When I was documenting a tiny, free-flowing river in Maharashtra Western Ghats named Shastri, the common thread from headwaters to estuary was Fishing! It was everywhere, in all forms, including dozens of fish species and fishing practices, including everyone: men, women, children, otters, crocs, storks. Across the country, buzzing, diversified fisheries with old, complex narratives indicate a rich river. And the palette just gets more vivid, nuanced and colorful with the size of the river.
More than 10 million Indians from some of the most vulnerable groups depend on rivers for their livelihood and nutritional needs. This staggering number can be an underestimate as several riverine fisherfolk do not bring their produce to the market and our livelihood census hardly captures the intricacies of riverine fisheries sector. Despite the huge dependence and critical importance of riverine fisheries, the sector continues being ignored and abused. The reasons behind the exploitation are at the heart of a deeper, more troubling discourse: ownership and appropriation of the river as a natural resource. Continue reading “Riverine Fisherfolk as Mascots of flowing rivers and how 4 projects treat them today”→
Every year, November 21 is celebrated as World Fisheries day across the world. Fisherfolk communities organize rallies, workshops, public meetings, cultural programs, dramas, exhibition, music show, and demonstrations to highlight the importance of maintaining the world’s fisheries.
As per a recent United Nations study, more than two-thirds of the world’s fisheries have been overfished or are fully harvested and more than one third are in a state of decline because of factors such as the loss of essential fish habitats, pollution, and global warming. The World Fisheries Day helps in highlighting these problems, and moves towards finding solutions to the increasingly inter-connected problems, and in the longer term, to sustainable means of maintaining fish stocks. https://www.gdrc.org/doyourbit/21_11-fisheries-day.html
In an attempt to understand the significance of the issue, SANDRP with the help of selective media report, presents an overview of key developments and problems affecting fisheries and fisher folks at India and South Asia level.
(Above: Fish workers protesting with black flags in boat rally on Oct 8, 2017 when Prime Minister came to lay foundation stone for the Bhadbhut Dam)
Guest Blog by MSH Sheikh
The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) is managing the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat over River Narmada. Recently the Narmada Control Authority has allowed the closing of all 30 gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the river Narmada at Kevadia Colony, which will help raise level of water in the reservoir to 138.68 meter from the present 121.92 metre. The decision will help swell the dam’s live storage from 1.27 million acre feet (MAF) to 4.73 MAF.
On the 3rd of August 2016, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Sushri Uma Bharti ji made some interesting remarks in her answer to a question about impact of Ganga Waterways Project on Biodiversity (Please see SANDRP’s detailed report on the same issue here). Her brief speech can be seen here: https://youtu.be/ohEOMfay71I
It has been two years since the Union Minister for Shipping and Transport, Mr. Nitin Gadkari, announced the Government’s ambitious plan to revive the National Waterways-1 (Ganga Waterway) between Haldia and Allahabad, justifying it on the grounds that India’s waterway potential remains highly underutilized, although six times cheaper than road transport. In a letter dated 18th June, 2014 forwarded by Mr. Gadkari to the Finance Minister, Mr. Arun Jaitley, a proposal for financial assistance to four navigational barrages was also made.
Above: Zindapir Shrine at Sukkur Photofrom: British Library
Perhaps we all have our pet projects which we wish would go on forever. I have been working on a Primer on Riverine Fisheries of South Asia for some years now (my office may disagree with the definition of ‘some’). Like a magpie collecting shiny knick-knacks, I keep collecting (quite serendipitously, or so I think) anecdotes and interviews and snippets on the subject. Continue reading “Jhulelal or Zindapir: River Saints, fish and flows of the Indus”→
May 22 has been proclaimed as the International Day for Biological Diversity by the United Nations (https://www.cbd.int/idb/). The theme for this year’s celebration is Sustainable Development.
Beyond its ceremonial value, what is the status of biodiversity in India and what are the safeguards in place? Let us look at the issue from the prism of rivers. Rivers are an apt indicator as they connect terrestrial, riparian, aquatic, estuarine, even marine biodiversity as they flow and are a reflection of the issues faced by these ecosystems. Although it is difficult to believe, Indian Rivers are the richest repositories of biodiversity and can be classified as Endangered Species themselves! We are the 8th richest country in the world and third in Asia when it comes to fish diversity: a megadiverity hotspot. Indian rivers hold about 50% of all aquatic water plants and are home to thousands of species of migratory and resident water birds, amphibians, reptiles, riparian plants, phyto and zoo plankton, etc.
So how are we treating our rivers?
Just three days ahead of the International Day for Biological Diversity, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) issued Environmental Clearance to 3000 MW Dibang Hydropower Project on Dibang River, one of the important tributaries of Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh. The project will submerge more than 4700 hectares or 11,624 acres of rich forests under its reservoir. The EIA of the project done by National Productivity Council (Guwahati) was so flawed that it included exotic fish species never found in the river in its list, while omitting Rare, endangered and threatened species. These forests harbor endangered species such as tiger, leopard, serow as well as the critically endangered takin, all of which are protected under Schedule I of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972. The grasslands in the area are home to endangered Bengal Florican. Other species include the critically endangered white-rumped vulture, the slender-billed vulture and the white-winged wood duck. The project site lies in an area identified by the Bombay Natural History Society as a Ramsar site and an Important Bird Area. The habitat of six endangered plants (Aconitum ferox, Coelogyne mossiae, Dendrobium aurantiacum, Paphiopedilum fairieanum, Paphiopedilum venustum and Vanda coerulea) will be submerged by the reservoir. The project will also impact aquatic species; the dam will block the breeding migration of several endangered fish species.
The Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley and Hydropower Projects (EAC) which gives Environmental Clearance to dam projects in two stages has a flawless rack record of 100% project clearance. Never in the past has this committee rejected a proposal, based on merits or for its irreversible environmental impacts. Nor has it recommended strict action against EIA agencies which churn out compromised, cut & paste EIA reports. SANDRP has pointed out several instances where projects have been started without environmental clearance and at times even finished, but the EAC does not seem particularly bothered.
In its upcoming meeting on the 4th June, just a day ahead of World Environment Day, the EAC will discuss 3097 MW Etalin HEP by Jindal Power also in Dibang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which is set to submerge 1165.6 hectares of forest. The EIA of this project has been remarkably poor in recording the rich biodiversity of the region. SANDRP has pointed this out to the EAC. For the region where species like Tiger are recorded, the EIA study mentions only 45 mammal species. This region is being marked for its importance even by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
The Siang Basin Study conducted by RS Envirolinks Pvt Limited to understand the impacts of over 44 Hydropower dams in Basin which the EAC cleared in 2014, involves submergence of more than 18,000 hectares of virgin forests also in Arunachal. The regions is rich in orchids (more than 100 species!), holds 16 species of rhododendrons, 14 species of Bamboos and 14 species of canes and overall 27 RET species and 46 endemic plant species. 25 (18%) mammalian species found are Schedule I of WPA (Wildlife Protection Act), while 26 are under Schedule II! There are 447 species of birds, of which 31 are Schedule I species. The single basin consists of 5 Important Bird Areas!! (IBAs)
The Subansiri Basin Study done by IRG System South Asia to study impact of over 19 dams in this basin, does not even mention the presence of Gangetic Dolphins in the river, which is India’s National aquatic animal and will be severely impacted by the dam. Subansiri is one of the only tributaries of Brahmaputra with a resident population of the endangered Gangetic Dolphin (Baruah et al, 2012, Grave Danger for the Ganges Dolphin (Platanista ganegtica) in the Subansiri River due to large Hydroelectric Project).
There is no consolidated estimation of the impact of all the dams in Arunachal on rare and endangered species or their migratory routes or the biodiverse habitats in the downstream including the Memorial D Erring Sanctuary, where Lower Siang HEP and all the projects in the upstream will lead to water level fluctuation of more than 22 feet in a single day! Most of the aquatic as well as riparian species are sensitive to flow changes, but so far there has been no study to understand the impacts of water level fluctuation, peaking, damming, erosion and changes in silt pattern, etc., on any species, before clearing these projects. Similarly, the impacts of peaking of all these projects on Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Assam, which is a habitat of the critically endangered Bengal Florian, Gangetic Dolphin and a number of RET species is again left to imagination.
In case of 780 MW Nyamjang Chhu Hydropower project in Tawang basin in Arunachal Pradesh, the EIA did not even mention that the dam site itself was at the breeding and wintering grounds of Black Necked Cranes, which are not only rare, but worshipped by local Buddhist Monpa Communities. No questions were asked either by the EAC or the MoEF about this omission. Environmental Clearance was granted to this project without considering these aspects. It is only now that Tawang Basin Study, of which Nyamjangchhu is an important tributary, is mentioning this issue strongly. Will the MoEF and CC act on it or will the recommendation be stifled?
In case of Uttarakhand, a state with an unprecedented flood of hydropower projects and associated tunneling, blasting and disasters, Wildlife Institute of India had clearly recommended way back in 2012 dropping 24 HEPs in Alaknanda-Bhagirathi basin being planned and constructed, for their irreversible impacts on land and aquatic biodiversity and protected areas. This recommendation was also upheld in 2014 by the Committee (headed by Dr. Ravi Chopra) appointed under Supreme Court orders following the Uttarakhand Disaster in June 2013. The MoEF did not act on this report, and even presented contradictory affidavits on this report to the Hon. Supreme Court and the PMO itself has pressurized that 24 projects cannot be dropped. Even the IIT Consortium, working on Ganga River Basin Management Plan gave an ambiguous report to push these projects! These projects are affecting even protected areas like Valley of Flowers, Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve, etc. Same is the case with Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
Why are biodiversity issues so chronically neglected in our river governance?
It is darkly ironical to note that erstwhile Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan pushed Wildlife Clearance for Lower Demwe Dam in Arunachal even when its impacts on Dibru Saikhowa National Park were not completely studied, stating that such studies should be carried out “Concurrently” with dam construction! The present regime has gone a step further. The Environments Clearance letter of Dibang issued four days back (19th May 2015), which did not pay heed to critical issue raised by several groups, has stated that a study on downstream impact and ecosystem has to be undertaken “5 years after commissioning of the project”. Needless to say, no comprehensive downstream impact assessment for Dibang has been carried out before issuing this EC letter.
There is a member from the National Biodiversity Authority, formed under the National Biodiversity Act 2002 at all times in the EAC on River Valley Projects. Till now, we have not seen a single project being rejected because of its impacts on biodiversity. In fact, biodiversity issues are not even discussed in the EAC minutes. As per the National Biodiversity Act 2002 (Section 4), the National Biodiversity Authority or the Central government is empowered to conduct biodiversity impact assessment and public hearing for projects which endanger biodiversity, but it has never done that in the past! In effect, there has been no Biodiversity Impact Assessment of any dam projects till date.
The National Board for Wildlife, through its Standing Committee recommends Wildlife Clearance to projects within Protected Areas, or within 10 kms radius of Protected Areas. The constitution of Wildlife Board was by the new government has made the Board ineffectual. The New National Board for Wildlife constituted by the government included only a fraction of members against the clear provision of this Law. It has no NGO representation, only 2 experts in place of 10 and incomplete state representation. Despite huge opposition to this blatantly illegal constitution, the NBWL conducted its first meeting and cleared almost all projects before it, including Teesta IV Hydropower project in Sikkim. Shockingly, the members from the earlier NBWL had actually visited the region and had prepared an extensive report on violations by Teesta IV as well as other HEPs in Sikkim which encroached in various protected areas of the State. But the new NBWL did not even mention this report while clearing the project! In tandem, the ministry severely reduced Eco-sensitive zoning around Protected Areas in Sikkim, leaving it to mere 25 meters in most cases! Incidentally, Sikkim is the most species-rich state in the country, which is facing the maximum impact of hydropower dams by private and government dam lobby.
The NBWL is still in project clearing spree, having cleared Shirapur Lift Irrigation Project in its latest 33rd meeting in March 2015. The Shirapur project cuts right through the habitat of critically endangered Great Indian Bustard (it will take 93 hectares of the Great Indian Bustard Sanctuary itself), despite the fact that the scheme had violated Wildlife Protection Act 1986, is half-complete already and is remarkably unviable!
In the 33rd Meeting, the NBWL also sanctioned one more water abstraction project inside the National Chambal Sanctuary, a 26 MLD Chambal Bundi Water Supply project despite the fact that Wildlife Institute of India had issued a strict warning against any further abstraction of water from the sanctuary, looking at its impact of critically endangered Ghariyal.
The Forest Advisory Committee, instituted under the Forest Conservation Act (1974) does not consider biodiversity issues while sanctioning forest diversion for projects. It has already issued a Stage I Forest clearance to the controversial Dibang Hydropower Project, bowing down to the pressures from Power Ministry and higher offices after rejecting it several times.
Similar is the case with Western Ghats where the Ministry shockingly rejected Western Ghats Expert Ecology Report by Prof. Madhav Gadgil. This was preceded by efforts of hiding the report as long as possible. In the meantime, the EAC considered and recommended 220 MW Gundia HEP in Western Ghats of Karnataka, despite a poor EIA by Karnataka Power Corporation Limited. The MoEF&CC has also stifled the Kasturirangan Committee report which was a severely diluted and flawed as compared to Gadgil Committee Report. In effect, Western Ghats does not have any protection from the Ministry at this time.
These are governance issues at a scale which can be hardly monitored by any single group. Actual issues related to compliance, implementation, people’s participation are independent of these issues and just as stark. But it is unfortunate to see that environmental governance of rivers, at this moment does not place any value on the biodiversity supported by rivers. One exception is the report on Environmental Flows recently brought out by the Ministry of Water Resources which at least attempts to give some importance to ecological integrity of rivers. This report needs to be implemented urgently.
In stead the government is pushing ill conceived project like the Ken Betwa River Link project that will not only submerge 4600 ha of Panna tiger Reserve, destroy the Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary in the downstream and thus also affected habitat of some rare and endangered fish species, destroy the habitat of rare and endangered vulture species, all for projects that have almost no justification.
In India, as in the world, biodiversity is closely linked with human well-being, livelihoods, cultural values and even mitigation of Climate Change. Riverine fish like Hilsa (Tenuolsa ilisha) are not only important for their biodiversity values, but are an important source of protein and livelihoods for millions of fishermen, who are today impacted by dams. Mahseer is not only an endangered fish as per the Wildlife Protection Act, it is also worshipped as a reincarnation of Vishnu in riverine fish sanctuaries. Black Necked Cranes are not only a rare specie, but believed to be a reincarnation of the 6th Dalai Lama by Monpa tribes, Khangchengdzonga National Park is not only a Protected Area as per the law, it is also a sacred mountain for the Sikkimese, Free flowing rivers, mangrove forests, riparian zones are not only an abstract value, but a robust mitigation measure against climate change. It’s not for nothing that Biodiversity is referred to as a “Fundamental building block for Sustainable Development”.
But in the race for short sighted projects in terms of irrigation dams, Hydropower projects, water diversion schemes, Interlinking schemes, embankments, riverfront development and even ill conceived “River Cleaning” drives, biodiversity values and all those who depend on it are suffering. The statement brought out by India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar on this daysays the same old things and provides no new direction. Perhaps the new direction lies with the people themselves.
“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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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 ChaukBahadurpur. 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.
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.
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!
Prior to commissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and even Delhi covering a distance of more than 1600 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar (Bihar), at a distance of about 650 kms from river mouth. Post Farraka, Hilsa is unheard of in Yamuna in Delhi and its yield has dropped to zero in Allahabad, from 91 kg/km in 1960s. Studies as old as those conducted in mid-seventies single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.[xiii]
We met fishermen who have not caught a single Hilsa in the upstream of the barrage despite fishing for three days. In the downstream too, size and recruitment (population) of Hilsa is affected due to arrested migration at Farakka. Some 2 million fisherfolk in Bangladesh depend on Hilsa fishing. Hilsa in Padma river (Ganga in India) downstream Farakka has also declined sharply due to decreasing water and blockage of migration routes.[xiv]
These fisherfolk have never been compensated for the losses they suffered. They were not even counted as affected people when the barrage was designed and they are not counted even now.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Pungent fishy smell is the first thing that grabs your attention in Bhadbhut village in Bharuch District of Gujarat, which lies on the estuary of the mighty Narmada River, as it meets the Arabian Sea. Every alternate shop in every small lane sells fresh fish and by 11 in the morning, first lot of fresh fish is ice packed in thermocol boxes, all set for far off places like Kolkata and Delhi. Before I was told, I saw for myself that fishing in the Narmada Estuary is the backbone of coastal Bharuch district.
Just 5.15 kilometers from here is the planned Bhabhut Barrage on the Narmada River. What will happen to Bharuch if barrage is constructed? This is the reason why I am here. To understand the implications of this barrage on lives of thousands of fisherfolk from this estuary and on the famed Hilsa fish, that mysterious silver river migrant, on which the fishing economy depends nearly exclusively.
Hilsa is a marine fish that arrives in the brackish water of estuary for spawning normally inhabiting the lower region of the estuaries and the foreshore areas of the sea. For India the peak upstream migration of hilsa in most of the rivers is generally in the monsoon months of July and August and continues upto October or November.
Bhadbhut barrage will be constructed at 5.15 km downstream of village Bhadbhut and 25 km upstream of river mouth. It is part of a gargantuan Kalpasar project pushed by the State Government. Kalpasar (pragmatic critics hold that Kalpasar is in fact an abbreviation of Kalpanic Sarovar, an imaginary reservoir) project which is supposed to be one of the biggest in the world proposes to construct a 30 km long dam (one of the longest in the world) across the Gulf of Khambhat between Bharuch and Bhavnagar districts[i]. The reservoir is supposed to trap the water of twelve rivers that empty their water in the gulf, including Narmada, Mahi, Sabarmati, Dhadar and some Saurashtra rivers. It is expected to create a reservoir of 2000 sq km area, over five times the area of Sardar Sarovar, the reservoir capacity is expected to be over 10 billion cubic meters, that is larger than the SSP reservoir capacity. The project is being pushed ignoring serious issues like hydrological-geological-structural feasibility and needless to say, it’s impacts on environment and fisherfolk. The project will destroy the coastal and deltaic fisheries and wetlands.
As SANDRP has been highlighting for some time now, riverine fisherfolk are one of the most disadvantaged and deprived sections in the dam debate throughout the country. It is no different in Narmada. Livelihood of the fisherfolk from Narmada Estuary has been threatened by several industrial estates established across the district and is now on the verge of being destroyed. Yield of Hilsa has been steadily decreasing (from 15319 tonnes to 4866 tonnes during 1993 to 2004[ii]) since commissioning of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) canal and power house in 2006. SSP is built on the Narmada River about 130 km upstream from the estuary. Another dam, Garudeshwar Dam, is under construction downstream from SSP.
Are people here in the estuary aware of the scale of the Kalpasar project? What do these local fisherfolk have to say about this? How have they been coping with the impacts of SSP?
On the lack of study of the downstream environment, the first paragraph from the chapter on this issue from the report of the Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Project instituted by the World Bank is worth quoting in full [iii]:
“From the Sardar Sarovar dam to the ocean, the Narmada River runs for 180 kilometers through a rich lowland region which represents about 10% of its catchment area. In the course of our environmental review we sought information that described the ecology of this lower reach of the river, the estuary, and near shore region in the Gulf of Cambay. We hoped to find a description of the aquatic ecosystem, including parameters indicating the quality and quantity of water and its seasonal changes, biological species, processes, and resource linkages. We looked forward to finding a systematic treatment of flow regimes and geomorphology. We expected to find systematic documentation of resource use, from drinking water to fisheries. We thought there would be documents establishing the kinds of physical, biological and socioeconomic changes to be expected as the Sardar Sarovar Projects are brought on stream and more and more of the natural flow is stored, used or diverted out of the river. We looked for a set of ameliorative measures that would be implemented to mitigate impacts. We thought these measures would be scheduled to begin with phased development of the Sardar Sarovar Projects. We hoped they would also be related to the cumulative effects of other developments on the Narmada further upstream, in particular the Narmada Sagar Projects, and to the expansion of industrial activity in the downstream rive basin in Gujarat itself.
In all our expectations we have been disappointed.” (Emphasis Added.)
The paragraph speaks eloquently and what it says it true even till date.
Eager to find answers to these questions, I along with Bhupat Solanki a volunteer from Paryavaran Mitra, an Ahmedabad based NGO, first met Praveen Madhiwala, a fish trader and exporter. As I explain the purpose of my visit to him, his first reaction is “if the dam at Bhadbhut comes up, Hilsa will be finished. Not only that, but the dam will prove to be destructive to the entire estuary.” He explains, “Tidal flow of water spreads 60 KM from sea shore to upstream of the estuary. They are planning to build the barrage just 25 KM upstream of the sea shore. What will happen then to the incoming salt water during high tide? It is bound to spread laterally along the barrage spreading in the coastal region and will be destructive to the settlements along the coastline. Calculating all these numbers on paper is very different than experiencing the destructive power of sea. We know what the sea can do.”
Destruction of Hilsa and other fish by Sardar Sarovar
Kamalesh Madhiwala, an advocate from Bhadbhut adds further. “Yield of Hilsa has drastically reduced after Sardar Sarowar Dam has been built. There has been a reduction of 65 to 70%. Overall water level of the estuary has gone down. Post monsoon the river becomes so dry that we can walk across the riverbed. This had never happened in the past before Sardar Sarovar.” When asked about the claim by Narmada Control Authority that it constantly releases 600 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the dam[iii] to maintain the health of the river and the estuary, he says “We don’t think water is released from the SSP. There is no mechanism to monitor this. If you approach government they will show you on paper that they release 600 cusecs of water every day. But no one maintains the on ground data.” According to him the SSP has affected overall fish variety of the estuary as well. “A decade ago there used to be 70 to 80 types of fish varieties available in the estuary. Now we get only about 10 to 12 fish varieties. Earlier along with Hilsa many other riverine species like Prawns, Mahseer etc. have been commercially equally important which Sardar Sarovar has vanquished. Now the fisher people’s income is solely dependent on Hilsa which is very sensitive species. Reduction of water flow in the river immediately affects the yield of Hilsa. Even though Hilsa is available only for about 4 months of the year, 70% of the income of fisherfolk at present is from sale of Hilsa alone.”
Farcical EIA of proposed Bhadbhut barrage by NEERI
Kamalesh Bhai also points out several lacunae in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has prepared for Bhadbhut Barrage. “The entire study has been an absolute farce. First of all none of the local people were aware of any such study going on. It also grossly underestimates the total population of fisherfolk that will be affected by the Bhadbhut dam.” The report considers the total number of fisherfolk residing in 21 villages to be 12,638 based on more than a decade old data from Census 2001.[iv] According to Kamlesh bhai the actual population residing in the estuary region whose livelihood will be affected by barrage is close to 35 to 40 thousand!
SANDRP had sent detailed critique of the EIA to the Gujarat State Environment Impact Assessment Authority before the public hearing for the project held on July 19, 2013. An excerpt from the critique:
“Unclear objectives of the project The objectives of the project stated in the EIA of the project are:
Protection of water quality of Narmada river from salinity due to tidal influence and checking the problems of salinity ingress and deterioration of ground water quality in the upper reaches of Narmada river;
Storage of the regulated release of water from SSP and runoff from free catchment for irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply;
Flood protection of about 400 sq km low lying area covering 17 villages on the left bank of river Narmada;
and Road connectivity between left and right banks, shortening route from Surat/Hajira to Dahej region.
The EIA agency has uncritically accepted these objectives, without assessing if the barrage with low water storage can really fulfill the second the third objective and considering the low salinity level reported by the EIA (mainly based on data provided by the project authorities, again uncritically accepted by NEERI), is the first objective relevant. The fact that the Kalpsar department played such an important role and the fact that it is public knowledge that the barrage is part of the propose Kalpsar project should have been taken note by NEERI. NEERI should have also questioned as to why is this small part of the larger Kalpsar project applying for such piecemeal clearances which is actually in violation of the Supreme Court orders. It should be added here that the Kalpsar project had applied for the TOR clearance from Union Ministry of Env and Forests. The project came up before the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects. SANDRP had then sent a letter to the EAC, saying that based on information provided, the project should not be considered for clearance. In its 41st meeting in Sept 2010, the EAC declined to give TOR clearance to the project, saying that the documentation provided are highly inadequate and need to be more holistic and uptodate pre-feasibility report needs to be provided. The project there after has not gone back to EAC.
However, a small part of that same project, the Bhadbhut barrage is now proposed before the Gujarat State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (http://seiaa.gujarat.gov.in/).”
An edited version of letter about the inadequacies of the EIA report sent from Paryavaran Mitra director to Gujarat Pollution Control Board which has been published by Counterview states that the report fails to assess severity of impact on Hilsa and other migratory fishes and instead tries to imply that fishing activity is only a part time employment for fisher community, which is entirely incorrect.[v] The report proposes fish ladder as a mitigation measure with no specific details. Fisherfolk are not impressed. “Tell me madam, have you ever seen a fish climb a ladder?” asks Kamlesh bhai laughing.
While a fish ladder may or may not work (it is not likely to work for Hilsa and other important fish species, it has not worked anywhere in India so far), the fisher folk are not wrong in ridiculing it. Fish ladders have never been taken seriously by the proponents who put them in. Case in point is Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, where too, a fish lock was supposedly made for Hilsa. It has not been operated for over a decade and current officials have no idea that such a thing exists.
“The NEERI EIA is a complete copy paste job. It has several incidences of plagiarism. It mentions names of places that are found nowhere in this region. This region also comes under PCPIR[vi] project. The PCPIR EIA report does not talk about impact on Hilsa at all!”- Bhupat Bhai adds. “That’s true” says Kamlesh Bhai. “Even after the NEERI completed the report none of the local people had any idea about the project and its impacts. Now we are raising awareness. On 7th July 2014 local fisherfolk organized a protest rally at the District Magistrate office and more than 4000 fisher people were a part of this. This is our fourth rally opposing the project.” When asked if any compensation is being offered for those getting affected by the barrage, I am told none. According to them in the entire argument about the barrage, its impacts etc. there is absolutely no talk about compensating the fisherfolk. They also raised their voices in the public hearing of the project. 1500 farmers and fisherfolk attended the public hearing on July 19 and walked out soon after sharply registering their protest against the proposed project and naming it as “anti-people”.[vii]
When we arrive at Praveen Macchi’s house, his door is adorned with images of Silvery Hilsa. His family has been involved in fishing from generations. When asked about estuary’s overall condition after SSP he confirms the facts stated earlier by Praveen Bhai and Kamalesh Bhai. “We don’t think water is released from SSP and even if it is, it is so meagre that it is nearly useless. The estuary receives water only when the dam overflows. In 2014 the dam overflowed only once which was as late as September. Other than dam overflow only other source of water is releases from River Bed Power House of SSP, leakage from below the dam wall and some water from downstream streams.” Fish yield of this year is about 30% lower than last year when the estuary received water from dam overflow 4 to 5 times in year. “Now water from SSP has been diverted for hydropower generation. After power generation at Canal Head Power House water is released into Narmada canal instead of river/ estuary.”
Pressures on Narmada estuary and livelihoods of thousands
When asked as to how does the Hilsa survive without freshwater water released in the estuary, Praveen Bhai explains “As of now Hilsa arrive at least during monsoon as the river stretch of 130 KM holds rain water. If Bhadbhut barrage is built there will be no free flowing river stretch to support fish breeding. Yield of Hilsa will be hard hit and so will be the fishing industry. Entire population dependent on fishing will lose its livelihood.”
Praveen Bhai told me that the fisher people’s cooperative ‘Bhadbhut Matsya Udyog Sahakari Mandali’ is preparing to file a Public Interest Litigation challenging the barrage project. Is livelihood of more than 30000 people getting affected reason enough to argue for stoppage of the project? Will the courts understand this implication? They did not when impact of SSP on fisher people was argued earlier. Let us hope judiciary is more sensitive to the fisher people’s issue this time.
Praveen Bhai further informs that the overall salinity of the estuary has gone up due to severely restricted freshwater flow into the estuary. Fish diversity has reduced and riverine fish movement is obstructed due to SSP (Sardar Sarovar Project). Hilsa which would be available till December – January is now seen hardly till September as the salinity levels rise rapidly after monsoon. Says Praveen Bhai: “Narmada has been Hilsa’s favoured habitat. Earlier Hilsa was found in Tapi estuary near Surat as well. But after the Ukai dam was constructed only 2 to 5% of Hilsa arrive at the Tapi estuary. Lives of fisherfolk in the estuary have been devastated. The problem of livelihood of these people became so serious that there are instances where women of the community had to get into prostitution.”
The Narmada estuary is already facing growing pressures from industrial estates. Bharuch District has 13 industrial estates with 137 medium and large scale units of chemicals, textiles, plastics, fertiliser related industries etc. Industrial estate of Dahej which is in close proximity to Bhadbhut releases its untreated effluent in the sea near Bharuch. This is affecting the overall water quality of the estuary. Praveen Bhai points out to a very peculiar phenomenon. A completely different genre of crime has evolved in the industrial estates near Bharuch where youth blackmail the companies when the companies discharge untreated effluent into the sea. The companies, hand in glove with police, bribe the blackmailers for keeping quite. Effluents meanwhile go untreated in the river and sea. This is also true of effluents from Ankaleshwar and other industrial estates. The SSP has worsened this situation due to drastic reduction in freshwater flow that earlier used to dilute the industrial, urban and other effluents.
Concerns of fisherfolk We now move towards the banks of Narmada to meet artisanal fisher people there. Boats which can contain upto 5 to 6 people are parked along the banks. Since it is a noon time, hurry burry of fish packing is settling down. One by one tempos from the market are arriving and picking up the packed fish. As we talk with a bunch of fisher people, their worries and concerns tumble out. Several issues emerge while talking to them.
“Government is all set to build a dam destroying our livelihood. As it is government is not extending any kind of support to us river fisherfolk. No bank provides us with loans” one of them speaks.
“Yield of fish has also reduced due to reduced water level of the estuary. Sea water gets contaminated by the untreated effluent that Dahej & other Industrial estates disposes in the sea. This sea water that is highly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals enters estuary during high tide. This polluted water has also affected the overall fish quality and there is hardly any freshwater from upstream to dilute it because of the dam.Earlier single Hilsa fish used to weigh more than two kilograms. Now it hardly weighs one to 1.25 kgs” says another one.
“With all this polluted water how will the fish grow? It naturally starves” says yet other.
“If Bhadbhut Barrage comes up, Hilsa will no more come here. Our livelihood will be destroyed. Government is not even offering any compensation. No one has been compensated for the impact we have already felt due to the SSP.” They all keep talking anxiously.
They further inform that several farmers in Bharuch who have lost their land in PCPIR project or other industrial estates have shifted to fishing creating more stress in the industry that is already facing a steep decline. Farmers, who are new fisherfolk lack the traditional skills or patience and often fence the estuary and sea with fishing nets in hope of catching Hilsa, which prevents the fishermen’s traditionally used small boats from entering the sea. As they speak, every concern raised is met by a nod by the entire group.
Contrary to this scenario the EIA report summary by NEERI states “… the fresh water storage in upstream of the barrage will provide a favourable environment for intensive fresh water fishery and provision of fish ladder with shiplocks would enhance the fishery activities and fetch greater economic benefits to the people.”[viii] Fisherfolk when asked about this conclusion show the other side of the argument. Fisheries department floats tender for fishing in the dam reservoir. Only big contractors can afford to obtain the contracts. “It’s not a job for small fishermen like us. If the dam comes up all these small boats you see will vanish” they say.
Other than the threatened livelihood, the fisher families in the estuary are also facing several other issues. Wells of fresh water now contain saline water. Many of them used to rely on Narmada River for drinking water. Since the river has gone dry after SSP, they no more receive drinking water from Narmada River. As the water from the estuary has reduced, the wells which have traditionally been an important source of drinking water are now dry or saline. Villages which are closer to the sea are experiencing saline water and also polluted chemical water ingress. “Many of us are having skin problems because we have to go in the chemical water.” I wonder with fishing industry plagued with so many problems if younger generation is at all willing to continue in the same occupation. When asked about this they tell me that for now the traditional skills is the only real education the younger generation has.
Many of them have protested the project at the public hearing. “We all are opposing the dam. Building dams might to do good for contractors, but what about us? Are we not people?” they ask.
The proposed Garudeshwar Dam on Narmada immediate downstream of SSP will further stop the water flow to estuary as it is designed to pump back to SSP the water released from River Bed Power House. The fisherfolk here do not know about this, nor has the government bothered to tell them or do any impact assessment or prepare any rehabilitation or management plan. The only hope is the petition lying before the National Green Tribunal against the Garudeshwar Dam.
I come back with more questions than answers. Praveen Bhai’s home, with his welcoming door adorned with the silvery Hilsa remains in my thoughts for a long while.
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