A new era of development seems ready to take off as the new Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation is here. So, we now have barrages planned every 100 km along the Ganga waterway, from Allahabad to Haldia and 11 terminals along the river bank. This will definitely be helpful for transportation of coal and other raw materials to industries along the Ganga, but its ecological impact is yet to be assessed.
While most scientists and seers across the country have been advocating for ‘Aviral Ganga’ (continuous Ganga) over the last decade, the Rs 6,300-crore plan is something which will definitely disappoint them. More pertinent than their disappointment, however, is the question whether the 6300 crores of public funds are being spent fruitfully towards achieving a desirable end.
What if the project is discovered to be unfeasible a few years down the lane? What if it takes a heavier toll than we have even imagined? Such questions merit attention for there are several ecological considerations which need to be factored in, in a project such as this but which have not been considered at all. One of these is that of ecological flow.
Ecological flow refers to the minimum flow of water in our rivers and streams that are necessary to maintain healthy aquatic ecosystems and keep the natural condition of river ecology unspoilt. For that to happen, two things are of utmost importance - sufficient water and enough flow.
There are 784 dams situated in the Ganga basin (out of which 158 are included in the National Register of Large Dams), 66 barrages, 92 weir and 45 lift schemes. The water resource assets, especially the dams, in the Ganga basin are used for varied purposes such as irrigation, water supply, hydro-electric projects, and drinking water, with 92.83 per cent of total assets being used for the first, which is irrigation.
The average water resource potential of Ganga at present is 525,020 Million Cubic Metre (1 cubic metre=1000 litres) but only 250,000 MCM is utilisable water resource according to the Ministry of Water Resources. Of this available utilisable water, 56,451 MCM is already sanctioned for various hydel projects on the basin. That leaves 193549 MCM of utilisable water in the Ganga.
Out of this, a significant amount of water is being diverted for various industrial purposes, of which there is no reliable account. The Ganga river basin covers 11 states. In UP, Bihar and West Bengal alone, there are thermal power plants with a combined capacity of approximately 50,000 MW, which can be estimated to draw at least 1500 MCM of water from the Ganga Basin.
With several new thermal power plants proposed in the basin, the demand for water by these projects will definitely create a serious water crisis and disparity in the basin. If we take into account the areas of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other states falling in the basin, the total amount of water being extracted from the Ganga basin will add up to a mammoth figure.
Did the new Ministry consider the existing uses of water in Ganga basin and future competitive uses of the waters of the Ganga while drawing up its plan? This is also particularly significant as the water in the middle and lower Ganga is mainly the water from its tributaries like Ghaghra, Yamuna, Chambal, Son, Kosi, Gandak and several others. Will these facts be considered by the Joint Committee?
The second fact, which very few policymakers consider is the ‘lean season’ of a river. There is a specific restriction on withdrawing water from any river during its lean season. For Ganga, the lean season is from December to May, according to government records. It is due to this reason that extraction of water from the river basin happens mostly between the months of July-October and in a big way. The waters are then stored in local reservoirs in most of the regions for later use.
A question naturally arises here on the scientific expertise available to the Ministry that can help sustain the waterway during the lean season, while maintaining the ecology of the river. Will these barrages ensure the ecological flow of the river during these seasons or will they just maintain enough water levels for ships to move?
Little attention has been paid to the impact on the wildlife of the Ganga. Gangetic Dolphins inhabit the stretch of the river from Allahabad to Howrah. 50 km of the Ganga in Bhagalpur is protected as ‘Vikramshila Wildlife Sanctuary’, which is unfortunately the only protected habitat in the Ganga for the Gangetic Dolphins, the national aquatic animal of India.
Several kilometres upstream, in Varanasi, a 6-km stretch from Ramnagar Fort to Assi Ghat is also protected as a turtle sanctuary. Not only is this stretch the last habitat of several aquatic animals, it is also ecologically very critical for the free movement of dolphins, an animal protected under Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 as Schedule I.
Use of motor boats and sand mining is prohibited in these protected stretches as turtles lay eggs in the sand of river banks and dolphins are affected by noise. However, it is quite clear that the dream project of Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari cannot be a success without affecting these two aquatic wildlife sanctuaries. So will he propose displacement of these animals to some other river?
If environmental norms are relaxed to make way for the project, the impact on the river and its unique ecosystem will be undeniable. In view of that, it will be interesting to see what the Ministry’s decision on these two protected areas will be and the consequent wildlife management plan that it comes up with.
Cumulative Impact Assessment
The Ganga should not be seen merely as a water resource but as a river that has a deep association with the values and psyche of the people. The entire Ganga basin - with its tributaries, biodiversity, dependent communities and varied competitive uses of river water - should be viewed as a single holistic unit, and the effect of any alteration of the natural course of the river should be considered carefully in terms of its impacts on each of these. A Cumulative Impact Assessment of the entire River Basin should thus be the first step before any policy decisions on the Ganga.
As environmentalists know, a river is often able to clean its pollution itself and there is no need for overt plans and policies as long as sufficient water and its flow are ensured. Due to excessive use and pollution, the Ganga is in a diseased state today and it needs free flow and intensive care. If we do not allow it to heal and continue to over exploit it, it will lead to the death of the river, which is often hailed as the holy mother of the nation.
Do we want our next generation to read about the Ganga only in mythology? That might well be the case if the Joint Ministry Committee does not take note of the ecological concerns surrounding the Ganga waterway.