Farakka barrage: Floods and water wars imminent, but political compulsions dictate CM behaviour

The history of the Farakka Barrage is a cautionary tale in how not to tamper with nature

Gouri Chatterjee August 30, 2016 10:15:02 IST
Farakka barrage: Floods and water wars imminent, but political compulsions dictate CM behaviour

The rains have started letting up, the flood waters have started receding, life, as it is its wont, is slowly limping back to normalcy in the flood hit plains of the Gnaga. The hundreds of thousands rendered homeless by the fury of the river they worship as a God will rebuild their lives with bare hands and true grit and, maybe, a trickle of help from the government.

Life will go on – but only till the next flooding, maybe the year after, maybe two years down the line. For there is no escaping floods on the Gangetic belt any more. Laloo Prasad Yadav’s twisted logic may well turn out to be correct, Ganga Maia will come visiting the lowliest of the low on its banks in Bihar, UP, West Bengal regularly from now on. Even if the monsoon is not exceptionally heavy, even if steps, like strengthening the embankments say, are taken in time. Flood relief will have to be factored in into state budgets every year.

Scientists are almost unanimous, regular flooding of the banks of the Gangetic plain can now be taken as a fact of life unless drastic measures are taken soon. But not quite what Nitish Kumar has proposed: Dismantle the Farakka Barrage in northern Bengal which to him is the chief culprit for all the ills that have begun to plague his state every monsoon. Even though he is not wholly wrong.

The history of the Farakka Barrage is a cautionary tale in how not to tamper with nature, how geopolitical changes can lay to waste the best laid plans of man, how hope can be easily belied if based on incomplete knowledge. It is also an object lesson in how politicians interpret the greater good to the detriment of the country as a whole.

Farakka barrage Floods and water wars imminent but political compulsions dictate CM behaviour

Hardinge Bridge, Bangladesh, crosses the Ganges-Padma River. It is one of the key sites for measuring streamflow and discharge on the lower Ganges. Image Courtesy: Wiki Commons

It all began at a time when Calcutta (not Kolkata) mattered. A Calcutta that became a bustling, chaotic port after Job Charnock docked there in the seventeenth century but carried the seeds of its destruction in the choice of its location: not on the mighty Ganga itself but on an offshoot of the river, the Bhagirathi-Hughli. Even being the capital of an empire could not save Calcutta’s port from nature’s depredations.

The rapid silting of the river, making it un-navigable for large ships, was noticeable even in the nineteenth century. The proposal to save the port by constructing a barrage across the Ganga and diverting some of its waters into the Bhagirathi was made by Sir Arthur Cotton as far back as 1853. It remained on paper for over a hundred years.

In 1957, an India that was rushing to build temples of modernity with its big dams and huge public sector undertakings, invited another British engineer, Dr W. Hensen, to suggest a way out. Calcutta still held hope. Saving it was important to the nation’s psyche.

Dr Hensen echoed Sir Arthur and suggested Farakka in northern Bengal as the spot for the barrage to come up, ten miles upstream from the border with then East Pakistan through which the river travelled to reach the sea. Except that it is called the Padma there, after it joins up with the Brahmaputra.

Naturally Pakistan protested, but water wars were unheard of then, in fact water was yet to be seen as a scarce commodity, river water sharing was not the sensitive issue it is today, the UN hadn’t begun to take note of it as seriously as it does nowadays. Pakistan’s concerns were dismissed outright.

By the time the barrage was built East Pakistan had become Bangladesh but it remains a sticky issue between the two countries till today. Usually Bangladesh complains of lack of water; today it is complaining of excessive discharge from the Farakka Barrage which has opened all its hundred plus gates to manage the swollen, heaving river.

Started in 1962, the 2.62 km long Farakka Barrage was completed in 1971. The excavation of a 38 kilometre-long feeder canal took another four years and the whole project was finally commissioned with much pomp and ceremony on 21 May, 1975. Billed as “an infrastructure marvel of strategic importance” it was a proud moment for India.

One lonely voice did protest. Kapil Bhattacharya, the chief engineer of the government of Bengal, predicted that it was a pointless exercise; worse, it would do more harm than good as it would lead to vast deposits of sediment upstream that would raise the riverbed higher and higher so that there would be catastrophic floods, in time even if there was normal rainfall.

Precisely the scenario in Bihar today. The rainfall there has been slightly below average so far but the flooding has been massive. Of course, Kapil Bhattacharya was not thanked for his pains. Rather, he was promptly dubbed a Pakistani agent (anti-national in today’s lingo) and forced to resign.

Bhattacharya was prescient about the Farakka Barrage’s primary objective too – rejuvenating the Calcutta port. You don’t need to be an expert to see how miserably it has failed on that count. The silt accumulated, the water from Farakka was not enough to flush it out, Calcutta stopped being a port city decades ago and lives only in the pages of Amitav Ghosh’s books, namely his recent Ibis trilogy.

According to Dr Jayanta Bandopadhyay, former professor and head of the Centre for Development and Environment, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, “The Europeans were clueless about the nature of the Himalayan rivers. Their own rivers are subjected to slow rain almost daily. Our monsoons, the torrential rains they bring for a few months, the siltation that takes place after they hit the Himalayas, these are things they were quite unfamiliar with. A lot of solid flows in the Himalayan rivers, unlike rivers in the West. Naturally their calculations about the Farakka Barrage went completely awry.”

In fact, the way things are going, the Ganga may soon outflank the barrage and flow through its old 15th century course which will reduce the Farakka barrage to just a bridge, an important bridge no doubt linking north and south Bengal but a bridge nevertheless. Nitish Kumar would get his wish and the Farakka Barrage would stand testament to man’s hubris about nature.

But work on the construction of another barrage would have to begin almost immediately and it would be started by Nitish Kumar’s friendly neighbour Mamata Banerjee. However much the Bihar chief minister may decry the barrage, for Bengal’s chief minister it is absolutely vital. Not for what it was meant to be but for what it has become: The chief source of water supply, a lifeline for the thickly populated, politically and culturally influential southern Bengal which includes the city of Kolkata.

No wonder Dr Kalyan Rudra, chairman of the State Pollution Control Board and an expert on river sciences, scoffs at Nitish Kumar’s proposal that the Farakka Barrage be done away with. “Utterly ridiculous,” he retorts. “An absurd idea. About 200 kilometres of the non-tidal part of the river would dry up. It would be a disaster for Bengal.”

In sum, not just floods but water wars are on the cards that might one day, and not too far off, threaten to drown the Third Front bonhomie that the chief ministers of Bengal and Bihar are working so assiduously to create. But then, as Bandopadhyay points out, political compulsions will always dictate the way the different chief ministers behave.

Dams and five-star hotels are built in the upper reaches of the Ganga even though they destabilise the entire river basin because it serves the immediate interests of the leaders there to do so. The only way out, he says, is to have a Ganga river basin authority that can take a holistic approach and serve the river and all the states on its banks equally.

An unlikely prospect given that the central government is already drawing up plans to divert waters, build dams and link rivers to create an inland waterway that may well repeat the mistakes of the past. As they say, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.

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