For 28-year-old Babu Pradhan, an auto driver in Haldia, the Ganga means opportunity, and he and his peers believe the renewed focus on cleaning the river could lead to an increase in economic activity and employment generation.
“Industry here is centred on the Ganga and it is our connection to the rest of the country. Even though this is an industrial town, there are very few jobs here and the port is a key source of employment. If the government focuses on improving connectivity by increasing jetties and dredging, increased water levels will bring bigger boats to Haldia, which means more jobs. We are hopeful that the new terminal being built will do that for us," he said.
Pradhan is referring to the ₹517-crore project to construct a new terminal for inland waterways in Haldia, which is part of the Jal Marg Vikas Project, a key promise of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which is looking for a second consecutive term in the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.
While transportation of cargo and passengers seems to be the focus for now, the river could also play a role in boosting tourism and improving relations with neighbouring countries. Recently, a cruise ship was flagged off from Kolkata to Dhaka in Bangladesh, while another plies from Varanasi. This is the first time India has opened its waterways for foreign travel.
Haldia, an industrial town in East Midnapore district, marks the southern end of the river, after which it enters the Bay of Bengal. Given its proximity to Bangladesh, the town is an important port in the country. Of the 2,525-km-long Ganga, 520km runs through West Bengal, making it key to connectivity and livelihood.
The development of inland waterways has put a focus on connectivity in the river both for industries and for tourism. Government officials say the use of waterways for transportation reduces carbon emissions and increases employment opportunities.
“If you take the development of national waterways or the decisions to improve tourism, a lot of work has been done in the last five years. However, cleanliness is still an issue. The government has come up with interesting ideas, but they need financial backing," says Soumen Ganguly, a bank official in Serampore in Hooghly district.
West Bengal accounts for 42 seats in the Lok Sabha and is going to polls across seven phases. The state is seeing a contest between the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is looking to make inroads in the state, and the Congress and Left parties, who are trying to improve their strength in the state. The BJP hopes to play a decisive role in the state during the Lok Sabha polls and replicate the performance in the assembly elections two years from now.
In November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched the multi-modal terminal at Varanasi and, had subsequently, flagged off the first container cargo vessel that sailed on the Ganga from Kolkata to Varanasi. The cargo included 16 containers for PepsiCo. The waterway has since been used by other companies, including Maersk and IFFCO fertilizer. The World Bank-assisted Ganga waterways project, costing about ₹5,370 crore, for commercial navigation of vessels, is set to be completed by 2023.
However, some have cautioned about the cost, environmental impact and water levels. “The waterway may not be the first option for all. Given the overheads, it is very expensive to use. Transportation is cheaper by road. Water levels are a serious cause for concern, which restrict the movement of large ships. Cargo movement on the waterway may also have an effect on aquatic life," head of a transport logistics company in Kolkata said, on the condition of anonymity.
While the focus of the central government is on the movement of cargo, the state government is using the river for transport of passengers. The TMC-led state government has started low-cost ferry services for passengers.
“The Ganga is central to the city. The ferries the state government started have reduced travel time by 50% for us. The decisions taken by the central government may be good for industry, but do not affect our day-to-day life," says P. Malik, a history professor in Konnagar city in Hooghly.