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Destroying the Ganga

Destroying the Ganga

Bharat Jhunjhunwala |

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had very solemnly declared after winning the elections that “I have nothing to take from the Ganga, I have only to give.” The steps taken by his Government, however, are exactly to the contrary. The Centre&’s obsessive concern with economic development is killing the river.

The Ganga is important because its waters have special qualities. Conservation of these special qualities requires that free flow must be maintained. The Nagpur-based National Environment Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has undertaken a study of the “self-purifying” qualities of the river. There are two kinds of bacteria in the river waters – coliforms and coliphages. Coliforms enter the river from human excreta. They are very harmful for health. Coliphages are beneficent bacteria that are created in the river out of its natural processes. The coliphages “eat up” the coliforms and clean the river. There are hundreds of species of coliforms. For each species of coliform there is a particular species of coliphage that will eat it up. If there are, say, 130 species of coliforms in the Ganga, then purifying it requires that 130 species of coliphages should also be present so that the coliforms can be destroyed. The wondrous quality of the coliphages in the Ganga is that they are “wide spectrum.” One coliphage has the capacity to attack and destroy many species of coliforms. These coliphages give the Ganga a capacity to self-purify itself. NEERI found that such wide spectrum coliphages were not present in any other river of the country that they surveyed.

These coliphages stick to the sediments in the river. They can lie dormant here for years. They become active when they sense the presence of coliforms. It is necessary for the Ganga to flow freely so that the sediments from the hills are reached across the length of the river and carry the coliphages with them. The water and sediments of the river are presently wholly removed at Haridwar and Narora Barrages. Water downstream Narora is wholly from Ramganga and other rivers that do not carry these coliphages. Hence the Ganga below Narora no longer has the self-purifying qualities that was its unique feature. The small amounts of sediment that may cross the Narora Barrage are trapped at Farakka. These are flushed into the Padma and drift towards Bangladesh. The Ganga that flows alongside Kolkata is thus further deprived of the beneficent sediments and coliphages.

The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) is dredging the Ganga and making its waters flow in a small channel so that large ships can sail to Patna and Varanasi. Dredging further disturbs the natural flow of sediments. I must mention here that NEERI has concluded that construction of the Tehri Dam will not harm the coliphages because they flow with the river water as it is released from the dam. That logic does not apply to the downstream barrages such as at Narora where the entire water of the Ganga is removed. There is no flow from Narora and hence no possibility of coliphages reaching downstream. It is necessary to re-establish free flow of the Ganga for the coliphages to spread.

The second negative impact of dams and barrages is on the fish. The Ganga in the plains is home to the delectable hilsa. This fish moves upstream in the sweet waters of the Ganga to lay eggs. The hatchlings flow down with the Ganga to the sea. Here they become “adult fish”. Then they take the same journey upstream to lay eggs. This upstream movement of the Ganga has been blocked by the Farakka Barrage. As a result the hilsa is no longer found upstream of Farakka. Previously it was found up to Allahabad. Similarly, the mahseer moves upstream into the higher mountains to lay eggs. Her path has been obstructed by the barrages and dams at Haridwar, Chilla, Tehri and Srinagar. As a result, the size of this fish is becoming smaller. Fish are important for cleaning the Ganga because they are at the head of the food chain. The lower organisms “eat up” the pollution and clean the Ganga. The decline of such fish means that the lower organisms are also dying. As a result the Ganga is not being cleaned by fish any longer.

According to yogis, the Ganga water gets spiritually charged as it flows below the shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. These charges are destroyed as the water stagnates behind the Tehri and Srinagar dams. Thousands of people died in the 2013 disaster at Kedarnath. The bodies of these unfortunate pilgrims have been buried in the sediments accumulated behind the Srinagar Dam. The Ganga water, carrying the spiritual charges, cohabits with these bodies behind the dam. I must admit that there has been no study of the impact, but common sense indicates that the “living” waters of the Ganga would scarcely be happy living with the dead. The wide spectrum coliphages, the fish and the spiritual charges of the Ganga waters impart the unique qualities to the river. These can only be conserved if there is free flow in the river.

The NDA-I Government accomplished the construction of the Tehri Dam and blocked the free flow of the Bhagirathi, which is a tributary of the Ganga. The Vishnu Prayag hydroelectric project on the Alaknanda was also constructed at that time. Now NDA-II wants to do better. This Government is determined to destroy the free flow of the Ganga remaining in the hills as well as in the plains. The Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) is a public sector undertaking owned by the Union Ministry of Power. THDC had started the construction of another dam on the Alaknanda at Pipalkoti in January 2014. The NDA-II Government has done nothing to stop the construction of this dam by its own company. The IWAI under the Ministry of Shipping is planning to ply large ships on the Ganga to move heavy cargo from Haldia to Allahabad. IWAI has taken a loan from the World Bank to make the Detailed Project Report for this project. The project involves large scale dredging that will disturb the sediments carrying the wide spectrum coliphages, habitat of the remaining fish and disturb the spiritual charges of the river waters. IWAI is also considering whether to build a number of barrages between Allahabad and Buxar to raise the level of water so that large ships can ply.

The projects that are on the anvil will totally destroy the Ganga and later generations will remember NDA-II for achieving this “heroic feat” just as we remember NDA-I for destroying the Upper Ganga.