While walking upstream along the Ganga from Ganga Sagar to Gangotri: The Price of Exclusivity

Young kid from a fishing family in Kahalgaon, even the most informed communities (Ganga Mukti Andolan) are clueless about the governement's intentions

 Above: Young kid from a fishing family in Kahalgaon, even the most informed communities (Ganga Mukti Andolan) are clueless about the government’s intentions (Photo by Veditum)

GUEST BLOG BY: Siddharth Agarwal 

As the Ganga rises and fills streets and alleys with it’s water all along it’s course, I spend a time out at home, partially because of personal reasons and in some parts due to the rising levels of the river hindering all sorts of movement around it. Currently on a walk along the Ganga for Veditum India Foundation’s ‘Moving Upstream’ project, I’ve been able to walk a distance of about 1000 kms alongside it’s banks from Ganga Sagar till Varanasi in 50 days’ time. Some places saw me walking right next to the river while others had me maintaining my distance since it just wasn’t possible to peruse a course anywhere in the vicinity of the flooded banks.

The rising levels of the river are no surprise, an annual occurrence with variation only in ferocity. We’re surprisingly still caught off guard, every single year, with this news about floods in cities like Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi making it to national television on an almost daily basis. But what of all the places between Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi? What of all the places that are not cities and of all the people who are not urban dwellers? The major focus as I walk along the river are the people of the river and their lives, those who inhabit this space known to all as the vastly fertile Indo-Gangetic plains but unknown as a place extremely vulnerable to the forces of nature and shaky towards those man-made.

What will happen to a river that already has no fish and is way too salty. The barrages will mean doom for even the few fish that are left (Photo Veditum)

What will happen to a river that already has no fish and is way too salty. The barrages will mean doom for even the few fish that are left (Photo by Veditum)

I had been informed in advance of the situation of our fishermen by minds already working in the field of environment and rivers in our country, often mentioning that these communities were severely under-represented and very much neglected even when it came to discussions relating to them. Non-inclusiveness of communities while making decisions is not a new theme in India, but given the extent of impact that some upcoming government decisions/policies was going to have on these people, I decided to ask them a few questions as I proceeded upstream from Ganga Sagar, starting early June 2016.

Anywhere downstream of the Farakka barrage, the mention of the word barrage has a stunning effect on the people and 1975 is a year that fisher folks remember as a year of doom. For most readers and even for me before I started upon this trip, this would makes sense if one tries to put in a little effort in imagining how a barrage or dam might affect a river. But unlike how logic would dictate, this effect doesn’t exist just downstream of the barrage and similar reactions continued even further upstream, in Jharkhand and Bihar.

In places along the feeder canal from the Farakka Barrage, an increased frequency of ships to the Thermal Power Plants has resulted in rapid soil erosion

In places along the feeder canal from the Farakka Barrage, an increased frequency of ships to the Thermal Power Plants has resulted in rapid soil erosion (Photo by Veditum)

The National Mission for Clean Ganga and The National Waterways programme have been in the limelight for making grand promises of :

1.) Cleaning and maintenance of the river
2.) Economic Development and Cheaper Transportation.

Now, this is not a commentary on the efficiency and feasibility of making such proposals, simply an attempt to understand the impact of such programmes. EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) and SIA (Social Impact Assessment) are the terms you might be looking for, something that ideally the governing authority should be taking care of. But why is any of this important or relevant to this article? It is because whatever happens in these places between Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi is very much relevant and important to discuss. These are not uninhabited spaces, but pretty well populated areas with a lot of lives at risk.

Coming back to the point of the two government programmes, firstly, the NMCG letting the Waterways programme run through protected areas and non-protected ecologically sensitive areas goes very much against the whole agenda why this mission was set up. Secondly, the waterways programme in a bid to decrease ‘transportation’ costs and utilise our river potential recently ran tests with large vessels on the Ganga.

Small country boats near Farakka. Wonder what large waves from huge vessels will do to these (Photo by Veditum)

Small country boats near Farakka. Wonder what large waves from huge vessels will do to these (Photo by Veditum)

What is surprising (or rather not) is that these test runs were without any warnings to fishermen and boatmen in said test sections, the few who were on the waters at the time of passing of these vessels had to face high waves, enough to topple a less experienced or unaware boatman. The news of these tests were flashed all over the main stream media, but failed to make it to those for whom it mattered. Not an uncommon occurrence at all, but till when will this go un-noticed? On asking these fishermen if they have any clue why this is happening, most of them responded in the negative while a few said they’ve learnt about the government’s plans to run large vessels on the river.

As this conversation extends and questions follow, it is gradually revealed that the picture is not clear and conversations have somehow trickled down in a very muzzled form. Though most fishermen laugh off the prospect of this being a constant activity because of the extreme reduction in water level that the river has seen these past years, often mentioning how large excavators and multiple tugboats have been needed anytime a large vessel has traversed these stretches in lean seasons. There’s talk of loss of fishing nets and reduced catch, difficulty in controlling small country boats in high waves, chances of accidents when transporting villagers to small ‘diars’ for agricultural work, loss of land where there’s no embankments and so on, but this also brings us to the most important part of this article.

The dark clouds often linger over the heads of those not involved, not informed (Photo by Veditum)

The dark clouds often linger over the heads of those not involved, not informed (Photo by Veditum)

The Water Highway programme on the Ganga has been proposed on a 1500 km stretch from Allahabad to Haldia, with barrages at about every 100 kms. Now, an avid news reader would have knowledge of this as a great policy step but the fisherman who directly depends on the river for his livelihood does not. This holds true for maybe 15-20 different fishing communities that i’ve had the chance to interact with in the first 50 days and even the mention of new barrages was way too shocking for those who have had to bear the burden of Farakka’s impacts. There are even places where locals have signed their wishfulness of a barrage near their villages without understanding consequences and only having been shown the shiny side like we see everyday in the papers, called ‘development’.

The ‘Moving Upstream’ project intends to understand and present a narrative of the river and it’s people, hoping this will lead to more meaningful conversation and inclusive action by the government. In a recent announcement by Sushri Uma Bharti Ji – Union Cabinet Minister of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, she said she will march down the length of the river to take stock of the status of various projects commissioned by her. I’m glad that cues are possibly being taken from the Moving Upstream project, but like every other government project, when will our habit of assessment (if at all) after execution stop and preparedness & understanding before implementation materialise? I hope she does her Ganga yatra before approving any projects, I hope for inclusiveness.

Siddharth Agarwal (siddharthagarwal.iitkgp@gmail.com)

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