A question mark over the Government’s intentions in promoting Ganga waterways project

Bank of river GangaBy Debadityo Sinha*

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.

The announcement drew a wave of concern from the fishing community, environmentalists and everyone concerned with the state and fate of the river. At the forefront were fishermen and activists from Bihar who said that the catch of Hilsa and several other migratory fish species has disappeared after the construction of the Farakka barrage, located downstream in the neighboring state of West Bengal. The plan for more barrages on the river as proposed in the June, 2014 letter might spell complete disaster for the fishing community in the state. Even Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar argued against the construction of any more barrages on the Ganga. “Ganga waters used to fall in the Bay of Bengal with its silt, but after Farakka barrage became operational, it is deposited in the upper stream of the barrage”, he was quoted as saying in a TOI report in April, 2015. The plan also met with opposition from within the government including Uma Bharti, the Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation who publicly opposed the construction of any more dams on Ganga.

What we need to learn from Farakka Barrage Project?

The Farakka Barrage, commissioned in 1975 exemplifies the severity of ecological loss caused to the Ganga. The ecological and social cost of such development has far exceeded the benefit accrued from the construction of the barrage.

A 2010 study by the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) on the Ganga basin shows that there has been significant reduction in fish landing in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar after the construction of the Farakka barrage. Hilsa, a migratory fish, which historically migrated till Kanpur and Delhi during the monsoon has disappeared from both Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. In West Bengal also, the fish species is facing high risk of extinction from the Ganga, with the species showing 97% reduction in inland catch between 2001 and 2015 alone.

A report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2014 claims that over-exploitation, siltation in river beds, decrease in water flow from upstream, fragmentation of the river in the dry season are the main factors affecting this migration. Although pollution from industrial discharge, chemical run-offs from agricultural fields and sewage from the cities aggravated the problem of fish diversity in the river, experts from premier research institutes like CIFRI and IUCN maintain that the construction of the barrage, and the resulting fragmentation of the river, decrease in water flow and the increasing siltation and salinity in the estuaries are principally responsible for the decrease in Hilsa migration in the Ganga.

Sediment trapping due to the construction of dams and reservoirs in the upper stretches of the Ganga has had several other impacts such as siltation, changing of the river course and high intensity floods. The deposition of sediments due to the construction of reservoirs behind the barrages results in a decreased flow of sediments at the mouth of the Ganga, leading to the erosion of coastal areas.

A scientific study reveals that the delta at Diamond Harbor in Kolkata is shrinking due to sea level rise at a very rapid rate (5 mm/year), significantly higher than the global average of 3.2 mm/year. The Sundarbans has lost 3.71 per cent of its mangrove cover and 9,990 hectares of its landmass to erosion between 2003 and 2014, according to a study conducted by the Indian Space Research Organization. While global warming and rising sea levels contribute to this receding of islands in the Sundarbans, there is no doubt that reduced fresh water flow and delivery of sediments to the Sundarbans is a primary contributing hydrological factor. The impact has been enormous in India as Ganga-Brahmaputra contributes to nearly 8% (approx. 1000 x 106 tones/year) of the total sediment load reaching the global oceans, making it the highest suspended sediment load of any river system in the world!

All these issues need to be kept in mind while considering the Ganga Waterways Project, but do not seem to have been.

The World Bank funding for Ganga Waterways Project

One of the principal financer of the Ganga Waterways project is World Bank.  However, the project was classified under Category ‘A’ operations as per the Bank’s own environmental screening procedures specified under its operation policy 4.01. This attracted a comprehensive environmental assessment before sanctioning the loan. As a result, the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment Report for the project was prepared by the IWAI (Inland Waterways Authority of India) and uploaded on World Bank website in June, 2016. One of the important fact which is clearly mentioned in the EIA report is the proposal for ‘significant maintenance dredging’ for maintaining a navigable depth in the river. Surprisingly, the IWAI report does not discuss anything about the construction of new barrages on the waterway as was originally proposed by the IWAI.  Therefore, it is very much likely that the proposal for construction of barrages for the waterway on the holy river will be postponed. One of the reason may be because of the public opposition that the Governments of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are facing after the proposal was made public in 2014.

Although the World Bank might have required an environmental impact assessment for the project, it appears that the Indian Government itself will not subject to the same scrutiny. Though dredging falls under the category 7(e) of EIA Notification, 2006 bringing it under the legal obligation to obtain Environmental Clearance, the Ministry of Environment has already made an amendment in January, 2016 which exempts the dredging activities for ‘maintenance’ from the requirement of Environmental Clearance.

Ecologists also worry about the fate of the unique aquatic fauna of the river, including the national aquatic animal- the Gangetic Dolphin- which is entitled to the same level of protection as tigers under Schedule I of the Wildlife Protection Act 1972.  There are serious concerns about the Dolphin’s survival. They are particularly vulnerable to the movement of ships because they lack vision and use echolocation for movement and hunting prey.

 

Bandel
Bandel Thermal Power Plant on bank of River Hooghly, West Bengal

The Varanasi Turtle Sanctuary

 

The turtle sanctuary in 7 km stretch of river Ganga in Varanasi is seen as the biggest hurdle for plying cargo beyond Varanasi till Allahabad. Debate about the relocation of the Turtle Sanctuary from Varanasi began a year before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and is a growing source of contention between ecologists and politicians.

The reason now advanced by a few groups to justify the shifting of the sanctuary is the danger looming over the historical Ghats of Varanasi on the western side of the river due to the deposition of silt on the eastern side of the river. A former professor of Banaras Hindu University has even claimed that the present situation is dangerous and that the Ghats will not survive beyond 2025 due to the pressure of water towards them, making them hollow. Even, in the last meeting of National Ganga River Basin Authority, held on 4th July, 2016-the same reasoning was given by the representative of Uttar Pradesh state government while making his submission in favor of shifting the sanctuary.

However, an internal report forwarded by a forest officer in January, 2015 contradicts this statement and claims that the river is not shifting westwards but eastwards due to the unreasonable and uncontrolled construction of pucca ghats on the river.  The report also included Google Earth satellite imagery as evidence.

Limiting the impact assessment within Protected Areas

The EIA report prepared by IWAI also ignores the severe impact of the movement of ships and dredging on biodiversity in critical, but non-protected stretches of the river. This is because it limits the scope of its impact analysis only to Protected Areas such as the Turtle Sanctuary and Vikramshila Sanctuary and a few recognised birding sites around the National Waterway.

The Uttar Pradesh government’s own census in October, 2015 showed more than 1200 Gangetic Dolphins in the state along the river Ganga and its tributaries. Interestingly, 269 Dolphins were recorded from Varanasi downstream and 175 were recorded in 125 Km stretch of the river upstream of Fatehpur which shows the river in Uttar Pradesh stretch has good population of Gangetic Dolphins. Similarly, the rich population of dolphins in the River Hooghly has made the West Bengal government consider declaring the stretch between Malda and Sagar as Dolphin Reserve. There are also official reports of critically endangered Gangetic Gharials in the Ganga in Bihar as well as in the Hooghly in West Bengal.   Another protected Species-Mugger Crocodile is also found in the entire stretch of Ganga from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal.

Unfortunately, although they are all protected under Schedule-I of Wildlife Act, 1972, none of their habitats which falls outside Protected Areas finds any mention in the EIA report prepared by IWAI. Also, The EIA report of IWAI though acknowledged the concern raised by Dr. Gopal Sharma, Zoological Survey of India (Patna) for the smooth coated otters found in the river during the informal consultation, the report as such fails to address the impact on the smooth coated otters.

In the meanwhile, the State Board of Wildlife-Uttar Pradesh has already given conditional approval for the movement of ships through the Turtle Sanctuary in May 2016. The minutes of the meeting, obtained under the Right to Information Act by Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala clearly shows there has been insufficient deliberation on the impact of shipping on biodiversity. Moreover, the Board made its recommendations without any specific impact assessment by any wildlife institute.

Is the Government under pressure from thermal power companies?

G.K. Vasan, the former Union Minister of Shipping under the UPA rule was quoted in an article by Hindu Businessline as saying, “At present 10 thermal power stations are operational along NW-1. Another 11 projects with 15,000 MW installed capacity are expected to come up along the course in the next five to eight years. NW–1 is fully ready to cater to the transportation needs of NTPC and other industrial units for transportation of bulk cargo required for the plants located on the banks of the Ganges.” This formed part of the inauguration speech of the Minister while flagging off the Haldia-Farakka coal transportation project of the National Thermal Power Corporation in November, 2013.

The 2013 Danish Hydrological Institute report, based on which this revival of the Ganga waterway is proposed also mentions 3 mega thermal power plants which are planned in Allahabad which will be the main beneficiaries of the Ganga-Waterway. It also states that the “expected cargo potential in the stretch is 35 MMTPA of which large amount is coal and fly ash from proposed and existing thermal power plants around the Ganga River.” This feasibility study also states that upstream cargo will be coal, while food grains and cement will be transported downstream.

The IWAI EIA report at para 4.8.5.2 states, “Eleven thermal power plants are located in close proximity of river Ganga between Haldia and Allahabad and 10 more are reportedly proposed to be set up in close proximity of the river. These thermal power plants have boosted the prospect of the waterway like never before for transportation of imported coal to these power stations.”

One of the major beneficiaries of the project is likely to be the Adani group which reportedly, apart from acquiring Dhamra Port (in May, 2014) on the Bay of Bengal and having a food processing plant at Haldia, is also owner one of the world’s biggest coal mines in Australia. Moreover, it has been investing significantly in inland thermal power plants in India. The company is also in talks with Welspun Energy to acquire its Mirzapur thermal power plant in U.P., which will be supplied with imported coal from Dhamra port.

Given the many scientific and ecological arguments against the revival of the Ganga waterway, a question mark must be drawn over the Government’s intentions in promoting this project. The river has already lost most of its water flow to dams, irrigation canals and industrial abstraction. A cost-benefit analysis of the waterway cannot only take into account the economic gains from lower transportation costs; the ecological, social and maintenance costs of the project must be adequately factored in. In this case, these concerns appear to have been sidelined, which will prove disastrous for the future of the river Ganga. The waterways project has also not assessed the adverse impact of the project on Prime Minister’s and Water Resources Minister’s Ganga Rejuvenation objective, the impact will certainly be huge and negative.

*Senior Research Fellow with the Public Health and Environmental Justice Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Contact: debadityo.sinha@vidhilegalpolicy.in,  @debadityo. Source: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/

 

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