Challenges before River Authorities
Bharat Jhunjhunwala | 25.09.09
Our ancestors have given us the formula “Dharma-Artha-Kama.” Here ‘dharma’ should be understood as environment. The discharge of responsibility of man towards other living beings and elements such as earth, air and water is ‘dharma’. Our benign attitude towards other living beings will enable them to survive. That will preserve the environment and enable us to survive as well. Plants will continue to provide us with dainty food and animals will provide us with milk. In contrast, ‘artha’ refers to personal moneymaking and profit. The businessman makes a dam on the river to generate hydropower in order to earn profit. This is ‘artha’. Our ancestors taught us to pursue artha in a way that does not hit at dharma. Just as the farmer does not cut the mango tree that gives fruit every year for making quick profit from sale of fuel wood, similarly rivers must be exploited in a way that the entire creation grows and prospers along with us. The Government has recently set up the National Ganga River Basin Authority. In coming times similar authorities are likely to be established for other river basins. Indeed, separate authorities for ecological zones such as the Western Ghats should also be established. The challenge before these authorities, including the Ganga Authority, is to adjust economic activities so as to preserve the environment. This will become clear through some examples.
The Government has built the Farakka Barrage on the Bihar-Bengal border. The purpose of making the barrage was economic growth. Most water of the Ganga was flowing to Bangladesh and the Hooghly was left with little water. It was becoming difficult to ply small ships from the seas into Kolkata. Goods had to be transshipped from big ships to trucks and brought to Kolkata. This involved huge expenditures. It was necessary to provide the Hooghly with more water to make it navigable. A barrage was made on the Ganga to reduce the flow to Bangladesh and divert larger amounts to the Hooghly. Indeed, the water increased in Hooghly, but, Alas! only for a short time. Large amounts of silt continued to be deposited in the bed of the Hooghly, raised its level, reduced the flow and nullified the gains obtained from the Farakka Barrage. Silt is also getting deposited upstream Farakka due to the obstruction created by the barrage. Unobstructed flow of the river was previously carrying the silt to the sea. The deposition of silt is leading to large areas upstream being threatened with submergence in river waters. Movement of fish is also obstructed by the barrage. This is leading to deterioration in the quality of river waters. In this way we have harmed the environment in our anxiety to reduce the cost of transport.
The solution, perhaps, is to increase flow of water in the Hooghly by dredging instead of creating obstructions like the Farakka Barrage. This too will lead to increase in the flow. But this will not impose environmental harm on fishes etc. Indeed, the cost of dredging will be more than making a barrage. But this is precisely what our ancestors taught us. Undertake artha in a way that promotes dharma. The Ganga Authority should order removal of the Farakka Barrage and initiate a dredging programme.
The UP Government proposes to build an Expressway along the Ganga from Ghaziabad to Ballia. Objective is to reduce the cost of transport and to make available areas for setting up new townships where people can make a living. Most of the Expressway will be built on the riverbank. The cost of the Expressway will be less because this land is mostly owned by the State Government. But such an Expressway will impose huge environmental costs. The water of the Ganga spreads in large areas during the monsoons at present and spread the fertile silt on the fields. Water percolates into the earth and recharges our underground aquifers. These aquifers supply the water that is extracted by bore wells in the dry seasons. The Expressway will restrict the spread of the waters of the Ganga and deprive us of these services. Also, the worms, turtles and insects living on the river banks will die. These living organisms have a vital role in purifying the water. The Expressway will, therefore, lead to deterioration in the quality of water of the Ganga.
The Ganga Authority should order that the Expressway may be built upon barren lands that are spread along the path. The environment will improve by using barren lands for this purpose. The land on which only few wild grasses grow presently, will now see building of towns and planting of trees. Man’s effort must be to raise the consciousness of the entire creation. Building Expressway on the river bank reduces the level of consciousness by killing of worms and turtles. Making the same Expressway on barren lands raises the level of consciousness by planting of trees where none existed previously. Surely, the cost in making such Expressway will be more. This is where the Ganga Authority must intervene. It should order that harm to the environment is not acceptable for purposes of economic growth.
The situation of hydropower dams being made on Bhagirathi, Bhilangana, Alaknanda, Mandakini and other tributaries of the Ganga in Uttarakhand is similar. These dams will generate electricity. Our businesses will get cheap electricity. Our goods will become competitive in the global markets and we shall conquer the world economy. But the silt will get trapped in these dams and that is accelerating the erosion of our coasts. The coasts are not getting the silt renourishment and the sea is eating into them to fulfill its need of silt. Holding water behind dams and barrages is leading to deterioration in the quality of water. Organic matter such as leaves and dead bodies ferment in the bed of the dams and produce methane that is contributing to global warming. The Ganga Authority must put a stop to this adharma. It should order stoppage of all new dams and redesigning of all existing dams to reduce the negative environmental impacts. Instead of making a barrage across the entire flow of the river, only partial obstructions may be made on both banks leaving the main flow uninterrupted. These obstructions will divert part of the water for generation of electricity. Such a bund has been made at Haridwar to divert water into the canal for irrigation. Such obstructions do not prevent flow of silt, do not lead to fermentation of river water and do not produce methane. The water can be diverted into an open canal for production of electricity instead of a tunnel as being done presently. Flow in an open canal will maintain contact of the water with air and sun and preserve its natural quality. Such hydropower dams will cost more but preserve our environment. The Ganga Authority is likely to be the first among such authorities and the responsibility cast upon it to lay the path of dharmic development is, therefore, greater.