The Ganga originates in the glacial peaks of Gangotri and flows to a point below Farakka, where it bifurcates. The main channel, known as Padma, flows towards Bangladesh, while the other channel called Bhagirathi enters India at a place close to Jangipur in Murshidabad district. Lower down, the name of Bhagirathi changes to Hooghly. The Ganga flows across 2,500 km and yields a large volume of silt and sand.
The deterioration of the Bhagirathi began centuries back due to sedimentation. This resulted in a variation in its gradient and hydro-dynamic environment. In addition, over the years the flow was progressively reduced due to a fall in the availability of water at the source of the Ganga and from its tributaries, the large-scale use of river water for irrigation, power plants and industries on the downstream. The changing pattern of the unpredictable Bhagirathi and the Hooghly posed a formidable challenge. The Hooghly, virtually a backwater of the sea and vulnerable to tides, had to contend with an unpredictable morphological phenomenon, especially in its lower reaches. Flooding twice a day brings in a lot of sand from the estuary, which settles down during the slack period between the ebb and the flow. Ebb being slower, the flushing of the river-bed is not carried out and the muck that is brought in settles down. This leads to shoalling. Owing to its alluvial nature and mobility of the river-bed, blocks of sand and shoals are prone to shifting, changing their shape, size and orientation leading to shoalling and formation of land masses or bars in the river-bed. This threatens the depth of the navigational channel.
Below Diamond Harbour, the navigational channel of the Hooghly flows either along the East Bank, known as Rangafela channel or along the West Bank called Bellari Channel. When one channel opens, the other closes down. The changeover of channels is influenced by Nature. The Bellari channel was eventually closed in 1987, and direct navigation between Kolkata and Haldia was stopped in consequence. The receding nature of Jiggerkhali Flat, north of Haldia and extending to Bellari Bar, has been threatening Haldia Oil Jetty No. 1 as well.
The flow being lower than the projected volume because of the water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh and the execution of river-training projects at various locations have failed to have any impact on the lower reaches below Diamond Harbour. A committee, comprising a former finance secretary and Governor of Reserve Bank, appointed by the Centre, recommended in 1988 that the government should reimburse the total expenditure on river maintenance as Calcutta Port Trust had been entrusted with the conservancy of about 350 miles of the National River Way No. 1 on its behalf. The responsibility of conservancy is limited to 10 miles at all other major ports, except Kandla where it is 25 miles. The recommendations were based on the practice prevailing in the US, Europe and some Asian countries and on the analogy of maintenance of highways. In 1976 another committee ratified the recommendations.
In the 1970s, a comprehensive project named Bhagirathi Hooghly River Training scheme was formulated, corrective measures identified and priorities fixed. These were accepted by the government-appointed technical advisory committee comprising experts and technical officials of several ministries and other agencies. The project was sanctioned by the government and cleared by the Public Investment Board in 1982 and the financial provision made in the Sixth Five-Year Plan. The first phase of the project was completed in 1992 barring the most vital component of the scheme ~ dredging of the menacing Juggerkhali Flat and Bellary Bar, north of Haldia and partial execution of river training projects.
River conditions deteriorated as the BHRT scheme was incomplete. The upland discharge also declined following the1996 India-Bangladesh water-sharing treaty. The reservations of Kolkata Port Trust were ignored by the Centre. To that can be added the ineffective dredging in the approach channel. Such factors have affected the depth of the river, specifically the navigational channel. The sanctioned capital for dredging, as recommended by the expert committees, continued to be deferred by the Government of India citing shortage of funds .
Till the 1970s, 87,000-tonner crude tankers visited Haldia regularly drawing about 42 feet draft against today’s draft of approximately 25 feet. Kolkata Port is the country’s only port which compulsorily had to deploy Dredging Corporation of India dredgers and did not have the option to approach any other agency. Payments to DCI are made in terms of dredger working hours, irrespective of quality of the work done and not on the basis of actual output. Other ports have the privilege to avail the services of dredging companies on the basis of competitive bidding and payment is effected on the basis of productivity. Poorly maintained DCI dredgers of 15 to 40 years’ vintage with non-functional equipment on board are subject to frequent breakdowns. Its officers, without the knowledge of the latest instrumentation and technology to ensure more effective dredging operations, require extensive training. This had been admitted by DCI in the Eleventh Five-Year Plan Formulation Report.
The Dredging Corporation of India is a sick PSU and, the shipping ministry will have to provide budgetary support to keep it afloat. To avoid that, Kolkata Port Trust has been forced to entrust DCI with the dredging of the river so that the amount reimbursable by the government towards the cost of maintenance of the Hooghly could be passed on to DCI, ignoring the actual performance and deterioration of shipping channels in the estuary. The port management has failed to examine the intricacies of port-related matters.
The Parliamentary Committee of the Ministry of Shipping has been extremely critical of the government for not providing funds to Kolkata Port Trust for capital-dredging in the estuary. It observed: “The GoI has, in principle, decided to reimburse the cost of dredging and maintenance of the river Hooghly and the shipping channel. However, the allocation for capital dredging has been reduced in an arbitrary manner. The committee strongly recommends that there should be no constraint of funds for dredging as silting at Kolkata Port is a recurring problem and provision must be made in the Budget”. Around 2007, another scheme designed by Mr Sunderman, an internationally acclaimed hydraulic expert, was airbrushed by the Ministry to avoid bearing the cost as decided.
In 2008, better dredgers were allowed to be diverted to Sethu Samudram Project in Palk Strait. This was not included in the 10th Five-Year Plan. The virtual stoppage of effective maintenance led to further deterioration. This raised serious doubts as to why Kolkata Port allowed the dredger withdrawal. Exploring new avenues to solve the ever worsening river regime continued. IIT, Chennai has now been roped in to overcome the adversity. There has been no dearth of studies and recommendations since 1853 for improvement of the Hooghly river regime. But failure of the port management, especially the government, has impeded improvement. The biggest hurdle has been the failure to evolve comprehensive development projects. It is imperative to identify the requirements in order to address the problems at the earliest.
(The writer is retired Director (Planning) Kolkata Port Trust and MD, Indian Ports Association, New Delhi)