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Sunday, Nov 17, 2019

Scare for Dolphins as Ganga gets ready for cargo ships

Experts feel Centre’s ambitious inland waterway plan, which will make heavy cargo ships ply through the Ganga, will have a detrimental impact on the Mammals, declared the National Aquatic Animal in 2009.

patna Updated: Mar 01, 2019 09:02 IST
Arun Kumar
Arun Kumar
Hindustan Times, Patna
Experts feel Centre’s ambitious inland waterway plan, which will make heavy cargo ships ply through the Ganga, will have a detrimental impact on the Mammals
Experts feel Centre’s ambitious inland waterway plan, which will make heavy cargo ships ply through the Ganga, will have a detrimental impact on the Mammals(HT)

Amidst indications about increase in the number of highly endangered Dolphins in the Ganga, which suggests improvement in the river water quality, there is also a big concern.

Experts feel Centre’s ambitious inland waterway plan, which will make heavy cargo ships ply through the Ganga, will have a detrimental impact on the Mammals, declared the National Aquatic Animal in 2009. The fairway is ready for the ships.

In 2016, Bihar government had opposed any move to develop national waterways, as it could further devastate heavily silted Ganga and lead to more flooding. However, with the JD-U and the BJP together now, the issue has died down.

But for Dolphin researchers Prof RK Sinha, who got Padma Shree in 2016, and Prof Sunil Kumar Choudhary of Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University, ship movement would certainly have an impact on the river ecology and the Dolphins, which have just started showing signs of stabilization. They warn against Yangtze river situation, where Dolphins became extinct in 2006 due to heavy traffic.

“For movement of cargo ships, the Ganga will require constant dredging, which will disturb habitat of Dolphins. The heavy sound of ships and waves may disorient them, as the mammals, being blind, emit ultrasonic waves and use their echoes to identify the location of objects or fish they cannot see. They also collide with objects to form an image in their mind. Colliding with ships can be dangerous. They can also develop physiological disorder,” said Choudhary.

Vinod Kumar Kureel, chief engineer of the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), Patna said the fairway (around 35-40 metre wide stretch with average depth of around 2.5 metres in the Ganga with adequate depth) for the ships had been complete and it was for the private operators to use it whenever they feel it proper.

“We are just a development agency and we have completed the fairway for the cargo vessels to move through it. Our ships are plying and we also spot Dolphins playing. The entire project will be completed in 2022, when ships will get better depth. Work is being done only after obtaining all environment clearances and as per laid down guidelines,” he added.

On concerns over ecological impact, Kureel said it was natural with any development project, but there is always a conscious effort to minimize it. “Making national waterway functional is a conscious decision of the government and all precautions are being taken by various agencies for it. River is a dynamic system, unlike roads, and it requires dredging from time to time. It is a continuous process and we avoid dredging where Dolphins are seen.” he added.

IWAI came into existence in 1986. However, after 2014 its work gathered momentum as the Narendra Modi government focused on waterways development and now there are 111 declared waterways. This includes seven of the Bihar rivers, including the Ganga.

Kureel said that the pilots help vessels go through the fairway so that they don’t get stuck in shallow water. “New environment-friendly technology is also being worked out to minimise dredging. We also go in for bandalling, which uses bamboo made structure for the river course stabilization. In areas with dolphin population, we are more cautious,” he added.

River expert Dinesh Kumar Mishra, however, said that he could only hope that an environmental impact assessment had been done prior to pushing for waterway. “We don’t know what has been done, but we certainly know that ship movement would have impact on river ecology, as the river bed also gets disturbed. The consequences may manifest after some time in more ways than one,” he added.

Mishra said that Bihar had witnessed the fury of embankments, with the flood-prone area increasing from 25-lakh hectares to around 73-lakh hectares. “The focus on river transport is to minimize vehicular pollution, but is there a mechanism to monitor the outcome. Ganga is in bad shape, as it does not have adequate water. With rainfall also constantly falling, it could get worse. Ships can float on water only. What is important is to fix accountability for such huge investments,” he added.

Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi, who holds the portfolio of environment ministry also, said all steps would be initiated to protect the highly endangered Dolphins and it was exactly for this purpose that India’s first National Dolphin Research Centre, sanctioned by the erstwhile Planning Commission in 2013, was coming up in Patna. A memorandum between the Patna University and the Bihar state disaster management authority (BSDMA) was signed on February 18 and the foundation stone is likely to be laid soon.

Nalanda Open University VC RK Sinha, popularly called Dolphin man for his extensive work on the mammal that fetched him Padma Shree Award in 2016, said at a time when there were encouraging signs about stabilization of Dolphin population and improvement in the Ganga water, it was all the more important to take necessary precautions beforehand.

“In 2006, the Baiji or Chinese river Dolphin, was declared extinct in the Yangtze river, the first of a large mammal species and scientists attributed it to heavy river traffic. It is important that we keep it in mind,” said Sinha.

Sinha and Choudhary had also been invited for talks at the IWAI in 2016 and both said that they had raised concerns. “There have been instances of Dolphins getting killed due to propellers in the country boats. We had recommended propeller guards. The ships will also need to do some innovation. Flat bottom ships will cause less danger to mammals. Ganga Dolphins are blind, but have strong sense of echo location,” said Sinha.

The concerns are significant as over half the river Dolphin population is in Bihar, where the state government-sponsored first-ever planned population estimation survey of the mammals in the Ganga and its two main tributaries Gandak and Ghagra by Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), Zoological Survey of India and TM Bhagalpur University has just been completed, though a final report will be submitted to the Bihar government in March-end only. At present analysis of the data is going on.

In the Ganga, the survey was carried out in two stretches. One 300-km stretch was from Buxar to Mokama, done by the team of Gopal Sharma, regional head of the Zoological Survey of India. It recorded around 300 Dolphins. The second stretch was around 278-km stretch from Mokama to Manihari, which found the number to be tentatively around 765. Besides, the third survey covered Ganga’s tributaries the Gandak and Ghagra.

Environmentalist Prof Ashok Ghosh, chairman of the Bihar state pollution control board (BSPCB), said there were clear indicators of improvement in the water quality in the Ganga in the last four-five months. “Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report has also corroborated the BSPCB report about improvement at three major points along the Bihar stretch of the Ganga at Buxar, Mokama and Munger, vis-à-vis biological oxygen demand (BOD), dissolved oxygen (DO) and fecal coliform (FC). We are yet to release the data, but we will do so soon after further analysis,” he added.

Ghosh said the improvement in water quality in UP had impact in Bihar and once the Bihar STPs would start functioning, it would improve further. “On our part, we have made zero discharge of industrial wastes into the river. Action has also been taken against industries under orange and red categories. We continue with regular monitoring of the river water quality,” he added.

Experts, however, feel Ganga water quality in the Bihar stretch is relatively better, as four cleaner Himalayan rivers flow into the Ganga from Nepal. “In Bihar, not much work under Namami Gange project has been completed till now, but efforts have begun to stop effluents flowing into the river and once all the seweage treatment plants (STPs) start working, water quality could improve further. At present, water quality in UP has improved and that is also contributing to Ganga’s health,” he added.

Sameer Kumar Sinha, head of the Species Recovery Division at WTI, said it is a fact that better water quality is conducive to Dolphins’ growth. “We hope for a better count, but the exact figures will be known after the report is submitted,” he added.