The recent floods in Bihar and to a lesser extent in places such as eastern Uttar Pradesh and parts of West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh have again raised serious questions about the role of dams and barrages in flood protection. The massive discharges of the Sone river water from Bansagar dam have contributed to the fury of Ganga floods in an unexpected way. While this has led to a debate on dam management, what has attracted even more attention is the statement by the Chief Minister of Bihar regarding the adverse impact of the Farakka barrage on making Bihar more prone to floods.

While this is not the first time the adverse impact of the Farakka project has been highlighted, the issue being raised by a Chief Minister in rather strong terms has its own importance. Apart from voicing the apprehension that the project by increasing the silt load in the Ganga has made it difficult for flood waters to be cleared quickly, Nitish Kumar has called for a review of the Farakka project and if such a review supports the frequent allegations of its disruptive and harmful role, the possibility of decommissioning it  should be kept open.

While some dam projects have been decommissioned in other countries in recent times, this is the first time that a senior leader in India has raised this possibility. There are many implications, as some of the projects now under consideration, including those which are part of the massive river link project, may have similar impacts of worsening the flood situation instead of providing protection from floods. Hence it is important to examine the old Farakka controversy in some detail.

Apart from Nitish Kumar, several other senior leaders and social activists in Bihar have spoken about the adverse impact of the Farakka project on floods and on the livelihood of fisherfolk caused by a big reduction in fish. A former West Bengal Irrigation minister Debabrata Bandyopadhyaya had said some years back that the people of Malda and Murshidabad are doomed by this project. He had said this in the context of increasing erosion of land as the river bed was clogged by too much silt. Bangladesh has all along been opposed to the Farakka project due to the adverse impacts on water availability.

If our people are so unhappy with the project and the neighbours are also so unhappy, then why did we spend so much money to build the barrage in the first place? This is actually a classic case of trying to correct earlier mistakes by making bigger ones. 

This very expensive (in economic as well as ecological terms) story starts with the dams of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). A lot of silt and sand accumulates in the lower reach of Hooghly river which was earlier flushed into the sea by the normal floods of Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers. But this natural process was disrupted by the DVC dams. Silt deposits accumulated, reducing the water carrying capacity of the river and causing destructive floods. The navigability of the river was threatened, endangering the future of Calcutta Port.

It was at this stage that Farakka Barrage was taken up on the plea that this would divert more water to the Bhagirathi above the Hooghly. But the real story turned out to be quite different and this became a case of more costly mistakes being committed in the name of correcting previous mistakes without bothering to learn.

Bangladesh was soon complaining that after the diversion, the lesser flow to the Padma river led to sand accumulation in its lower reach which could even change the river flow and hence bring floods in new areas, while also causing water shortages in other areas in the lean season. There were also reports of salt water intrusion in coastal areas and adverse impact on fisheries.

It was only a matter of time before reports of adverse impacts also started appearing from several parts of India, namely Bihar and West Bengal.

In fact well-articulated advance warnings had been voiced by a high-placed official and engineer who was well informed about the region. When his warnings about the ill impacts of DVC dams started to actually appear true, he suggested that instead of building the Farakka barrage the government should consider the alternative of giving up the irrigation component of DVC and instead using this water to flush the lower Hooghly.

But like his previous advice of not building the DVC dams this second caution too was not approved by government officials and big construction lobbies which decided to go ahead with the Farakka project.

One can only hope that with the recent opening up of this old debate the question will be examined impartially and decisions that are most in conformity with the protection of environment and sustainable livelihoods of people of India and Bangladesh will be taken.

The writer is a freelance journalist associated with several social movements and initiatives.