Farakka Barrage

          The Farakka Barrage Project on Ganga river has been often discussed in the context of whether this project has caused any adverse impacts in Bangladesh. Certainly there have been complaints from Bangladesh in this context. So was it a case of India promoting its interests at the cost of Bangladesh? No, there is increasing evidence of this project causing huge problems in India as well.

This aspect  attracted a lot  of attention a few years back in the context of a statement by the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar  regarding the highly adverse impact of Farakka barrage on making Bihar more prone to floods.

While this was not the first time that the adverse impact of Farakka project had  been highlighted, the issue being raised by a Chief Minister in rather strong terms has its own importance. Apart from voicing the apprehension that the project by increasing the silt load in the Ganga river has made it difficult for flood waters to be cleared quickly, Nitish Kumar  called for a review of the Farakka project and if such a review supports the frequent allegations of a highly disruptive and harmful role of this project then the possibility of decommissioning  the project should be kept open.

While several dam projects have been decommissioned in other countries in recent times this is the first time that a senior leader in India ( that too a Chief Minister)  raised this possibility in the  context of a very major project in India. There are many implications, as some of the projects now under consideration may have similar impacts of worsening the flood situation instead of providing protection from floods. Hence it is important to examine the old Farakka controversy in some detail.

It should be remembered that apart from Nitish Kumar several other senior leaders and social activists in Bihar have spoken against  the adverse impacts of Farakka project on worsening floods and very adversely affecting livelihood of river fisherfolk (caused by a big reduction in fish). The Ganga Mukti Andolan in particular had highlighted these aspects of the Farakka Project as this movement was in close contact with fisherfolk and was able to gather a lot of facts regarding the real impacts of Farakka project from the fisherfolk community.

A former irrigation minister of W. Bengal Devavrata Bandyopadhyaya had said some years back that the people of Malda and Murshidabad are doomed by this project. He had said this in the context of increasing erosion of land and the increasing tendency of the river water to erode land as the river bed is clogged by too much silt.

Bangladesh of course has all along been opposed to the Farakka project due to the adverse impacts on water availability.

If neither the people of India nor the people of Bangladesh are happy with the results of this project, then why did we spend so much money to build this barrage in the first place ?

This question should be pursued as it is very important to learn from such huge mistakes. A closer scrutiny would reveal that this is actually a terrible case of   making even bigger mistakes in the case of trying to correct previous ones.

This very expensive (in economic as well as ecological terms) story starts with the dams of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC). A lot of silt and sand accumulates in the lower reach of Hooghly river which was earlier flushed into the sea by the normal floods of Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers. But this natural process was disrupted by the DVC dams . The silt deposits accumulated, reducing the water carrying capacity of the river and causing destructive floods. The navigability of the river was threatened, endangering the future of Calcutta Port.

It was at this stage that Farakka Barrage was taken up on the plea that this will divert more water to the Bhagirathi above the Hooghly. But the real story turned out to be quite different.

Bangladesh was soon complaining that after the diversion the lesser flow to the Padma river led to  sand accumulation in its lower reach which could even change the river flow and hence bring floods in new areas, while also causing water shortages in other areas in the lean season. There were also reports of salt water intrusion in coastal areas and adverse impact on fisheries.

It was only a matter of time before reports of very adverse impacts also started appearing from several parts of India, namely Bihar and W. Bengal.

In fact well-articulated advance warnings had been voiced by a high-placed official and engineer who was very well informed about the region. When his warnings about the ill impacts of DVC dams started to actually appear  true he suggested that instead of building the Farakka barrage the government should consider the alternative of giving up the irrigation component of DVC and instead using this water to flush the lower Hooghly.

If this voice had been followed then the main objective sought to be achieved by constructing the costly Farakka Barrage could have been achieved in this way, avoiding all the adverse side-effects, while other arrangements could have been made for irrigation in the form of small water conservation and irrigation projects.

But unfortunately like his previous advice of not building the DVC dams this second advice of correcting the previous mistake too was not approved by government officials and big construction lobbies which decided to go ahead with the Farakka Project even though this was like repeating earlier mistakes on a bigger scale.

There is much to learn from this sad and unfortunate turn of events. It is still not too late to learn from past mistakes and act to protect the interests of India and Bangladesh on equal basis by considering all the suitable alternatives.

 Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Man Over Machine and Planet in Peril.


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