Bharat Jhunjhunwala | 16th September, 2014 | Free Press Journal

A proposal to make a cascade of barrages from Allahabad to Haldia on the Ganga is under consideration of the government. ‘Locks’ will be made that will enable large, 4,500-tonne ships to cross the barrages. It is said the cost of transport by road is Rs 1.50 per kilo, by rail Rs 1.00 per kilo and by waterway Rs 0.50 per kilo. The movement of goods on the Ganga waterway will reduce the cost of transport and help push the growth rate.

The project will, however, impose huge environmental and cultural costs by converting the free-flowing Ganga into a series of 100-km long reservoirs. The ships will cross the barrage through locks, but the fish will not be able to cross them. Many fish migrate long distances to their spawning grounds. The famous Hilsa mainly inhabits the sea. It migrates 1,000 km upstream into the river to spawn. These eggs float down the river to the delta. Here they mature and go back to the sea. And the cycle begins all over again. This upstream migration has already been badly affected by the Farakka Barrage. The Hilsa was known to travel up to Allahabad previously. Now it can move only up to Farakka, where its pathway is blocked by a stone wall. Despite Farakka, the Hilsa can presently move freely downstream, from Haldia to Farakka; and upstream from Farakka to Allahabad. The proposed cascade of barrages will restrict the movement of the Hilsa to 100 km in the reservoirs, thus not allowing it to reach its spawning grounds, which may result in its extinction. Fish are not just food for us. They also clean up the water by feeding on carcasses and twigs and other waste organic material. Thus we find large fish merrily swimming in clear waters in holy places such as Sringeri in Karnataka. Extinction of the fish will reduce, if not eliminate, this cleansing function and water quality will deteriorate.

The rivers also bring sediment. The Nagpur-based National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has found that sediment of the Ganga contain high levels of copper and chromium. These metals have bactericidal qualities. The sediments also contain minute levels of radioactive thorium, the functions of which are not understood as yet. The bactericidal qualities of the Ganga waters is dependent on this Himalayan sediment reaching the lower stretches. This sediment will be trapped in the barrages and the Ganga will be deprived of these beneficial qualities.

Another factor that imparts “self-purifying” qualities to the Ganga waters is the presence of wide-spectrum coliphages. Coliphages are beneficent bacteria, while coliforms are harmful bacteria. Hundreds of both types are found in river waters. Normally, one type of coliphage eats up one specific type of coliform, but the speciality of the Ganga coliphages is that they are wide-spectrum. These coliphages impart to the Ganga her self-purificatory qualities. The problem is that the sand particles to which the coliphages adhere will not flow beyond Allahabad once the barrages are in place. The Ganga will no longer self-purify in the lower stretches.

The trapping of the sediment will also impact the territory of India. The plains from Haridwar to Haldia have been formed by the sediment brought by the Ganga from the Himalayas. This heavy influx of sediment has counteracted the cutting action of the sea. The sea has a natural hunger for sediment. It eats up the land to satisfy this hunger. Thus we find that most seashores are rocky. However, large amounts of sediment have been flowing into the sea at the mouth of some rivers. This sediment has satisfied the hunger of the sea. That has led to creation of new land. This process of land formation has been reversed after making of the Bhimgoda Barrage on the Ganga in 1850s and Tehri Dam and the barrages at Chilla, Bijnor and Narora after Independence. As a result, sediment is largely trapped and does not flow to the sea. The hunger of the sea is not satisfied and it has started cutting into our land to meet its needs. The Ganga Sagar Island has lost about three kilometers of land in the last few decades. Making the proposed barrages will only accelerate this process and we may see much more of our sacred land going under.

It is well known that sediment is piling up behind Farakka Barrage. Earlier, the depth of water behind the gates was about 75 feet. Now, it has been reduced to a mere 15 feet. West Bengal has expressed fears that the Ganga may bypass the Farakka Barrage during a flood episode and wreak havoc on the areas on its banks.

 The NDA-II Government had made an electoral promise to maintain aviral flow in the Ganga. Proponents of the waterway are trying to wriggle out of this contradiction by redefining ‘aviral.’ They are misinforming the people that releasing some water from the barrages continually will maintain this aviral flow. But even releasing 100 per cent of the water from a barrage will not make it aviral. The water coming out of a tube well is different from the same amount of water coming out of a storage tank. There is no possibility of maintaining aviral flow after making the barrages. Therefore, this project would be a blatant reversal of the electoral pledge.

 I am not against using the Ganga as a waterway. The way forward is to facilitate the movement of small ships not only up to Allahabad, but up to Rishikesh. The need is to redesign the Farakka, Kanpur, Narora, Bijnor, Haridwar and Chilla Barrages so that one stream of the river flows free and boats can ply on it. Water can be abstracted from the river for irrigation by making a partial obstruction and removing a part of the water as was done at Bhimgoda earlier. Other examples of abstraction of water without making a barrage across the river are available from the old Tajewala Barrage on the Yamuna and on the Ruparel River in Alwar, Rajasthan.

 The people of the country hope that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will consider these various aspects and not be carried away by the bureaucrats, who are often driven by commercial shipping interests. Let us hope that this horrendous project will not be given the green light.

The writer was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru.

Bharat Jhunjhunwala

Original Article in Free Press Journal

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