Use and Abuse of River Ganga

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A number of important decisions being taken by the Central government are going to have a serious negative impact on the job prospects of Biharis in the coming years.

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is well aware of this. Having put emphasis on agricultural diversity, organic farming and education and health of workers, who are mainly agricultural in Bihar, in the initial period of his leadership, it was therefore logical to question certain decisions of the Centre that would if implemented have a lasting negative impact on the ecology of the state.

The barrages on the river Ganga in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and West Bengal being planned by the BJP with a USD 375 million World Bank loan to India for making the river Ganga commercially navigable for 1500-2,000 deadweight tonnage will benefit only world trade and neither the people of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar at all. Now that Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) is once more allied with the BJP, there is a possibility that the essentially oppositional stance that defence of ecology by definition implies in the age of capitalism, will become diluted in Bihari politics. This would be a great tragedy, because jobs are impossible to create in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh without putting the study of human ecology, meaning the relationship of humans to their environment at the centre of policy making. There are more jobs in a pristine ecology than can ever be provided by man.

The development of the river Ganga as national waterway number one is being touted by Nitin Gadkari, the present Minister for Road Transport & Highways, Shipping and Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation as an eco-friendly mode of transport. But for whom? Probably barely a point of a percentage of people living along the banks of the river Ganga will be able to take advantage of the river as a transport route, as big shipping will push the common person and fish into side rivulets and backwaters. It is wrong to define eco-friendly by western standards, comparing a less polluting with a more polluting mode of transport. Biharis were not polluting at all before world trade was imposed by colonial rulers. Being eco-friendly in Bihar is a matter of supporting the people to live their already eco-friendly life, not destroy it in the name of what is considered eco-friendly in the west. Surely if there is so much trade on road and rail that there needs to be yet more means of transport made available every day, the aim should be to restrict long distance trade and develop local markets where people can walk and cycle to work and to their local market place.

It should be noted that reports are now coming out that one in ten people in Uttar Pradesh are suffering from mental illness. This is surely linked to hunger and poverty. Basically, it is not only plants and animals but human being too who lose their habitat when big business moves in. This Jal Marg Vikas Project is apparently going to have “three multi-modal terminals - one each at Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Sahibganj (Jharkhand), and Haldia (West Bengal), and two inter-modal terminals- at Kalughat and Ghazipur, and a new navigation lock at Farakka, and five Roll on-Roll off terminals, and new ferry services at Varanasi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Munger, Kolkata and Haldia as well as vessel repair and maintenance facilities”, according to Times of India. Contracts have already been awarded.

I am not an insider in Bihar politics or any political decision-making for that matter. But Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar is a well-known protector of the river Ganga’s ecosystem. He has warned that “constructing more dams between Allahabad and Haldia will convert the Ganga into big ponds” and is opposing the plan through the courts.

At the Incessant Ganga conference in February this year in Patna, and a later conference in Delhi, ecologists reviewed the many negative aspects of the Farakka barrage and damming of the river Ganga in general. Nitish says that “not a single drop of pure water from Gangotri reaches Bihar due to construction of many barrages in the river upper stream.” It only thanks to the rivers in Bihar coming from Nepal that the river Ganga gets replenished at all after Uttar Pradesh and before it leaves for West Bengal.

Participants at the various conferences provided evidence of the damage to the river Ganga being done before and after Bihar, and the report of the Farakka committee that is looking into breaking the Farakka dam may well provide more evidence of damage to ecology caused by barrages when it is released to the public.

But the insatiable appetite for global consumer goods, fuelled by banks that want to lend money for profit, is pushing the Union government to promote all sorts of polluting and ecologically damaging projects including barrages and desilting of rivers (see the activities of the BJP government in Assam) without thinking of ecology and the needs of humans and animals and plants. Yet without a pristine ecology Bihar’s agriculture and fishing, let alone that of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and of course that of Uttarakhand, and the millions of jobs that depend on it, are doomed.

What kind of work shall people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal do in the future when the country’s land and its natural systems are handed over to big business? Already wetlands accessible to the public are becoming a scarce feature in Bihar. I plan to study the human ecology of Bihar’s wetlands when I get a chance. It will be a lifetime’s study.

The privatisation and development of river fronts for the enjoyment of the minority bourgeoisie from Patna, as sand is dug for construction on behalf of trade and businesses with a global and national reach during the week, and families are then encouraged to take the air on the banks of the river Ganga at the weekend in good bourgeois style, is obviously having a very deleterious effect on the unorganised people of Bihar, who happen to constitute over 90% of the working people. The conflict between town and city culturally will have a growing negative impact on the ecology of the state in the coming years, as developers refuse to act according to the precautionary principle, which the courts have more than once urged the state and business to follow in regards to the ecological impacts of economic growth.

Farakka DamFarakka DamOpposition to the Farakka barrage comes from so many different quarters it would be quite wrong to allow it to continue to stand. Apart from the silt issue, which can only be solved by giving the river Ganga wide enough flood plains for people plants and animals and the river itself to use as per the demands of the weather, the sharing of the river Ganga water with Bangladesh is also impaired by the barrage. The reason for constructing the Farakka Barrage was maintaining the Calcutta port and the navigability of Bhagirathi-Hooghly River. But the consequences to Bangladesh were very negative. As Mohammad Abul Kawser and Md. Abdus Samad wrote in Bandung Journal of the Global South “India was successful in persuading British colonial rulers regarding the border between India and Pakistan considering the ecologically strategic points. This initial success of India gave her an upper hand in negotiating with Pakistan during post-colonial era. Agricultural and economic needs of India pushed her towards the construction of Farakka Barrage ignoring Pakistan’s continuous protest.”

The India and Bangladesh political history of the Farakka Barrage and the present political disputes within India between people and the state over erection of development projects on rivers, all have their causes in the willingness of politicians to give engineers and bankers the power to determine the dreams of nations. 37 % of the total area and 33 % of the total population of Bangladesh is dependent on Ganges basin. In India, according to the National Green Tribunal judgement on Ganga of 13 July, 2017 it is 23.6% of the area and 43% of the population. It is not right that business is given priority over people, plants and animals just because governments are too lazy to take full responsibility for their power to issue the money of a country.

The way in which the politics of the country is funnelled through the Reserve Bank of India Act 1934, an Act designed to ensure that Indian banking serves world trade, is never illustrated as well as in the way in which rivers are stolen from the people and animals by the state agencies and their banks. Let us hope that Nitish Kumar remains true to his principles and his conscience and defends ecology in the days to come.


Anandi Sharan was born in Switzerland, lives in Bangalore, and worked in Araria District in 2016. She mainly writes about India and how we need a better money policy to help agricultural labourers and women especially to adapt to man-made climate change. 

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