India’s Ganga waterways project raises hopes (and fears)

One of the foremost river experts in India, Dinesh Mishra, recalls the fate of two mammoth barrages built in the Indian state of Bihar. The Kosi barrage was completed in 1962. Its purpose was to control the Kosi river, called “the sorrow of Bihar” due to the fluctuations of its course and the floods it caused on a regular basis. In 1975, the Farakka barrage was constructed to help maintain navigability of Kolkata port. Both failed in their purpose. While the Kosi continues to create immense flood damages most years, the Kolkata port is choked with silt. Not only that, the Farakka barrage is often cited by Bangladesh as a reason for lack of water in its rivers and progressive increase in salinity.

It is this context which explains why the ministers from Bihar are up in arms against a plan by the central government to build 15 small barrages on the Ganga as part of an ambitious waterway project. Just a few days before the Indian Parliament passed the National Waterway Act, ministers from Bihar decided to protest. The water resource minister from Bihar, Rajiv Ranjan Singh, addressing the state assembly, said that the plan not only ignores environmental norms but also adds one more major flood threat to the state.

Flood victims scramble for relief material at Tila Tajpur embankment. Credit: Prashant Ravi
Flood victims scramble for relief material at Tila Tajpur embankment. Credit: Prashant Ravi

The project

The bill converts 111 rivers into a national waterway to develop India’s mostly-untapped potential of using rivers for transport. It will createnearly 14,500 kilometres of navigable waterways at an estimated cost of Rs 700 billion.

Map of proposed national waterway 1 [image from Water Resources Information System of India]
Map of proposed national waterway 1 [image from Water Resources Information System of India]

The Indian minister for road transport, highways and shipping, Nitin Gadkari, informed Parliament that only 3.5% of trade within India is carried via waterways. Comparatively, in China 47% of trade, in Europe 40%, in Japan 44%, and in Korea and Bangladesh, 35% of trade happens through waterways.

Allaying environmental concerns, Gadkari added that road transportation is more polluting and leads to nearly half a million accidents every year. These accidents lead to the death of nearly150,000 people. Ironically, he said, the road sector has six times the budgetary allocation (Rs 550 billion) compared to the moreenvironment-friendly shipping sector, which has an allocation of just Rs 80 billion.

The project will develop six national waterways. The longest, National Waterway 1 will be on the Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad stretching 1,620 kilometres. It will serve the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. national waterways 2 to 6 will be built on the Brahmaputra, West Coast Canal, Godavari, Krishna, Brahamani and Barak River respectively (See Box).

A detailed project report has already been prepared for the Rs 42 billion crore NW 1 project, and it is to be funded by the World Bank. This aims to develop the stretch from Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal for water traffic, crossing through the entire state of Bihar. This is the project that is worrying the politicians of Bihar.

The fears

The waterway project plans construction of dams and barrages every 100 kilometres on the 1,600 kilometre stretch of the Ganga covered by NW 1. “There is no blueprint on how this will affect silt deposition in the river. Silt will raise the water table, leading to floods,” Ranjan added.

According to the Bihar State Disaster Management Authority nearly 74% of the total area of the state is prone to flooding. Twenty-eight out of the state’s 38 districts are affected by floods almost every year. This includes 15 districts falling under “worst affected by flood” category every monsoon.

A damaged house and in backdrop the flood waters of river Bagmati. Credit: Prashant Ravi
A damaged house and in backdrop the flood waters of river Bagmati. Credit: Prashant Ravi

Politically, the high decibel protest by the Bihar government is seen as a fallout of rivalry between the state and union governments, which are ruled by opposing parties. However, experts feel that the state government may have good reason to fear the plan.

Nupur Bose, a member of the State Environmental Impact Assessment Authority, pointed out that the hydrology of the Ganga in Bihar is very different from rivers in Europe. “A major stretch of the river lies in the seismic zone and construction of 15 dams and barrages is a huge risk,” she told She added that a proper environment assessment of the project is needed. Bose claimed that the barrages and dam component of the waterway project has a striking similarity with that of the Farakka barrage.

“The Farakka barrage destroyed the Hilsa fish population. And the waterway project will wipe out the Gangetic dolphins. The entire waterway runs through the dolphin habitat of the Ganga,” she said.

This is not to dismiss the potential of the project. She believes, like Gadkari, that the waterway project could be a game changing idea for the country’s transport sector. “But such a mammoth project needs a detailed study before implementation,” she said.

Ashok Ghosh, a member of the regional empowerment committee of the central ministry of environment, forests and climate change, believes that Bihar will largely benefit from the waterway as the state’s transportation has a huge carbon footprint.

“Vehicles used for public to goods transportation run primarily on diesel, the waterway might ease this pressure,” he said. At the same time he highlighted that the project may need constant dredging of the waterway. “Silt deposition is a major concern and the project should try to resolve this issue.”

A lack of clarity on the technical aspects of the project further baffles experts. Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, pointed out that the bill does not mention any technical or environment assessment of the proposed waterway.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that such a large number of barrages would be constructed on Ganga. But then nothing is clear at present,” he said. Thakkar feels that the government will adopt the method of dredging to ensure navigability. “But the silt that comes out of dredging needs to go somewhere. I think a detailed technical part of the project will resolve this mystery.”

History of bad engineering

Dinesh Mishra pointed out that in 1952 there was only 60 kilometres of embankments in the state. Today the embankment length is more than 3,700 kilometres. “Improper maintenance of these barrages and embankments is a major cause of floods,” he said. In 2008, a crack in an embankment led to the Kosi floods that displaced nearly 3.5 million people in Bihar. Almost every year relief camps are set up and villagers evacuated in seven districts on the banks of the Kosi to escape the fury of floods in the monsoon months.

It is not only about the Kosi, embankments have increased frequency and magnitude of floods in districts like Muzaffarpur and Sitamarhi in the last 30 years. “The badly conceptualized concrete structures are ruining rivers and the people whose livelihoods are dependent on river are suffering the most,” claimed Nupur Bose. She again pointed out the case of Farakka barrage. It was conceptualized to transfer 40,000 cusecs of water to Hooghly River to wash away silt and keep the Kolkata port navigable.

“The barrage has failed to serve the purpose and become a tomb of engineering failure.” In 2012, a group of lawmakers had demanded decommissioning of Farakka barrage. “We could well imagine what will happen when 15 barrages are constructed on the Ganga,” Bose warned.

Unsure of how this will all play out, ministers in Bihar are still trying to figure out how to deal with the plan. It is not easy to protest against a bill passed in Parliament, but the scale of threat is too high to ignore. “We will take legal opinion to stop this devastating project,” Rajiv Ranjan said.


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