities at the Farakka Barrage Project  office, which is under the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), at New Farakka. After meeting the officials, it was clear that they have no program for silt management at all. They do not even see this as an area of concern and are only concerned with anti-erosion works, which are failing miserably, and releasing water to Kolkata Port, which is not improving its navigability.

While some may argue, rather irrelevantly (considering the warnings of Kapil Bhattacharyya), that Engineers in 1950s, 60s and 70s were not equipped or aware of the issues related to sediment and its far-reaching impacts like erosion, deposition, floods, even sea level rise, the same in any case cannot be said about the current water management. They have the privilege of better knowledge, better resources and also lessons from past experiences. But despite having clear evidence that silt of Ganga is playing havoc with millions in India as well as Bangladesh, the Farakka Barrage Authorities tell us that they have no plan for silt management the barrage except annual erosion control measures.

The mandate of the barrage authorities is also 120 kms of bank erosion works, 40kms in the upstream and 80kms in the downstream. We were told on the condition of anonymity that this extensive work leaves little time even for maintaining the barrage. The bank protection work is also not permanent and is eroded with flood waves. The bureaucratic set up at Farakka makes it impossible to take proactive decisions about Barrage maintenance. The gates of the barrage need replacement, but there is hardly any agency interested in working for Farakka Barrage due to bureaucratic delays.

The officials told SANDRP that the only desilting measure that can be adopted is opening all gates of the Barrage, but that will not be possible unless all gates are replaced as many gates are faulty. Replacing all gates of Farakka will take at least two more years and we do not know even after that whether silt can be flushed. Such a flushing will need a major flood event and the impact of such sudden flushing of billions of tonnes of silt in the downstream will be unprecedented & huge.

Meeting with Farakka Barrage Authorities leaves one with more questions than answers.

  • Interview with past official of Farakka

SANDRP discussed the multiple issues of Farakka with one of the senior retired official from the Farakka Barrage Authority who has seen the work of the FBPA closely over several years. Some excerpts from these discussions.

SANDRP: Sir, do you think Farakka is fulfilling its functions?

Answer: Farakka was not only designed for diverting water for Hooghly, it was foreseen that there may be an Irrigation component and even a hydropower component. But the inflow at the barrage was over calculated. We never had that sort of inflow in the project. Add to this Treaty with Bangladesh in 1996 and India was left with little water. I would say objectives of Farakka were only partially fulfilled. The barrage has a designed discharge of 27,00,000 cusecs and we have been able to achieve that discharge only twice since commissioning the barrage. In the recent years, water flow has been declining sharply at the barrage. This further handicaps all its functions.

SANDRP: There are several problems associated with silt deposited in the upstream of the barrage like floods, change in course of the river, erosion, etc. Is there any way to tackle this deposited silt?

Answer: Yes, that is a serious problem. This is being faced by ports and barrages the world over and also across India. There are so many players responsible for the increasing silt load and reduced water in the river, right from Nepal.

We can say that the scale of the sediment issue was not understood when the barrage was designed, the engineers then did not have the knowledge or tools for this. Even now, there is no easy way this issue can be tackled. Desilting the barrage would be very costly, and what would be do with the collected silt? Malda and Murshidabad region is densely populated, we cannot dump it anywhere. If we dump it in the river, there will be other problems. It is possibly an evil we have to live with now.

SANDRP: There are plans to erect about 16 more such barrages on the Ganga main stem. What would be the lessons from Farakka for these barrages?

Answer: I think this is a horrible plan. In addition to the challenge of silt, I wonder where will the water come from? Supplies from Upper Ganga Canals are increasing, reducing water flow in the river. Uttar Pradesh is increasing the capacity of Lower Ganga Canals. More and more abstraction will happen. Such a plan does not seem feasible and will be harmful for the river as well.

  • Ecological Impacts
  1. There’s no Hilsa here

Farakka Barrage has stopped migration of economically important species like the Hilsa (Tenualosa ilsha) and Macrobrachium prawns, both Ilish (Hilsa) and Chingri (Macrobrachium) hold a special significance to people in West Bengal and Bangladesh. A lot has been written about the Barrage’s disastrous impact on Hilsa production and impoverishment of fisherfolk in India and Bangladesh[xii]. About 2 lakh fisherfolk in Malda district alone depend on riverine fisheries and Hilsa here was the backbone of the fishing economy.

Although Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) has a lab to work on Hilsa, the institute is not working on Fish passes or Hilsa Hatcheries at the Barrage itself!

Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot
Fishermen upstream Farakka are a worried lot Photo: Author

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]

Lone Hilsa caught by a fishermen after three days of effort, sold for a pittance to local fish dealer. Photo: Author
Lone Hilsa caught by a fishermen after three days of effort, sold for a pittance to local fish dealer. Photo: Author

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.

  1. Fable of Farakka Fish Lock

The tale of Farakka Barrage Fish Lock is another tragic story. Fish Lock is a gated structure in a Barrage that needs to be operated specifically to facilitate migration of fish from the downstream to the upstream or vice versa to breed, feed or complete their lifecycles.

According to Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), Farakka Barrage has two Fish Locks between gates 24 and 25. The locks need to be operated to aid fish migration and transport fish. We talked with the Engineers at Farakka Barrage Authority, local villagers, fishermen and even the Barrage Control Room officials who operate the gates of the barrage about the functioning of the Fish Lock. No one had heard about a Fish Lock. There is some information that there is one more lock further upstream in the river, but the FBP Authorities did not seem aware of this.

The control room officials kept showing us the ship lock at the Barrage (which is also rarely used due to turbulence and sedimentation) and told us categorically that “There is nothing called as fish lock here”. The locks have not been operated for a minimum of a decade, possibly much longer.

Who is responsible for the loss of fisherfolk income in the meantime? Will the Farakka Barrage Authority or the MoWR or the CWC or the Kolkata Port Trust or Inland Waterways Authority of India compensate them?

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

According to Dr. Parua, fish locks were operated for some time when he was posted at Farakka, but they never worked as planned. He believes that a bare 60 feet fish lock for a barrage that is more than 2.6 kms long is of little use. There should have been more fish locks planned. He also lamented about the non-functionality of Hilsa Fish Hatchery set up at the banks of the barrage. (We were not even told about the presence of this structure by any of the officials or other concerned persons we met and possibly it has now fallen to complete disrepair now.) He said despite Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) is based in West Bengal and has a special cell to study Hilsa, they or the Fisheries Department have taken no interest in the functioning of the hatchery or the Fish Locks.

2. Vikramshila Dolhin Sanctuary, Bhagalpur

Bhagalpur is barely 150 kms upriver from Farakka and Dr. Sunil Chaudhary, a past Member of the Sate Wildlife Board of Bihar has been working relentlessly on conservation of Gangetic Dolphins, as well as rights of traditional fisherfolk in Bihar and around Vikramshila region.[xv] SANDRP discussed the issue of Farakka and additional barrages with him. Dr. Chaudhary states that not only barrages, but the dredging itself will have serious impacts on Dolphins. Impacts of Farakka Barrage on fish and fisherfolk in Bihar is still being felt. No Hilsa reach here from Farakka and a generation of fisherfolk has suffered due to this. Forget more barrages on the Ganga, we need a review of Farakka Barrage itself as Ganga Mukti Andolan has been asking for years now.

Any work affecting Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary will require clearance from State Wildlife Board, State Wildlife Warden and National Board for Wildlife. We hope that such permissions are not given without due diligence and independent application of mind and at least whatever remains of Ganga is maintained.

In conclusion

The issues arising out of Farakka are extremely serious. Our planners and decision makers may claim that many of the impacts were not foreseen (Not entirely true). But the issue cannot be ignored any longer. We need a credible independent review of the development effectiveness of Farakka Barrage, including costs, benefits and impacts.

What we seem to be doing now is to repeat the mistakes of the past with new barrages planned on the Ganga.

The existing Upper Ganga Barrage (Bhimgouda Barrage) has dried up the river in the downstream. The river is diverted in a canal, where people take ritual baths, while the original riverbed is used as a parking lot.

Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author
Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author

The Lower Ganga (Narora Barrage) has severely affected fish migration & dried up the river in the downstream at least in lean season. The Barrage has a fish ladder, but there is no monitoring or concern as to whether it is working or not. In its report to the World Bank, Uttar Pradesh Government has said that the “condition of the barrage is poor” and has lamented about increased siltation in the upstream of the barrage and the inability to flush the sediments due to poor condition of its gates.[xvi].

Beyond doubt, the existing barrages, especially the Farakka Barrage have had massive impacts on the river, its ecosystems and its people. We have many critical lessons to learn from these experiences. In stead, we are pushing for more barrages on a river which will only compound existing problems.

Ganga is much more than a waterway or a powerhouse. It is a river, supporting not only urban areas and industries, but rural communities, the basin, the ecosystem and myriad organisms in its wake and it needs to be respected as an ecosystem first, rather than for sentimental reasons like mother or goddess.

The Ganga is being fettered at its origin in the Uttarakhand by over 300 hydropower dams. In addition, if it is again dammed many times over times in its main channel, then the government will not have to worry about River Rejuvenation Plan. There will be no river left for rejuvenation.

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

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Bibliography:

Dr. Sutapa Mukhopadhyay et al, Bank Erosion of River Ganga, Eastern India –A Threat to Environmental Systems Management

G Verghese, Waters of Hope: Facing New Challenges in Himalaya-Ganga Corporation, India Research Press, 2007

Milliman et al, Environmental and economic implications of rising sea level and subsiding deltas: the Nile and Bengal examples, JSTOR, 1989

Syvitski et al Sinking deltas due to human activities Nature Geoscience, September 2009

Thakkar, Dandekar, Shrinking and Sinking Deltas, Major role of dams in delta subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise, SANDRP, 2014

A Photo Feature on Farakka Barrage: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/world-rivers-day-and-ganga-a-look-at-farakka-barrage-and-other-such-calamities/

End Notes:

[1] Pers. Comm.

[i] For a earlier SANDRP report on Farakka, see: https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf

[ii] http://iwai.nic.in/index1.php?lang=1&level=0&linkid=115&lid=781

[iii] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/varanasi/No-environmental-clearance-for-Haldia-Allahabad-Waterway/articleshow/39827972.cms

[iv] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/will-this-ganga-manthan-help-the-river/

[v] http://www.toxicswatch.org/2014/08/work-commencing-on-ganga-waterway.html

[vi] Dr. Rudra, Kalyan, The Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts: The Case of West Bengal, India, 2008

[vii] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/kolkata/PIL-to-save-Kolkata-and-Haldia-ports-filed/articleshow/20526985.cms

[viii] Dr. Rudra, Kalyan, The Encroaching Ganga and Social Conflicts: The Case of West Bengal, India, 2008

[ix] For more details see: https://sandrp.in/Shrinking_and_sinking_delta_major_role_of_Dams_May_2014.pdf

[x] http://www.environmentportal.in/files/Farakka%20Barrage.pdf

[xi] Khalequzzaman, Md., and Islam. Z., 2012, ‘Success and Failure of the Ganges Water-sharing Treaty’ on WRE Forum http://wreforum.org/khaleq/blog/5689

[xii] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/collapsing-hilsa-can-the-dams-compensate-for-the-loss/

http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?186621/Climate-change-could-drown-out-Sundarbans-tigers—study

http://www.the-south-asian.com/april-june2009/Climate-refugees-of-Sunderbans.htm

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/092181819190118G

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

[xiv] http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/2071

[xv] https://sandrp.in/rivers/Dolphins_of_the_Ganga-few_fading_fewer_frolicking.pdf

[xvi] World Bank, Uttar Pradesh Water Restructuring Project Phase II, 2013

[xvii] https://sandrp.in/dams/impct_frka_wcd.pdf

Dams

Who governs our rivers: Too many cooks without care or coordination?

By law, rivers in India belong to the government, however, government has no particular agency that governs our rivers. Our constitution or law does not provide any direct protection to rivers. A large number of entities at centre and state level take decisions that affect our rivers but they do not even seem aware of such impacts. That the decisions and working of a large number of agencies affect the rivers is expected considering the landscape level existence of rivers and society’s wide ranging needs for water and other services provided by the rivers. But the complete neglect of the rivers is certainly not expected. More importantly, people seem to have no role in governance of our rivers! There seems to be neither an understanding nor a recognition that lives and livelihoods of so many people depend on rivers. Nor an understanding as to what is a river and what are its role in the ecosystem, in current and future well being of the society. These blindspots about our understanding of rivers get reflected in our governance of rivers.

NGT  Foundation Function on Oct 18, 2014 (Source: FB page of Information and Broadcasting Ministry)
Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar at NGT Foundation Function on Oct 18, 2014 (Source: FB page of Information and Broadcasting Ministry)

India remains an agrarian country, and our water use practices have prioritised use of water for irrigation. Archaic water laws during the British rule looked at water as a resource to be exploited under the jurisdiction of the government. The 1873 Northern India Canal and Drainage Act, stated ‘use and control for public purposes the water of all rivers and streams flowing in natural channels’ as a right of the Government, without any credible and democratic way of deciding what is public purpose.[1]  In the same vein the Madhya Pradesh Irrigation Act of 1931 asserted direct state control over water, which find an echo even today in the Bihar Irrigation Act, of 1997 that stresses that all rights in surface water vest with the Government.[2] In fact post colonial water governance did not see any break from the past and essentially the same paradigm prevalant during colonial times continued after independence.

Water in India, as per our constitution is a state (government) subject, and by the same logic water laws in the country too are mostly state based. Thus the state has the constitutional power to make laws, to implement & regulate water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, water storage & hydropower. However, there is nothing in the constitution or law that shows an understanding of what is a river, what services it provides or if there is anything worth conserving in rivers. There is no legal protection for rivers in India.

Moreover as most of the rivers flow through more than one states, the rivers become cause of major interstate disputes when they are seen as sites of big dams. Smaller projects are rarely the reason for intractable interstate disputes. Unfortunately, in post-indepednence India, politicians love big dams and they are seen as most important, if not the only saleable development projects.

The centre can intervene for any interstate differences by constituting a Water Dispute Tribunal for the mediation of the water dispute, but only if invited to do so by the state government.  It is within the Central Government powers to regulate and develop inter-State rivers under entry 56 of the constitution, but these powers are rarely used. Entry 56 reads: “Regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament by law to be expedient in the public interest.”

Instead many different regulatory mechanisms have been harnessed and committees formed under various ministries for water management in inter state river basins.

Let’s take a tour of the various agencies involved in governance of rivers in India.

AT THE CENTRE:

Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation

MoWR

It is the apex body[3] at the union level responsible for the country’s water resources and its functions from the river perspective are:

  • Rejuvenation of Ganga River and also National Ganga River Basin Authority
  • To resolve differences relating to inter-state rivers
  • To oversee implementation of inter-state projects occasionally
  • To manage, monitor and sanction funds for centrally funded schemes like Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Program, Command Area Development, Rehabilitation of Water Bodies, Bharat Nirman, etc.
  • Operation of central network for flood forecasting and warning on inter-state rivers (CWC task)
  • Preparation of flood control master plans for the Ganga and the Brahmaputra
  • Talks and negotiations on river waters with neighbouring countries
  • Operation of the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan, Ganga Water Treaty with Bangladesh, Mahakali, Kosi, Gandak and other treaties with Nepal, Water Cooperation with Bhutan, Exchange of Data with China under MoU, etc.
Sushri Uma Bharati, the current Minister, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Photo from : Jagran Post
Sushri Uma Bharati, the current Minister, Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Photo from : Jagran Post

There are a plethora of offices/bodies under the water resource ministry, who work under their control. These include the following:

Central Water Commission (CWC) Supposed to be a premier Technical Organization, the CWC[4] is responsible for schemes for control, conservation and utilization of all water resources for various purposes, which includes flood control & irrigation, and overall planning& development of river basins. It also monitors the river water quality at 396 stations located in all the major river basins of India.[5] It is also responsible for co-ordination with states for establishing River Basin Organisations [6], like

  • Krishna and Godavari Basin Organization, KGBO [7]
  • Brahmputra & Barak Basin Organisation (B&BBO)
  • Cauvery & Southern River Organisation (CSRO)
  • Indus Basin Organisation (IBO)
  • Lower Ganga Basin Organisation (LGBO)
  • Mahanadi & Eastern River Organisation (MERO)
  • Narmada Basin Organisation (NBO)
  • Central Monitoring Organisation (Mon-c)
  • Narmada & Tapi Basin Organisation (NTBO)
  • Upper Ganga Basin Organisation (UGBO)
  • Yamuna Basin Organisation (YBO)

This gives a misleading picture that for practically every river basin there is a basin organisation. In reality, review of CWC annual reports show that there is hardly any activity of these organisations, they in any case do not work to protect the rivers.

CWC is enormously powerful and a big engineering bureaucracy, that hates any sense of participatory governance & accountability. It works more like a big dam lobby, unfortunately. See for example: 1. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/how-much-do-we-know-about-our-dams-and-rivers/, 2. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/07/12/guesstimating-a-future-questioning-knowledge-formation-expertise-and-development-in-post-independence-india/, 3. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/06/why-does-central-water-commission-have-no-flood-forecasting-for-jammu-kashmir-why-this-neglect-by-central-government/, 4. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/06/25/central-water-commissions-flood-forecasting-pathetic-performance-in-uttarkhand-disaster/

Central Ground Water Board (CGWB)

logocgwb A  multidisciplinary  scientific  organization for the scientific & sustainable development and management of India’s ground water resources. A Central Ground Water Authority has been in 1996 through a Supreme Court order with powers under Environment Protection Act, 1986. On the face of it, CGWB and CGWA may not have any direct role in governance of rivers, the fact is they have a huge role. Firstly, destruction of rivers mean that the groundwater recharge that happens by flowing rivers would stop. CGWB and CGWA should be concerned about this, but have shown no such concern. Secondly, when there is over exploitation of groundwater, it has impact on flow of downstream rivers, particularly in lean season and in low rainfall areas.

Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS): A principal central agency that provides R&D, and deals with research, services and support pertaining to projects on water resources, energy & water borne transport including those related to rivers.

Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CMRS): It deals with field explorations, laboratory investigations and research in the field of geotechnical engineering and civil engineering materials, particularly for construction of river valley projects and safety evaluation of existing dams.

National Water Development Agency (NWDA)

NWDASet up in 1981-82, the main task of this organisation is to do studies related to inter-linking of rivers. In that sense, it is an anti-river organisation! An autonomous society, some of NWDA’s[8] river related functions include to:

  • Carry out detailed surveys about the quantum of water that can be transferred to other basins/States
  • Prepare feasibility report of the various components of the scheme relating to Peninsular Rivers development and Himalayan Rivers development
  • Prepare detailed project report of river link proposals
  • Prepare pre-feasibility/feasibility report of the intra-state links

NWDA has not been confident enough to put any of its work in public domain. Some feasibility reports are out following repeated Supreme Court orders in 2002. A perusal of some of these studies shows that it has no concern for the rivers or  the services provided by the rivers. It sees all water flowing to the sea as a waste! Which means rivers are a wasteful resource! In its environment impact assessments or in its cost benefit analysis  there is no accounting of the services of rivers that would be destroyed if the proposed project go ahead!

National Institute of Hydrology (NIH)

NIH A “premier” Institute in the area of hydrology and water resources, it aids, promotes & coordinates work in the field of hydrology and water resources development.[9] However, it is not known to stand up or speak up for rivers. Its classification of rivers, as mentioned in an earlier blog[10], leaves a lot to be desired. The non participatory tendencies of NIH was apparent in the way it organised a workshop on Environment Flows in Oct 2013[11]. NIH did not find it necessary to invite even the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests for the workshop! NIH also parterned with CIFRI for a flawed assessment of e-flows for Teesta IV project, among other such studies[12].

Farakka Barrage Authority It is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the Farakka Barrage Project, (FBP), which regulate the flow of water to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly through the feeder canal to maintain navigability of the Kolkata Port.

National Water Academy Earlier known as Central Training Unit, it has been established to impart in house training to water resources personnel from government organisations. Its curriculum includes watershed management, flood forecast &management, environmental management for river valley projects and workshop on River Basin Organisations.

Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) The techno-economic appraisal of irrigation, flood control and multipurpose projects proposed by the State/ Central Governments or other organisations is done by TAC of Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, for Irrigation, Flood Control and Multipurpose Projects and thereafter make appropriate recommendation. Once found acceptable by the TAC, it is recommended for investment clearance by the Planning Commission and inclusion in the Five Year Plan/Annual Plan.[13] In the functioning of TAC, lack of transparency, participatory governance is the norm[14]. TAC has no member from outside the government, nor does it put up its agenda or minutes of the meeings in public domain. At the initiative of SANDRP, following a letter written to the government in April 2011[15], minutes of some of the TAC meetings were for the first time put up in public domain, but even that has stopped since July 2012[16].

Interstate River Basin Boards For several Inter State Basins, Boards have been set up for co-ordination and implementation and to deal with individual basins/ projects/ interstate disputes. Some of them are listed here.

  • Bansagar Control Board for execution of Bansagar Dam on Sone river and connected works
  • Betwa River Board for the execution of the Rajghat Dam Project
  • Upper Yamuna River Board (UYRB), which refers to the reach of Yamuna from its origin at Yamunotri to Okhla Barrage at Delhi and includes all the states in this basin.
  • The Brahmaputra Board: Its objective is planning & integrated implementation of measures for control of floods and bank erosion in Brahmaputra and for matters connected therewith
  • Narmada Control Authority (NCA): For proper implementation of the decisions & directions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. There are number of supporting statutory mechanisms: Environment Sub Group of NCA, Rehabilitation Sub Group of NCA, Review Committee of NCA and Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee.
  • The Tungabhadra Board: Regulates water for irrigation, hydro-power generation and other uses from the Tungabhadra reservoir
  • Ganga Flood Conrol Commission has been set up for specific tasks related to floods in the Ganga basin, including coordination with upstream Nepal.

Public Sector Enterprises under Union Ministry of Water Resources:

  • Water and Power Consultancy Services (WAPCOS) Limited: Provides consultancy services in Water Resources, Power and Infrastructure Sectors. The shoddy work of WAPCOS in doing environmental impact assessment and cumulative basin level impact assessment has been repeatedly highlighted by SANDRP[17]. WAPCOS is also involved in Water projects that India funds abroad including in Afghanistan, Bhutan, etc. During a recent visit to Bhutan, SANDRP heard similar complaints about shoddy EIAs and over charging by WAPCOS and also about Bhutan government having no option, but to give the work to WAPCOS, since India as a funder was dictating the terms.
  • National Projects Construction Corporation Limited (NPCC): Carries out infrastructure work and other related activities for development of the nation that includes dam construction

Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC)

MoEFThe nodal agency that plans, promotes, co-ordinates and oversees the implementation of the country’s environmental & forestry policies and programmes, its primary concern is implementation of policies and programmes relating to conserve our natural resources that includes rivers.[18]

The ministry also accords environment and forest clearance to hydropower projects and dams all over India. The Environment Clearnace is given by the ministry for hydropower projects above 50 MW and for irrigation projects with command area above 10 000 ha. For the environment appraisal of these projects, the ministry has set up Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley and Hydropower Projects. The functioning of the ministry and EAC on this score is most shoddy, inadequate, inconsistent and far from any concern for rivers[19]. In fact if you pick up Environmental Impact Assessment of any project cleared by the EAC and the ministry, you would not find anything about the value of rivers in any of its reports.

The Forest Department (FD) under MoEF & CC governs rivers that flow through the forests. Since a huge about 23% of land of the country or about 76 million ha of land comes under this department a very large segment of India’s rivers come under the FD. However, there is no evidence of FD taking any action to protect the rivers or aquatic biodiversity. In fact we have been reading the FD proposals for diversion of forest land that come before the Forest Advisory Committee over the years and we see absolutely no concern or even recognition of the impact of such diversions on rivers or aquatic biodiversity, the FD does not even seem to acknowledge the existence of river and aquatic biodiversity.

The Wildlife Department (WLD) under MoEF & CC has powers under the Wildlife Act of 1972 to have their say whenever any activity or development project affects the aquatic life in protected areas or even flows into or out of any protected areas. However there is little evidence to show that WLD has used these powers to protect rivers, flows & aquatic life therein even as projects  are well into implementation, without even taking consent of the Chief Wildlife Warden, State Board of Wildlife or National Board of Wildlife.

The MoEF & CC has been sitting for years over a proposal to notify River Regulation Zone for protection so that riverbeds and floodplains are protected.

It is well known how important are wetlands as part of the River Basins. However, the MoEF & CC has shown little genuine action to protect wetlands. Ramsar, International Convention for Protection of wetlands, includes rivers in the definition of the wetlands. India, in spite of being signatories, has excluded rivers from the definition of wetlands. The Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules 2010 of MoEF & CC are not helpful in protecting our wetlands. India’s wetlands, remain in peril.

Erstwhile Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh at MoEF Photo from The Hindu
Erstwhile Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh at MoEF Photo from The Hindu

National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) The name is  misleading here, as the name suggests it works for conservation of rivers, but its only focus is pollution. So either the name is misleading or it reflects poor understanding of the government when they equate river conservation with pollution control work. It is supposed to be governed by National River Conservaion Authority, chaired by Prime Minister, but that authority has never met during the 10 years of UPA government and now almost six months of NDA government. This shows how much of a priority rivers are for the government.

Under the MoEF & CC, NRCD[20] works for conservation of rivers, lakes and wetlands through 2 central schemes:

  • National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) : To improve water quality of rivers through implementation of pollution abatement schemes in identified polluted stretches of rivers
  • National Plan for Conservation of Aquatic Eco-systems (NPCA): To conserve aquatic ecosystems (lakes and wetlands)

Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)

CPCBA statutory organisation, under MoEF & CC, the CPCB sets standards and regulations for prevention and control of pollution. It also monitors water quality of all important water bodies located on 206 rivers of the country. CPCB, along with state pollution control boards and the whole pollution control machinery were set up following the 1974 water pollution control act. 40 years after setting up of this elaborate bureaucracy, we have not heard of a single success story where this machinery has achieved a clean river. However, there are large number of examples of its failure and the machinery being a den of corruption. The Supreme Court of India on Oct 29, 2014 said[21]: “This is an institutional failure and your story is a complete story of failure, frustration and disaster.”

National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA)

Set up in 2009 through a notification under Environment Protection Act (EPA) of 1986, it’s functions include development of a Ganga River Basin Management Plan, regulation of activities aimed at prevention, control and abatement of pollution, to maintain water flow and quality and to take measures relevant to the river ecology in the Ganga basin states. So far there has been absoltely no sign of impact of functioning of this authority on the Ganga. The authority met just three times during first five years of its existence and frustated independent members twice resigned. The NDA government at the centre that took office in May 2014 reconstituted it without either public process or even public information, in fact even the earlier members did not know they have been removed!

Water Quality Assessment Authority

Established under EPA 1986 in 2001, WQAA’s[22] functions include issuing direction and taking measures on the following matters:

  • Investigate and carry out research on problems of water pollution
  • Prepare manuals, codes or guides to prevent, control and for abatement of water pollution
  • Direct agencies to take measures to restore water quality of the river / water bodies
  • Restrict water abstraction of treated sewage / trade effluent on land, rivers and other water bodies to mitigate crisis of water quality
  • Maintain minimum discharge for sustenance of aquatic life forms in riverine system
  • Utilize self-assimilation capacities at the critical river stretches to minimise cost of effluent treatment
  • Review the status of quality of national water resources (both surface water & ground water) and identify “Hot Spots” for taking necessary actions

It is amazing that more than 13 years after constitution of WQAA, we see no sign of its functioning either on the state of our rivers or in governance of our rivers.

Ministry of Power

MoPMoP is primarily responsible for the development of electrical energy in the country and all matters relating to hydro-electric power (except small/mini/micro hydel projects of and below 25 MW capacity). It also deals with matters relating to these agencies:

  • Central Electricity Authority

CEA accords techno economic clearance to hydropower projects under Electricity Act 2003. The Section 8(2) of the Act states, “The (Central Electricity) Authority shall, before concurring in any (hydropower) scheme submitted to it under sub-section (1) have particular regard to, whether or not in its opinion,- (a) the proposed river-works will prejudice the prospects for the best ultimate development of the river or its tributaries for power generation, consistent with the requirements of drinking water, irrigation, navigation, flood-control, or other public purposes, and for this purpose the Authority shall satisfy itself, after consultation with the State Government, the Central Government, or such other agencies as it may deem appropriate, that an adequate study has been made of the optimum location of dams and other river-works”. (Emphasis added.)

This provision could have been used for the protection of rivers, since it requires the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) to give concurrence to hydro projects only after satisfying that the proposal is optimum with respect to all other uses of the rivers. Unfortunately, as the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) found out through applications under the Right to Information Act, while giving concurrence to hydropower schemes under this Act, the CEA consults only two organisations, namely the Geological Society of India (GSI) and the Central Water Commission (CWC). GSI and CWC evaluate the scheme from specific parameters of geology and hydrology, but do not look at basin wide issues as required under the Act. The CEA itself is not capable of ensuring basin wide optimisation that the Act requires, nor does it consult the concerned stakeholders. Thus the Act is not being followed.

  • The Damodar Valley Corporation
  • The Bhakra Beas Management Board (except matters relating to irrigation)
  • National Thermal Power Corporation Limited
  • National Hydro-electric Power Corporation Limited
  • North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited
  • Tehri Hydro Development Corporation
  • Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd.
  • Power Grid Corporation of India Limited
  • Power Finance Corporation Limited
  • Centra and state electricity regulatory commissions

 All of these authorities, involved in sanctioning, developing, regulating, financing and operating hydropower projects have direct impact on rivers.

Ministry of Agriculture (MoA)

Agriculture remains the biggest user of water in India. MoA is the apex body for formulation and administration of the rules,regulations and laws relating to agriculture in India, it’s portfolio also includes research on matters relating to irrigation, flood control, anti-water-logging, drainage, soil and water conservation, watershed development and anti-erosion.

Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries

This department under MoA also looks at Riverine fisheries on which more than 10 million Indians depend directly. The Department or corresponding State Fisheries Departments in respective states have absolutely no interest in welfare of rivers, despite the fact that damming and pollution is directly affecting fish yield. We looked at the way how Maharashtra Fisheries Department functions vis a vis rivers and Riverine Fisheries and we were clearly told that rivers are not a part of their jurisdiction!

Department of Agriculture And Cooperation

It focuses on sustaining the current momentum by stabilizing food grain production to ensure food security. Its water related agenda includes increased availability of irrigation water leading to increase in the irrigated area, farm productivity and crop production.

Soil and Land Use Survey of India (SLUSI), a pivotal organisation under it carries out survey and soil conservation activities for catchment of river valley projects & flood prone rivers for demarcation of watersheds.[23]

Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE)

It coordinates and promotes agricultural research and education.

Ministry of Rural Development

Though this nodal Ministry is mainly responsible for most of the development and welfare activities in the rural areas, water supply & sanitation schemes involve the rivers as a water source or affects rivers directly or indirectly. In some areas, projects involve rivers, as in the case  of the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) in Madhya Pradesh, which was to revive a river in Khargone district, and increase surface flows.[24]

Ministry of Urban Development

The apex body for formulation and administration of the rules and regulations and laws relating to the housing and urban development, of which urban water supply & sanitation is an essential division. Increasingly, Urban areas are dependent for its water sources on rivers from farther and farther areas and they are invariably dumping mostly untreated sewage and even solid waste into the nearby rivers without any impunity[25]. Urban areas are also destroying the water bodies in the cities and encroaching on the floodplains and even riverbeds.

National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI)

NEERI  conducts research and innovations in environmental science and engineering to help find solutions to environmental pollution and natural resource problems. It has 5 zonal laboratories at Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai.[26] NEERI is also into the Environmental Impact Assessment business and some of the EIAs it has done of hydropoer projects are pretty shoddy[27].

State Level Agencies

As per India’s constitution, water remains a state subject and hence state governmnet role in the fate of rivers is also very crucial. At each state level, the involved agencies related to Rivers include the following :

Environment Department: Responsibility includes environment protection, pollution monitoring, control abatement and awareness. The department is also involved in regulating and sanctioning hydropower projects of 25-50 MW capacity and also smaller irrigation projects through State Environment Impact Assessment Agency and State Environment Appraisal Agency.

  • State Pollution Control Boards
  • SPCBs have been set up in all states under the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974. At the State level, this board is responsible for implementation of legislations relating to prevention & control of environmental pollution, and conservation of natural resources. The SPCBs are also required to give consent to establish and consent to operate for all the major projects, including dams and hydropower projects. They also conduct public hearings required under the EIA notification of Sept 2006. As mentioned earlier, we do not see a success story in functioning of any SPCB in either achieving a clean river or protection of rivers.

Water Resources (or Irrigation) Department: Aim is to regulate water resources within the State (e.g. Department of Irrigation, Government of Punjab[28]) as per State Water Policy and to facilitate & ensure judicious, equitable and sustainable management, allocation and utilization of water resources. Some special state level agencies include the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority.[29] Besides these, there are Irrigation Development Corporations, to accelerate the completion of irrigation projects in Maharashtra State.[30] Such corporations have been set up in a number of states including Karnataka, Gujarat, among others.

Power Department: Responsible for generation, transmission, distribution and despatching of electric power supply, including hydropower, for example Energy & Power Department of Sikkim and Power & Electricity Department, Mizoram. Some states have also set up state level corporations for hydropower development (e.g. Himachal Pradesh Power Development Corporation).

Judiciary, Media, Religion, Civil Society & Society at large All these agencies also have a big role in deciding the fate of our rivers and need to play that role effectively. Unfortunately, considering the state of our rivers, we can conclude that inspite of some notable exceptions in case of all these, in general, we have not succeedded in protecting our rivers.

As far as role of political parties & leaders are concerned, we do not seem to have even any positive exceptions in terms of achieving better state of our rivers.

Some rare bright lights in this scenario, apart from community efforts at coordination, communication and governance include the WRIS (Water Resources Information System of India), a joint venture between MoWR and ISRO. The site is indeed a useful reference for information about many basins in the country (although the claimed focus is on “Water Resources” and not rivers!). It also includes  Watershed Atlas, River Basin Atlas of the country and individual basin profiles which look comprehensive.

In Conclusion: Rivers are more than just a  water source We have a complex network of river systems in the country. The myriad government agencies listed here majorly affect rivers, and a close co ordination and involvement between these institutions is essential to implement any river policy or project to ensure continued existence and sustenance of rivers.  River management and their judicious use encompasses a whole lot of diverse characteristics and these fall under the jurisdiction of many of the above mentioned agencies,  who need to work in a together in a cohesive manner. The river governance need to be democratic and communities should have a key role in informed, participatory decision making. This is certainly possible if there is a will.

Even though humans have built homes and civilisations along river banks since time immemorial, and water has been vital for life and growth, used for drinking, irrigation, transportation and energy sources, our society and governance system seem to have failed to understand the true value of our rivers. Today, these rivers that are our lifeline seem to be more often misused than used.

The fact that a large number of entities are involved in governing the fate of the rivers should not be such a problem as long as each of them is aware that their decisions are affecting the fate of the rivers and that they are involved  in governing the rivers. The second major problem is that there are no river specific, legally empowered coordinating agency that will ensure that rivers continue to survive and exist in a healthy state. In effect, while the government has monoploy over rivers, it is not bothered to ensure continued and healthy existence for rivers.

We may have created these techno legal frameworks for our short sighted priorities, but what would be a first step of help for rivers is recognition of rivers, its services, need for their continued and sustained existence and legal protection for the same. A legally empowered and participatory coordination mechanism that is willing to understand and speak from the rivers perspective, for each river could also help. An agency that will understand and appreciate rivers, rather than see it as a simple linear source of water, power or transport system.

Even though the new NDA govt at the centre since May 2014 has claimed that river rejuvenation is its priority, we see that the government so far has only indulged in tokenism and symbolism. On the contrary, in terms of deeds a large of their actions are against the interest of sustained existence of rivers.

Photo from NDTV
Photo from NDTV

Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (ht.sandrp@gmail.com), Sabita Kaushal, SANDRP (sabikaushal06@gmail.com), with inputs from Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com) 

End Notes:

[1] Water Law in India: Philippe Cullet, IELRC,2007: http://www.ielrc.org/content/w0701.pdf

[2] Bihar Irrigation Act, 1997 , IELRC http://www.cseindia.org/userfiles/Biharirract97.pdf

[3] Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation: http://wrmin.nic.in/

[4] Central Water Commission:  http://cwc.gov.in/

[5] Water Quality Hot Spots in Rivers of India:

http://wqaa.gov.in/Content/Water%20Quality%20Hot%20Spots%20in%20Rivers%20of%20India.aspx

[6]Central Water Commission: http://cwc.gov.in/RTI-Item-2.htm

[7] http://www.kgbo-cwc.ap.nic.in/

[8]  National Water Development Agency (NWDA): http://nwda.gov.in/

[9] NIH: http://www.nih.ernet.in/

[10] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/15/know-your-rivers-a-beginners-guide-to-river-classification/

[11] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/09/30/nih-roorkees-workshop-on-eflows-where-is-the-credibility/

[12] For details, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/eflows-in-india-groping-in-darkness/

[13] Decision making process, TAC: http://www.cwc.nic.in/main/webpages/rti/rti_item3.html

[14] See for example: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/03/19/lack-of-transparency-and-accountability-remains-the-norm-of-functioning-for-mowrs-advisory-committee/, https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/04/02/analysis-mowrs-advisory-committees-decisions-for-northeast-january-2009-to-dec-2013/

[15] See for details: https://sandrp.in/dams/Letter%20to%20Union%20Ministry%20of%20Water%20Resources%20for%20transparecny%2C%20participation%20in%20Decision%20making%20process%20APR2011.pdf, for detailed analysis of TAC miniutes, see cover story in April May 2011 issue of “Dams, Rivers & People” magazine: https://sandrp.in/drp/April%20May%202011.pdf

[16] See: http://www.cwc.gov.in/main/webpages/TAC%20minutes.html, the minutes have stopped after the July 2012 TAC meeting.

[17] For example, see: i. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/08/19/sach-khas-hydro-project-in-chenab-basin-another-example-of-wapcoss-shoddy-eia/, ii. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/02/22/chinki-major-irrigation-project-on-narmada-yet-another-evidence-of-mps-obsession-with-large-irrigation-dams-wapcoss-shoddy-reports/, iii. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/11/15/mohanpura-dam-in-madhya-pradesh/, iv. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2013/11/12/bansujara-irrigation-project-in-mp/, v. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/tragedy-of-errors-environmental-governance-and-the-sonthi-lift-irrigation-scheme/, vi. https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/critique-of-the-eia_emp-kalai-ii-hep/

[18]Ministry of Environment & Forests:  http://envfor.nic.in/

[19] For detailed analysis of functioning of EAC and MoEF & CC, see: https://sandrp.in/env_governance/TOR_and_EC_Clearance_status_all_India_Overview_Feb2013.pdf and https://sandrp.in/env_governance/EAC_meetings_Decisions_All_India_Apr_2007_to_Dec_2012.pdf

[20]National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD): http://envfor.nic.in/division/national-river-conservation-directorate-nrcd

[21] http://www.firstpost.com/india/industries-polluting-ganga-sc-asks-national-green-tribunal-take-action-1778413.html

[22] Water Quality Assessment Authority: http://wqaa.gov.in/

[23] Annual Report, Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, 2011-12: http://agricoop.nic.in/imagedefault/ARE2012.pdf

[24] Greening rural development in India: http://rural.nic.in/sites/downloads/NewReleases/Greening_RD_Report.pdf

[25] For example, see in case of Mumbai Metropolitcan Region: https://sandrp.in/Dams_in_tribal_belt_of_Western_Ghats_for_the_Mumbai_Metropolitan_Region.pdf

[26] NEERI: http://www.neeri.res.in/aboutus.php

[27] For example, see: https://sandrp.in/hydropower/kw_sandrp_critq.pdf

[28] Department of Irrigation, GoP: http://www.pbirrigation.gov.in/

[29] Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority (MWRRA): http://www.mwrra.org/

[30] http://mahawrd.org/devcorpo.htm

Ganga · Ministry of Water Resources

A RIVER MAP FOR REJUVENATING GANGA

(Above: River Ganga at Rishikesh Photo with thanks from Ramesh Rawat, India Travelz)

– Guest Blog by: Manoj Misra (manojmisra@peaceinst.org.  Author is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

A ‘road map’ might be an inappropriate term for a ‘river’ rejuvenation plan. Thus I am using the term, a ‘river map’.

It is well known that despite the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) being in place since the year 1985 and the Supreme Court adjudicating public interest litigation on it since 1993 the river has become increasingly sick with some stretches notably in Kanpur deserving a biologically ‘dead’ status. So it came as a huge sign of hope when the Prime Minister Modi took upon Ganga rejuvenation as a personal mission and appointed Sushri Uma Bharti, a well known Ganga devotee and activist as the Union Minister of the renamed Ministry of Water resources, River development and Ganga rejuvenation. Soon the Finance Minister in the new government allocated financial resources to the tune of Rs 2037 Crores in the name of Nemami Gange (devotional bow to river Ganga) a flagship scheme of the new government, which is aimed at the rejuvenation of river Ganga.

Yet in recent days the Supreme Court time and again has chided the state on the lack of a sound action plan for its avowed objective of a rejuvenated river Ganga. So much so that it once, in an obvious exasperation on the state’s ‘business as usual’ approach to the issue, commented that “it might well be another 200 years before Ganga is actually rejuvenated”? Clearly notwithstanding its firm intent, the state continues to struggle with defining a ‘road (river) map’ that could while convincing the highest court in the land of its utility, set a clear and effective action plan on the ground for a rejuvenated Maa (mother) Ganga?

REJUVENATION

Let us try and see what does Ganga really require for its rejuvenation?

Term ‘rejuvenation’, which includes restoration, is a return of any living entity from what it is today to an agreed state of previous health and wellness. To unravel that we might first need to understand ‘what is’ and ‘where is’ river Ganga?

Most planners tend to view Ganga as a 2500 km long river from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar, passing through the cities of Uttarkashi, Devprayag, Rishikesh and Hardwar in the state of Uttarakhand; Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh; Patna in the state of Bihar and Kolkata in the state of West Bengal before merging with the sea in the Bay of Bengal.

Herein, we understand lay the first fundamental planning mistake. For if Ganga were a simple linear entity as planners hold, then King Bhagirath would have unnecessarily carried out tapasya (penance) placating Lord Shiva to hold Ganga in his jata (matted locks) as she descended with massive force from the Brahm Lok (abode of the gods) with a presumed potential to wreck absolute havoc on the mrityu lok (earth) unless its speed had been broken. This mythical tale translates itself into an earthly reality whereby Ganga actually resides in each and every spring, in every water fall and in every stream that together form the vast network of its tributaries spread over its vast basin. So Ganga rejuvenation plan to make sense and desired impact must encompass actions to revive and restore all these numerous streams and tributaries.

The water fall is as much the Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
The water fall is as much the Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

Thus any rejuvenation plan that fails to look at and factor in the Ganga’s larger reality is destined to fail, a la all the previous Ganga Action Plans. All put together Ganga is no less than 25,000 km in length,   with a basin spread of some 1,086,000 sq km. (see map) These include areas in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal within and China, Nepal and Bangladesh outside of India. With such a huge basin, the rejuvenational challenge might appear daunting, leading to an alluring thought that let us first try and rejuvenate the 2500 km of the main stem of the river and then may be tackle the rest. This we believe to be a fatal approach akin to fire fighting, without getting to the root cause, with the most immediate organ of a cancer afflicted human resulting ultimately organ by organ in the latter’s demise. Let us not forget that a healthy river system is like a multi-strand chain which is ‘as strong as its weakest link’. Hence as long as even one tributary remains sick, there can be no respite or rejuvenation of Maa Ganga!

Ganga river basin (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges_Basin)
Ganga river basin (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ganges_Basin)

In other words there is no single river Ganga. It is actually ‘Ganga Rivers’ spread all over its basin and carrying names like the Yamuna; Ramganga; Gomti; Mahakali (Ghaghara); Son; Gandak, Koshi etc with each in turn having their own network of rivers and their rejuvenational requirements, since over time majority of them have as well gone ‘sick’.

RIVER INHIBITING PROJECTS  

Some might ask, but then what could be done with tributaries lying or originating in Nepal, Bangladesh or in China? A lot actually, beginning with not promoting or supporting river ‘inhibiting’ projects there and then taking lead in a common futures dialogue (an International Ganga Rivers Commission) program on Ganga as the Ganga rivers are in need of rejuvenation there as well.

Dwelling more on what are the river ‘inhibiting’ projects we are led to what constitutes a river’s integrity?

A ‘healthy’ river must ‘run’ freely and must ‘flood’ freely. (Floods in Indian rivers are natural monsoonal occurrence which could become devastating when obstructed).

That is its longitudinal and lateral connectivities must not be allowed to be compromised through manmade structures like dams, barrages and embankments. Such connectivities are essential for a river system to fulfill its ecological roles of transport of water, sediment and energy from source to the sea; recharge of ground water; provision of habitat to aquatic and riparian biota and completion of the water cycle.

In other words, a healthy river is essentially an ‘aviral’ (unbroken in its various dimensions) river. Thus the key challenge and objective of any Ganga rejuvenation plan has to be first and foremost its restoration back to a truly ‘aviral’ state.

FIVE STEPS

Accordingly the following five steps are suggested as the ‘river map’ to a rejuvenated river Ganga.

Step 1 – Establish local level Ganga rejuvenation governance systems to ensure participatory bottom up planning and action plan execution. Support this with the establishment of a Ganga Rivers governance research centre.

Step 2 – Prioritise tributaries (Ganga Rivers) for restorative actions on the basis of their current level of threats and develop restorative action plans utilizing the governance systems as mentioned in step 1.

Step 3 – Establish through a participatory process a desired state of the rejuvenated Ganga; devise a national Ganga rivers policy and a Ganga rejuvenation law.  Initiate dialogue with the Ganga nations for an International Ganga rivers Commission.

Step 4 – Review through independent experts, all past, present and planned river ‘inhibiting’ projects on the Ganga Rivers and then either re-design them to become river friendly or decommission / drop them. There should be a moratorium placed on any new structure (barrage, HEP, embankment) on Ganga Rivers till such time that all local level options of water harvesting and energy production (including solar and wind) have been exhausted with a policy that river waters and HEPs shall be the last resort for meeting such needs.

Step 5 – Set a time bound plan of action for ensuring aviral and wholesome Ganga ‘rivers’, with plans for ensuring their flows (water, sediment and energy) as well as the restoration of their catchment, flood plains and the associated biodiversity (aquatic, riparian and terrestrial).

The steps as suggested above are not sequential in nature and many could progress concurrently.  

To a query “what then about the hydropower and water supply for fulfilling various human needs”, the response is twofold.

Firstly, this is the Ganga rejuvenation plan based on what Ganga Rivers need for the restoration of their health. Secondly, hydro-power generation and water diversion cannot be in excess of the thresholds as defined by the rejuvenational requirements of the healthy Ganga Rivers.

A rejuvenated Ganga has to be seen as a ‘provider within strict limits’ (as enunciated by the Prime Minister Modi on the banks of Maa Ganga in Varanasi, when he defined what a Maa (mother) is) and not what we in our flawed wisdom might wish to harness from her, with little concern for her deteriorating health and in disregard to the principle of inter-generational equity.

RIVER AND SEWER

The Indian state under the Ganga Action Plan had been investing time, money and efforts to restore the river Ganga through creation of pollution abatement infrastructure like the Sewage treatment plants (STPs) and the Effluent treatment plants (ETPs) in various cities and industries on the river in the name of ‘river cleaning’ with little ameliorative impact on the health of the river. In our understanding despite the poor maintenance being the cause of the failure of the created infrastructure, this approach to river restoration is fundamentally misplaced and hence wrong.

We believe that our rivers require restoration (based on the steps suggested before) of their ecological integrity in terms of their freedom to ‘flow’ and ‘flood’. Once thus freed, they possess all the power of self cleansing, subject to the observance of the fundamental principle of no mixing of ‘sewer’ with ‘river’.  Here by ‘sewer’ we mean all kinds of grey water produced both by the cities and the industries.

Thus there is no mention of any river ‘cleaning’ or creation of STPs / ETPs as part of the suggested Ganga rejuvenation plan. The installation of such infrastructure is we believe to be an essential element of the process of urbanization and industrialization whereby the grey water from the cities and industries is converted into utilizable water for recycle and reuse to meet the non potable water needs both of the cities and the industries. But to do so in the name of river cleaning is in our understanding an ostrich like approach which takes away the attention and resource allocation from the real needs of river restoration based on the sound principles of river science.

Prime Minister Modi’s another oft quoted aphorism of “Zero defect and zero effect/ impact” should be made applicable not just to good manufacturing practices but also to good urban management practices with mandatory zero impact on any river that happens to pass by. AMEN!

Manoj Misra (manojmisra@peaceinst.org)