In an alley flanked by homes built on elevated bases and open workshops leading to the Ganga river in Chandannagar, West Bengal, sculptors were taking a break from work as the summer’s mid-afternoon sun glared. They had been working on wooden frameworks salvaged from idols immersed in the river the previous year; some more lay by the riverbank. Durga Puja was a few months away and the idols were still being moulded as I struck up a conversation with them about the goddess and the Ganga.
“The idol is not god. It is a manifestation only for the Puja days,” a sculptor noted. And is the Ganga not a goddess? Why do we dirty that daily? “We only empty our waste into the drains, the rest is just a process,” he said. Untreated waste being emptied into the riverine system is part of the larger scheme of urban design.
The sculptor’s comment highlights the fact that our reverence for rivers lasts only as long as we are part of its ecosystem. Removed from it spatially, we become oblivious to the outcome of our actions.
The river still manages to cleanse itself if we provide it with enough space and time to recover. But when it has no more depth, is shallow and narrow enough to be crossed on foot in the lean season, is blocked by embankments, weirs and dams, is bled through canals, and its underground recharge systems exploited faster than they can be refilled, we cannot expect it to provide the same ecological services we have taken for granted over millennia.
As I walked through Bengal into Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh for Veditum India Foundation’s Moving Upstream project, one of my most consistent observations was people’s disconnect from an ecosystem they had traditionally been an integral part of. Veditum is a non-profit research and media organization that undertakes projects on cultural and environmental issues (the walk is paused at Garhmukteshwar and will resume in mid-February). A farmer no longer desires the flooding season; embankments won’t allow the Ganga to flood the fields, leaving behind fertile silt that works wonders for crops over the next three years. Today, the farmer is scared of the river entering fields, for that only heralds destruction; the river rises over the embankments and lashes down with immense force, destroying everything in its path.
In regions like eastern Bihar, the river sees heavy silt deposition and infrequent dredging. Hundreds of thousands of acres of extremely fertile fields bear the brunt, deprived of the cyclical nature of renewal by untimely flooding before the harvest season.
Further east from Bihar, upstream of the Farakka barrage in Bengal and in Jharkhand, the river has turned into a monster hungry for land. Shifting course unexpectedly, the Ganga has widened to over 10km in some places, swallowing the soft riverbanks that once housed many communities. Even today, if one visits the riverbank in Bengal’s Malda district, it is easy to spot settlements of environmental refugees by the roadside—temporary lives with little hope of permanence. Many survive on river islands with populations ranging from 100,000-150,000, but without identity and basic civic services.
Such stories of loss of land are not limited to the areas immediately upstream of Farakka. Similar situations exist in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and even downstream of the barrage, along the Hooghly in West Bengal. What is common to these places is the presence of manmade structures on the river upstream of the affected location, and an administration reluctant to admit its fault, which explains the absence of aid.
The project to develop the stretch of the Ganga between Allahabad and Haldia as a waterway, called National Waterway-1, is being implemented by the National Waterways Authority of India. It is aimed at reducing the cost of freight transport and set a precedent in inland navigation. Test runs with car-laden barges have already been carried out, with the government hoping to dredge up to 3m where the river lacks depth. A lot has been written about the ecological destruction this plan will cause. My experience of speaking with people living along the feeder canal downstream of the Farakka barrage in Bengal is even scarier.
The frequency of coal-laden ships travelling on the feeder canal towards the Farakka Super Thermal Power Plant has increased in recent times, the locals tell me. This has led to a supposed increase in power production at the plant, which had to be shut down for 10 days in 2016 due to non-availability of enough water in the Ganga during the lean season. This, in turn, has just led to increased harassment for fishermen, who find themselves forced to abandon their nets while moving out of the way of unannounced ships, and the beginning of erosion even along the canal that has concrete banks.
The experiences from my travels reiterate the point, however, that development does not necessarily have to sacrifice environment. A continuously degrading environment will eventually hurt us; it would be smarter to look at intelligent design, improved feedback and a more inclusive system. The government has to hear the tales from the river.