Jal Marg: Killing the Ganga, from Varanasi to Haldia 

Modi govt’s plans to link Varanasi and Haldia via the Jal Marg Vikas Project will kill river’s ecological flow, it will also enable an arrangement that allows corporations to make money of the river

Jal Marg: Killing the Ganga, from Varanasi to Haldia 
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Dhairya Maheshwari

Narendra Modi isn’t the only political leader who has been vocally advocating (genuinely or for political gains) that Ganga’s ‘aviral dhara’ be restored. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, an ally of the BJP and who has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the Prime Minister, has been seemingly more sincere as far as maintaining an uninterrupted flow of the Ganga is concerned.

At a seminar on the theme of ‘uninterrupted flow’ in February this year, the Bihar Chief Minister had categorically stated that he was against any dredging in the river, proposed under the Modi government’s ambitious Jal Marg Vikas Project to link Varanasi and Haldia.

The Bihar government had also made it clear to the Inland Waterways Authority of India that the proposed dredging of the Ganga would significantly alter the river ecosystem and impede its ‘aviral dhara’.

In the same vein, the West Bengal government also raised a red flag over dredging in the lower reaches of the Ganga, particularly around the port of Haldia.

Paying heed to the concerns of various stakeholders around desilting and dredging, the Ministry of Water Resources constituted the committee under the chairmanship of NGRBA (National Ganga River Basin Authority) expert Madhav Chithale to chart a roadmap for desilting operations. However, the government committee of experts found that desiltation operations had no direct relation with environmental flow, which was a major embarrassment for the government’s pledge to restore the river’s ‘aviral dhara’.

A Varanasi-based non-profit, specialising in the Ganga, Sankat Mochan Foundation, has warned that commercial exploitation of the river, by building dams and carrying out dredging activities, will impede its “natural flow.”

The proposed Rs-5,369-crore waterway project is one of the flagship infrastructure projects of the government and involves significant investment from the World Bank.

Under the Jal Marg Vikas Project, “fairway, multimode terminals” will come up in Varanasi, Haldia and Saheb. Besides, conservation works, night navigation facilities among others will be developed, as per government plans.

All these, say aides of Swami Sanand, will pave the way for involvement of the private sector in the works.

Already, the Inland Waterways Authority of India has awarded the contract for dredging to a multinational private consortium, since the Dredging Corporation of India doesn’t have the capacity to handle such largescale operations. According to a government estimate, 3.25 lakh cubic metres of silt will have to be removed between Varanasi and Patna to make the river navigable.

The damage to Ganga’s fauna, that too right in Varanasi, due to the desilting operations, has raised hackles in the environmental community. A 7-km tortoise sanctuary in the Ganga in Varanasi had to be relocated to make way for the Ganga Marg.

Concerns have also been raised around the proposed National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2017, which activists say will be tabled in Parliament in the upcoming winter session.

“Just look at the way the government has drafted the National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2017. It calls for the establishment of the National River Ganga Basin Corporation. Introducing the concept of basin means that they are treating the Ganga as a commercial entity,” complains Rajendra Singh, the water conservation activist and Magsaysay Awardee.

He notes that while the Act calls for maintaining “ecological flows in the river Ganga”, simultaneous push towards speedy construction of Ganga Jal Marg raises question mark on the government’s hidden motive to “maximise profits” out of the Ganga river.

“The earlier government had incorporated most of Swamiji’s recommendations in a similar bill back in 2012. The very fact that the same person, Justice Giridhar Malviya (retired), chaired both the drafting committees, yet came out with two very different drafts, speaks volumes about the BJP’s political leadership,” says Arun Tiwari, long time aide of GD Agarwal and a water conservation activist.

All the backlash against the proposed waterway have however fallen on deaf years. The government said in June this year that construction for the Varanasi port terminal would be completed by the end of this year, ahead of schedule.

While the government is of the opinion that making the Ganga navigable, despite all the red flags, will help them politically, local organisations and activists say commercialising Ganga would lead to its death.

A Varanasi-based non-profit, specialising in the Ganga, Sankat Mochan Foundation, has warned that commercial exploitation of the river, by building dams and carrying out dredging activities, will impede its “natural flow.”

Says Rajendra Singh, “Our Sadbhavna Yatra will reach Varanasi on November 23. The people of Varanasi will know what he has been doing to the Ganga. We will make sure they do.”

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