Of Government, God and Gharial: The Ecological Pogrom in Chambal's Badlands

Dam-builders seldom keep their promises and the government has failed to stop their infrastructural orgies. We thus have a disease of gigantism on our hands crippling the Chambal's ecology.

The highlands of the Vindhyas give birth to one of the most remarkable, yet infamous, of India’s cratonic rivers: the Chambal. Almost 1,000 kilometres long, and bounded by the Aravalli to the north and the Vindhya to the south, the river snakes past the plateaus of Malwa and Hadauti before meeting the Yamuna in the Gangetic plains. Cutting across scarp and shale, several rivers and streams – many of them seasonal – channel into the Chambal, carving their way through the pediplain and a maze of gullies and ravines. Water has been the chief architect of this landscape over millennia and continues to shape the lives of the wonderful creatures here. I’ve spent many a magical minute watching the Chambal flow by, with skimmers gliding over her waters, turtles foraging in the shallows, river dolphins schooling fish, and gharials basking against the stark ravenous backdrop.

As unsullied as this setting appears, the Chambal no longer enjoys its pristine state. This riverscape has had a long history of human dependence and as in much of South Asia, and indeed globally, this occupation has largely been exploitative and unregulated (Kaul 1962; Dudgeon 2000). For the most part of an ordinary day along the Chambal, countless head-loads of cloth and trains of tractor-trailers make their way down to the river, where women pummel laundry at the ghats and men plunder sand from the banks. The clanging bells signal the arrival of chaos — cattle whose relentless hooves have lain to waste acre upon bare acre. The surrounds of these ghats swarm with people, their pets, possessions, pop songs and other paraphernalia. While a scene such as this typifies many parts of rural India and lends rustic charm to the oppidan eye, such commotion inside this river sanctuary is largely to the detriment and exclusion of local wildlife. But more gravely, the Chambal is dammed and her natural flows and flood pulses heavily compromised.

Straddling the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) is the first and only tristate protected area in India. At over 600 km long, it is also perhaps the longest riverine protected area in the world. Scouring through historical documents and survey reports spanning seven decades, and from our own observations, a colleague and I recorded as many as 147 fish, 56 reptile, 308 bird and 60 mammal species from the Chambal basin, particularly the NCS (Nair and Krishna 2013). But after being subject to a slew of changes and pressures over the years, it remains to be seen if this sanctuary still supports the diversity and abundance of species it once did. Nevertheless, the Chambal is certainly unique and remarkable in this larger landscape, for it continues to support an almost intact assemblage of at least the relatively more conspicuous aquatic fauna that have largely been extirpated from the rest of the Gangetic drainage (Hussain and Badola 2001; Nair and Krishna 2013).

Potamic perils

Credit: Tarun Nair

Credit: Tarun Nair

A sudden quiet descends as the evening sun sets, when the washers, miners and herdsmen gradually depart with their odds and ends in tow. From dusk through to dawn, the Chambal turns a wilder hue. Herds of nervous nilgai (Boselaphus tragocamelus) descend to drink, the chorus of rousing jackals (Canis aureus) fill the gullies, a wary hyaena (Hyaena hyaena) scuttles along the river’s edge, studious black-necked storks (Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus) patrol the shoreline, and gentle upheavals on the water’s skin reveal the predatory profiles of surfacing crocodiles. Mayflies erupt in the millions, prompting excited little fish to leap agape and splash back in. And from the dying glow emerge the hurried silhouettes of winged wildfowl and the guttural calls of fish-owls. I am lulled into believing, of being the lone witness to an unfolding spectacle such as this. But I know, that lying quietly low somewhere amidst the ravines, turtle poachers are busy scheming the murderous harvest of rare river turtles.

Armed with the deadly hazari (meaning ‘of a thousand’), as longlines with hooks are locally referred to, these hunters set out bait, especially targeting the endangered Chitra, Nilssonia and Lissemys softshell turtles to feed the incessant demand for turtles in the lower Gangetic plains and further east beyond India’s borders. The consumption of wild caught turtles is one of the gravest problems facing freshwater turtle populations across Asia, especially since protection and law enforcement for turtles is almost non-existent. There is also an increasing trade in dried calipee (the cartilaginous parts of a softshell turtle’s shell), because it can be stored and stockpiled for long periods, is difficult to identify, and often passed off as ‘buffalo horn’ in international shipments.

Despite being a persistent threat, turtle poaching receives scant attention and usually goes undetected. But when this illicit trade does get intercepted, the scale of the problem, usually numbering hundreds of harvested turtles, is evident. The turtles also have to dodge other clandestine fishing parties, from places like Agra, Gwalior, Etawah, and even as far as Bihar, who come equipped with gill nets and dynamite sticks. These deathly veils and detonations are not partial to only fish, but also kill turtles, gharials (Gavialis gangeticus), marsh crocodiles (Crocodylus palustris), river dolphins (Platanista gangetica), otters (Lutrogale perspicillata) and aquatic birds indiscriminately (Nair and Krishna 2013 and references therein).

Even activities that don’t necessarily intend to harm wildlife often destroy habitats or affect their behaviour, by disrupting their feeding, breeding and even altering physiological processes; and these disturbances, including the mere presence of man, can constitute a ‘predation risk’ (Frid and Dill 2002) and create ‘landscapes of fear’ (Ciuti, et al. 2012) for many species, leading them to avoid or abandon otherwise suitable habitats and increase vigilance behaviours that impose energetic and reproductive costs. Riverside cultivation steadily expands along the banks and even the Chambal ravines are being flattened to add arable acreage. And fuelling the disturbances associated with sowing, protecting and harvesting the crop, is the increasing use of diesel pumps to water these fields, and the subsequent risks of water pollution from oil leaks and the use of agro-chemicals. Even efforts to protect crops here seem overtly offensive.

In many places, sometimes for hundreds of meters, an impenetrable thorn hedge runs parallel to the river to keep animals from entering crop fields. Effective it may be, but this barrier also prevents wildlife from reaching the river in the sanctuary, denying them access to water. It was also common practice to employ Moghiya tribesmen, infamous for their skills in hunting and trapping wildlife, to guard crop fields. Apart from killing any quarry unfortunate enough to stride by where they stood guard, they were also responsible for extirpating smooth-coated otters from the lower Chambal. There is also the added threat of stone mining, especially in the upper reaches of the river, which destroys otter holts and other habitats, and causes considerable disturbances to wildlife from the blasting, extraction and removal processes, and from the constant presence of manpower and heavy machinery.

Sand-miners around the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

Sand-miners around the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

The construction boom across India has placed an enormous demand for river sand, and a significant proportion of this demand is met through illegal sand mining. The Chambal has not escaped this scourge, and with several major highways passing through the region, the Chambal’s sand is all the more vulnerable. Illegal sand mining in the Chambal has carried on uncurbed for so long that many locals believe that its continued exploitation is their rightful claim, and are rather nonchalant at maiming or killing officials who have tried to stop this pillage (Rege 2016; Hindustan Times 2016).

Undisturbed sand deposits are crucial breeding habitats not only for the gharial, but for several other species (including turtles and ground-nesting birds like Indian skimmers), but many of the best nesting sites are also those targeted and hollowed out from sand extraction. This loss is worsened by the four dams upriver, which hold back sand and severely obstruct the deposition of new sediment. While the Chambal’s tributaries may replace some of the illegally mined sand in the annual monsoon floods, their role will be short-lived with the construction of the Parbati – Kali Sindh – Chambal Link, which proposes to divert 1360 million cubic meters of water from the Parbati, Newaj and Kali Sindh rivers into either the Gandhi Sagar or Rana Pratap Sagar Dams (National Water Development Agency 2004). The Kedah River in north-western Malaysia offers valuable lessons, and a small window to understand what the future holds —

“Prior to 1960 the river supported large populations of Batagur and Callagur [river turtles]. The demise of this population occurred quickly as the result of two actions — sand mining and dam building. … two dams were completed on the river … and within a decade the sand banks between the dams had disappeared and natural reproduction of Batagur and Callagur ceased on the Kedah river” (Moll 1997).

The situation on the Chambal is perhaps worse; not only does it have to contend with the dams and sand mining, the proposed linking and diversion of its tributaries will sever and sewer its only steady source of water.

Green-washing the gharial?

The body of a drowned gharial. Credit: Rajeev Tomar

The body of a drowned gharial. Credit: Rajeev Tomar

Following surveys in the 1970s, the total gharial population in India was estimated at less than 200 individuals (Whitaker, et al. 1974). Conservation efforts centred on the creation of protected areas and rear-and-release programmes were initiated under the Indian Crocodile Conservation Project. The rear-and-release programme for crocodilians involved the collection of eggs from the wild, artificial incubation and hatching, and captive rearing for 2 – 3 years till they attained a size between 1.2 and 1.5 m, after which they were released into various rivers in the Ganges and Brahmaputra Basins and in the Mahanadi. The subsequent recovery of gharial populations was brief, in part because of the suspension of central government funding, and also from the persistence of human-induced threats at the release sites.

It is also likely that these ‘recovered’ numbers were an artefact of the ongoing releases during that period, and not the result of a real, self-sustaining population recovery. By 2006, the adult gharial population reportedly collapsed by 58% (from 436 in 1997 to 182 in 2006) across its range, and the species was classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation for Nature (Choudhury, et al. 2007). Adding to the gharial’s predicament were unusual mortality events, the reasons for which are yet unresolved but suspected to be an unidentified toxicant — over a hundred gharials perished between late-2007 and early-2008 while at least 15 died between late-2012 and early-2013 under mysterious circumstances  (Huchzermeyer, et al. 2008; Nair, et al. 2013).

Some of the protected areas established during the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the National Chambal Sanctuary and Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary amongst others, certainly helped gharials recover, and these continue to support all the established breeding populations today. The complementary rear-and-release programmes sought to prevent losses from nest predation and hatchling mortality in the wild, and oddly enough believed that captive-reared individuals were better equipped to survive in the wild. But the survival and movement, and any potential breeding by released animals at new sites were not monitored, and the usefulness of these programmes remains doubtful. Several thousand juvenile gharials have been released across the north Indian rivers since the 1970s and there is almost nothing to suggest that they have survived or persisted. All the known breeding sites already had surviving gharial populations when the rear-and-release programmes commenced; these reintroductions have not established any new, viable breeding populations yet (Choudhury, et al. 2007).

A dewatered channel of the Son river below Bansagar Dam. Credit: Tarun Nair

A dewatered channel of the Son river below Bansagar Dam. Credit: Tarun Nair

The rear-and-release strategy, the main stay of gharial conservation efforts to date, is targeted towards overcoming the naturally high rates of hatchling and juvenile mortality. However, it does not address the major threats to gharials that are primarily from activities such as river diversions, flow modifications, fishing, sand mining and riverside cultivation (Choudhury, et al. 2007). On the contrary, the rear-and-release programmes may even be counter-productive because they divert scarce conservation and management resources away from the aforementioned issues threatening gharial populations (Nair, et al. 2012), and distract from the tougher and more inconvenient conservation challenges facing rivers and gharials. Yet, this strategy is favoured by several organisations (both government and non-government) because it enjoys popular appeal and attracts favourable media attention. Recasting gharial reintroductions to comply with global reintroduction guidelines (IUCN/SSC 2013) may still contribute to their conservation, but must take heed of lessons from the past and from species elsewhere. And, for these efforts to be considered successful, reintroduced gharials must breed successfully and establish viable populations.

So, how does the gharial fare in other parts of its range?

Some information is available from Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary and Corbett Tiger Reserve, where gharial populations are monitored relatively regularly and appear stable. Smaller populations are present (at very low densities) in the Gandak (pers. obs.), Son (Nair and Katdare 2013), Ghaghra (Basu 2010), and Hooghly (iRebel 2010) rivers. But these populations are far from secure the only two adult breeding males in the Son Gharial Sanctuary were killed by local fishermen in early 2016, while the consumption of gharial eggs by local inhabitants are a threat to gharial breeding in the Gandak (Choudhary 2010). Only two individuals may continue to survive in the Mahanadi River System (Mohanty, et al. 2010). Individual gharials seeking new home ranges are also trapped and eaten by local fishing communities, as has been observed in the Yamuna and Ganga (pers. obs.). Little else is known from the rest of its range in India, and there are no indications of any surviving populations elsewhere in the country. A recent effort attempting to understand the species’ status in the Gangetic system assessed the Betwa, Ken and Son Rivers, and the findings are not promising (Nair and Katdare 2013).

The Betwa, Ken and Son were all part of the gharials historical range and were also sites where captive-reared gharials were released. Like most others in the region, these rivers are subject to flow modifications from dams, fishing and sand mining pressures, among myriad other river uses. Nothing suggests the continued survival of released gharials in the Betwa, and given the threat levels, it is highly improbable that individuals migrating from the NCS can establish themselves here. The same is true for the non-protected parts of the Ken River (Nair and Katdare 2014). The Ken Gharial Sanctuary’s name implies that that this sanctuary provides suitable habitat and sustains a natural gharial population. But this is clearly not the case in this pint-sized sanctuary, which covers only about a 16 km stretch of the Ken River (and not 45 km as is often reported, Rao, et al. 1995; Sharma, et al. 1999), and less than half of this, in disjointed parts, constitutes available gharial habitat.

The last known adult male has not been seen after a major flood in the Ken river sometime in 2007, and only one individual has been seen regularly since then (Nair and Katdare 2014). On the other hand, the Son Gharial Sanctuary appears to offer better prospects for the gharial. At almost 210 km long, it is the second longest riverine protected area in the country and supports at least one resident breeding group. But even here, river flows are compromised by the Bansagar Dam immediately upriver of the Son Gharial Sanctuary, and there are increasing efforts to exploit its two main tributaries, the Banas and Gopad rivers by half a dozen thermal power plants and sundry irrigation and water supply schemes. As in the Chambal, sand-mining has also been a long-standing problem here, and the threat of denotification of these sanctuaries for this purpose rears its ugly head time and again (Trivedi 2015).

Surviving servitude and subterfuge

Overgrazed ravines. Credit: Tarun Nair

Overgrazed ravines. Credit: Tarun Nair

Badland topography and ravine-and-thorn-scrub vegetation are characteristic of the Chambal Basin. The ravines have for long posed an unexploitable challenge and hence are considered wastelands, and few folk appear to have appreciated this labyrinthine network, except for the guerrillas of yore and the dacoits of yesteryear, albeit to play out their defiance or villainy. This landscape and its outlaws exuded a sense of the untamed that appeared to challenge authority, and this association may have in part contributed to the continued efforts to subjugate the ravines over the last three centuries. During British rule, plans to exploit the ravines were formally proposed as early as the latter half of the nineteenth century; and the early part of the twentieth century witnessed the initial attempts to utilise the ravines to produce fodder and fuel wood, and make them amenable for agriculture (Sah 1937). A slew of measures including bunds, check dams, grazing restrictions, and plantations were employed over the following decades (Peri and Khybri 1975).

The region was subject to the aerial sowing of mesquite (Prosopis juliflora) seeds in the 1980s as a ravine reclamation measure (Prasad 1988), and as a consequence, this invasive tree became widespread in the region. Meanwhile, the Chambal valley projects in the 1960s and 1970s that lead to large-scale dam-building throttled the rivers’ flow and gradually abetted the cancerous spread of irrigated agriculture across large swathes of the ravines. A fifth of these ravines were lost to croplands over a 40 year period between 1971 and 2011 (Ranga, et al. 2016). The ensuing changes in the region, from canals and pipelines to highways and higher aspirations, crept up to dispossess the Chambal of the relative peace, quite and impregnability that its out-in-the-boondocks isolation once lent.

A quick look at the number of projects put up for approval before the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) can well illustrate the scale and enormity of developmental pressures on the NCS. At a single meeting of the NBWL in March 2013, project clearances were sought for constructing a gas pipeline, setting up of a clinker-grinding and fly-ash mixing unit, installing an intake well to withdraw river water, diversion of forest land for a transmission line and 2 interstate roads and bridges — all in the NCS (MoEF 2013). Most of these projects eventually get cleared, despite the growing body of evidence on the negative consequences of such linear intrusions (Raman 2010 and references therein), with roads probably being the single most destructive element amongst them.

A predictable chain of events almost always follows such developments. Disturbances and habitat degradation increases with the influx of construction labour and machinery (pers. obs.). Hunting for the pot ensues and local vegetation is cleared to meet fuel (firewood) needs. Water bodies nearby become polluted; and although garbage doesn’t stay contained there, a dump will luxuriate in the midst of it all. Tea stalls, eateries, grocery stores and other artefacts of human colonies ultimately creep in. Construction labour stays on and temporary settlements eventually become permanent. A gluttonous godman will set shop and spawn the spread of a dozen more to serve a horde of willingly gullible devotees. These neo-shrines are often the epicentre for local pollution, disturbances and degradation.

A ‘fishbone’ pattern of habitat loss and degradation often accompanies roads and simply renders a region vulnerable to these and more persistent agents of ruinous change. The effects of roads on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are well known, ranging from wildlife mortalities, modification of animal behaviour and the spread of exotic and invasive species, to disruption in habitat connectivity, alteration of the local environment, and further increased use by humans (Trombulak and Frissell 2000). Furthermore, Rajasthan’s ambitious plans to level the ravines (Gehlot 2013), the proposed Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMICDCL 2013) and other such penetrative proposals threaten to scar this riverscape forever.

The declaration of the lower Chambal as National Waterway No. 24 is the latest menace with very serious environmental implications.

The riverscape. Credit: Tarun Nair

The riverscape. Credit: Tarun Nair

New development projects are required to conduct Environment Impact Assessments (EIAs), but as is often the case in the rest of India, EIAs in the Chambal Basin are typically works of little or no scientific merit (e.g. Rajasthan Urban Sector Development Investment Program 2008). They are ‘perceived merely as a bureaucratic requirement limited to selection of project or pollution control technology’ (Paliwal 2006), and ‘used presently as a project justification tool rather than as a project planning tool to contribute to achieving sustainable development’ (Panigrahi and Amirapu 2012). EIAs for hydropower development in India are constrained to the project level and fail to consider their larger cumulative effects (Erlewein 2013).

The feasibility report of the USD 500 million Parbati – Kali Sindh – Chambal Link Project (National Water Development Agency 2004) notes that project affected people will be ‘rehabilitated on proper location‘ and be provided with, among other things, ‘life support systems, employment opportunities and recreation facilities’ to ‘reduce the resettlement problem‘ and ‘improve the lifestyle of the people‘. These are obviously mere platitudes and self vindication to go ahead with the project any which way (e.g. Hemadri, et al. n.d.), as evident from the poor record of rehabilitation and restoration efforts in India. The feasibility report also notes that 244.4 hectares of forest will be submerged, and suggests ‘the wood obtained from these forests can be utilised for construction of project, colonies etc.’ The report then strangely concludes that ‘there will be very little impact on the flora and fauna of the region‘.

While water is the very essence of a river, this project assessment does not even consider the implications of diverting water from the Parbati and Kali Sindh Rivers. These rivers are the most crucial lifelines of this river sanctuary along with the now strangled Chambal. For the most part of the year, the Chambal does not flow below the Kota Barrage and has been reduced to a stagnant, shrunken sliver. While the Chambal is almost 400 metres wide along its lower reaches, several sections of the river below the Kota Barrage, are barely a few feet across and a few inches deep. It recovers from the deprivation only after the Kali Sindh and Parbati flow in.

Not content with denying the Chambal her own waters, these dams have also played havoc with an evolutionary process so fine-tuned to the changing seasons and natural flood pulses that a departure from these synchronies often has disastrous consequences for gharials, turtles and ground-nesting birds. The breeding adaptations of these species reflect seasonal changes in water levels; nesting takes place when low water levels expose sand deposits, and hatching precedes the monsoonal floods. But erratic water releases in the past have inundated several nesting sites, and at other times, these sudden discharges have also washed away gharial hatchlings from the relatively protected confines of the NCS to the more hostile, over-fished waters of the Yamuna, Betwa and Ken, where interviews with fishermen have revealed the frequent deaths of young gharials in their nets, especially in the monsoons (Choudhury, et al. 2007; Nair 2012; Nair and Katdare 2013).

For almost half a century, the Kota Barrage was the last of the indignities the Chambal suffered on her way through to the Yamuna and beyond. But today, this humiliation is prolonged and repeated by the illegitimate lift irrigation schemes at Dholpur and Pinahat (Nair and Krishna 2013), and the unquenching demands for many such more. The pretexts for these schemes are as fallacious as their EIAs. For instance, The Chambal – Dholpur – Bharatpur Water Supply Scheme was born as a result of water woes in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur district; but what was being projected as water scarcity was an outcome of poor water management and caste hostilities between the politically influential Meenas (a Scheduled Tribe) and the traditionally pastoralist Gujjar community demanding Scheduled Tribes status in Rajasthan (Dutta 2011; Parihar 2007). Rather than deal with the real issues — of putting an end to caste feuds, restoring the now dry Banganga River, undertaking local water conservation measures, and ensuring equity in its distribution — the state of Rajasthan sought to band-aid the communal fissure by pumping water from the Chambal over 80 km away.

Credit: Tarun Nair

Credit: Tarun Nair

Shoddy EIA reports, non-consideration of alternatives, improper implementation of mitigation measures and lackadaisical monitoring is standard practice. Today, most EIA consultants are merely playing pimp to economic growth — soliciting for the industry rather than safeguarding against environmental desecration. EIAs simply partake in foreplay, initiating the infrastructural orgy that follows. The regulatory processes are pre-occupied, almost possessed, with expediting project clearances, and their accursed ways warrant an urgent systemic exorcism.

To make matters worse, the government contrived a protection racket to feed into and feed off the iniquitous interests of India Inc. Feigned as a measure to cut through red tape and spur development in the country, the setting up of the National Investment Board, later re-christened as the Cabinet Committee on Investment (CCI) has indeed lent legitimacy to riding rough shod over environmental and social concerns (Krishnadas, et al. 2012). State subterfuge at its best, the CCI was without doubt manoeuvred to circumvent extant legislation and due process that India Inc. dismisses as a mere irritant. The CCI didn’t need much time to affect a stranglehold on India’s rivers, with the country’s north-east bearing its early brunt; clearances were granted for the Tawang, Tato, Teesta and Dibang hydel-projects despite widespread environmental and social concerns (The Hindu 2014; The Indian Express 2014).

From the jaundiced press to the planning commission, ‘green’ became the new whipping boy for the slowing economy (Srinivasan 2012), notwithstanding failed policies, unchecked corruption, high inflation, crumbling infrastructure, man-made drought, lack of reform and a weak government (Badkar 2012; Bhalla 2013; Nelson 2013). Economic growth, higher per capita incomes and populist handouts alone cannot and should not be construed as development. More relevant is the nature and sustainability of this growth process and how empowering its policies are, especially in basic education, healthcare and public services (Dreze and Sen 2011). Economic growth can certainly facilitate social progress and the quality of life, but not without the intent to do so. And certainly not with the government’s GDP-gripped jingoism.

India’s social indicators, especially rates of youth female literacy, child mortality, access to improved sanitation, and proportion of underweight children, remain appalling (Dreze and Sen 2011). The Prime Minister’s Office, Finance Ministry and Planning Commission of India, under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), were simply barking up the wrong tree by accusing environmental regulations for this sorry state of affairs. The issue of Naxalism in central India and the role of a brazen development agenda there, particularly with its mines and dams, are well documented, and will not be discussed further here.

Following an anti-incumbency and anti-corruption wave, UPA was booed out in the 2014 Indian general elections, and the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the promise of development and good governance, was voted into power at the centre. The regime changed, but as many feared India’s natural environment continued to be short-changed. The new government’s environmental shenanigans came to the fore almost immediately — the constitution of a notional wildlife board (Velho, et al. 2014); the setting up of a High-Level Committee to review the major environment, forest and wildlife laws of the country, with the dubious mandate to ‘bring them in line with current requirements to meet objective’ (MoEF&CC 2014); reports of diluting the scope of the National Green Tribunal (Sethi 2014); wholesale Environmental and Forest Clearances for linear projects, exemptions for irrigation projects from Environmental Clearance, and allowing industries and infrastructure projects closer to Protected Areas (MoEF&CC 2015); to name a few.

It even dispatched the Intelligence Bureau on a witch-hunt of environmental NGOs. The Bureau’s report on the threats from ‘foreign funded NGO’s to take down Indian developmental projects’ (Report (Secret) IR/IS No. 002, DIB U.O. No. 28/D1/2014(31)-1926-1941) clearly lacked the one trait that its very name purports. It was a disgraceful loss of credibility, and betrayed the bureau’s masochistic surrender to its perverse political masters. For a party that is incessantly breast-beating to demonstrate its devotion to the country’s heritage, why has the Modi-led BJP government been systematically dismantling institutions and mechanisms meant to preserve and protect India’s natural heritage? The writing over a culvert near the Ken River puts it rather aptly: Khodh khodh kar dharthi khaaye, Bha Ja Pa ko sharam na aaye.

Promises and lies

An infrastructural mess over the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

An infrastructural mess over the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

The culture and history of dam building in India are defined by promises and lies — proposals that over-state the purported developmental gains, and under-play environmental, economic and social costs. Commentaries by Gupta, et. al. (1998; 2007), and Thakkar (2010) have examined the Chambal valley projects (Gandhi Sagar, Rana Pratap Sagar and Jawahar Sagar) which obtained techno-economic clearances by claiming a combined power generation capacity of 1177 million units per annum. But, these projects have only generated 554 million units per annum at 90% dependability over the last 25 years or so.

This is less than even 50% of the design generation. The largest of these, the Gandhi Sagar Dam, has in fact been the biggest failure, under-performing by almost 73%. And yet, these monstrosities, masquerading as progress, have never been evaluated for their supposed benefits. Only one thing is certain; that this charade of development is responsible for the steady ruin of yet another river. In fact, major infrastructure projects, like dams, are ‘typically characterised by enormous cost overruns and benefits shortfalls’ and their consistent under-performance can be explained by the inherent role of ‘delusion, deception and corruption’ in these projects (Ansar, et al. 2014; Flyvbjerg and Molloy 2011).

Although there is no provision for the non-irrigation use of water supplied from the Chambal valley projects, as per the agreement between Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the average quantity of water used by Rajasthan for non-irrigation purposes has increased three-fold, from 0.47 million acre feet (between 1976-77 and 1985-86) to 1.41 million acre feet (between 1993-94 and 2002-03; Gupta, et al. 2007). The project waters are now used for the nuclear power plants in Rawatbhata, the thermal power plants at Kota, and to cater to the ever-growing demands of several towns and villages in the region.

They also note that the Chambal valley projects are leading to the desertification of the catchment, depletion of groundwater levels due to over-exploitation on the one hand, and inadequate recharge of groundwater through local water systems on the other. The Gandhi Sagar Dam doesn’t fare too well on the safety front too. The spillway capacity of the dam is much lower than the floods the reservoir could receive, and the defective sluice gates also reduce the flood release capacity of the dam — a problem compounded by faulty maintenance and operational procedures (Thakkar 2010).

Dams and dam builders seldom keep their promises. And, as if in connivance, the Indian government has avoided appraising its large dams for performance, possibly out of fear that these ‘temples of modern India‘, as Jawaharlal Nehru once quipped, will be exposed perpetuating and thriving on blind faith. Nehru may have realised his folly but could do little to prevent India from succumbing to the ‘disease of gigantism. And unfortunately, this disease is spreading, for we are not satiated with large dams alone.

Wet dreams and dry streams

A drowned gharial. Credit: Rajeev Tomar

A drowned gharial. Credit: Rajeev Tomar

The idea of linking India’s rivers was first mooted in the nineteenth century by Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, a British general and irrigation engineer. Subsequently, K.L. Rao, former Union Minister for Irrigation, devised the Ganga-Cauvery Link in 1972. Then in 1977, Captain Dinshaw J. Dastur, an engineer and pilot, drummed up support for the ‘garland canal’ which included a 4200 km Himalayan component and a 9300 km peninsular component (National Water Development Agency n.d.). But fortunately, these plans were shelved for being economically prohibitive, energy intensive, impracticable and technically unsound.

However, the belief that floods and drought can be mitigated by simply linking rivers and transferring water across river basins has captured the nation’s fancy, and India’s leadership is only too eager to cash in on the collective unconsciousness. Even India’s former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam joined the chorus for the river-linking project, ignoring the environmental, social, economic and political complexities that govern this monstrous proposal. Despite a global paradigm shift in water management (Gleick 2000), India continues to embrace river linking, an idea rooted in reductionist hydrology (Bandyopadhyay and Perveen 2008). This uncritical and singular faith in engineering solutions to the socio-ecological issues of resource management, institutions and governance is symptomatic of our techno-salvation mindset.

The major criticism of the inter-linking of rivers (ILR) concerns the loss of forests and biodiversity by the construction of canals and reservoirs, the displacement of people, the seismic hazards of these developments particularly in the Himalayan component, and disruption of hydrological cycles and saline ingress due to the loss of natural flows (Shah, et al. 2008). The ILR will require at least 27.66 lakh hectares of land and 1.04 lakh hectares of forest land, and will displace at least 14.8 lakh people as per available official information (Thakkar 2007). Other criticisms include the socioeconomic viability, the challenge of resource mobilisation, geo-political constraints and the domestic political dynamics of such a grandiose undertaking (Shah, et al. 2008). As it stands, the ILR is nothing more than a fanciful proposition, largely designed to appease a rotten bunch of politicians, administrators and civil engineers. These seasoned scamsters are surely smacking their lips in anticipation of yet another nation-wide swindle.

In a commentary on two writ petitions concerning the ILR, Ramaswamy Iyer (2012), alarmingly noted the Supreme Court’s encroachment into the executive domain. Typically, a project is examined by various governmental agencies and is expected to be compliant with extant policies and guidelines. However with its order (Supreme Court of India 2012), the Supreme Court of India (SC) threw caution and legislation out the window, and directed the Government to implement the ILR project immediately. First, such a decision is not the prerogative or purview of the judiciary, but that of the executive. The SC had no business indulging in role-play and impersonating the Executive. While the SC might like to believe that it is being pro-active, this attempt at bulldozing legislative procedure is simply a case of judicial bullying.

Not only is this worrying and contrary to the Court’s responsibility to being non-partisan and unprejudiced, it also exposes the SCs ignorance on a matter of prodigious public risk and disregard for opposing views on the ILR. Second, the surmise that the ILR will provide flood and drought relief by transferring water from flood-prone (surplus) areas to drought-hit (deficit) regions is too simplistic and suspect. The concepts of ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ water are ill-defined and ignore the many functional roles of rivers, be it hydrological, ecological or social. It is also important to note that many states considered as ‘surplus’ (e.g. Assam, Kerala, Punjab and Sikkim) have raised objections to the ILR (Chaudhary 2015, Krishna 2015).

Gharial in the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

Gharial in the Chambal. Credit: Tarun Nair

Inter-basin transfers are energy and capital intensive because they involve moving water either by lifting it across or by tunnelling it through natural barriers (Iyer 2002), and they will necessitate tremendous environmental and social costs. Given this proposition, it is very unlikely the ILR can be justified after thorough cost-benefit analyses, techno-economic appraisals, and social and environment impact assessments (Iyer 2002). As Iyer (2012) observes —

Rivers are not human artefacts; they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems, and inextricable parts of the cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and rejoined. The term “national water grid”, like the term “networking of rivers”, is an evidence of profoundly wrong thinking about rivers (underlying it is the old hubristic idea of “conquest of nature” or “subduing nature”…). Rivers are far more than mere conduits for water.

Freshwater requirements from the agricultural and domestic sector always seek to be seen as benign and deserving. But, these demands require a critical rethink since conventional practice tends towards infrastructural supply-side solutions such as large dams, canals and long distance transfers (Iyer 2012). Apart from their tremendous ecological, social and economic costs, these solutions also encourage unsustainable agriculture which continues to persist only through politico-economic subsidies in agrochemicals, electricity, and irrigation, resulting in the over-exploitation of these inputs, which has in turn led to increased salinity, soil degradation and nutrient imbalance, pollution, groundwater depletion in some areas and water logging in others (Gulati and Sharma 1995; Shah, et al. 2003). These costs are all too evident in the present case, for the Chambal Basin continues to be water deficient (Chauhan & Shrivastava 2013), and its groundwater quality has been drastically affected by irrigation (Chourasia 2003).

Similarly, the infrastructural focus in meeting domestic water demands also distracts from long-term solutions like restoring local surface-water sources which can mitigate dependency on groundwater. India’s total groundwater loss for the previous decade was 54 ± 9 km3/yr with an extraction rate of 279 km3/yr, about 70% larger than the estimate for the mid-1990s (Tiwari, et al. 2009). By simply seeking infrastructural solutions, we continue to ignore traditional water management systems that are more appropriate and sustainable in local contexts (Agarwal and Narain 1997). Currently, there is very little progress in demand-side management that attempts to regulate and ensure equity in distribution across competing sectors, improve water-use efficiency in irrigated agriculture, undertake rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharging, re-adopting agriculture appropriate to local climatic, hydrological and soil conditions, and in protecting forests within local watersheds.

Some lessons are best learnt from the mistakes of others; ‘so much water was taken, mainly to irrigate crops, that China’s Yellow River, the Colorado River in the United States and Mexico, and the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers in the Middle East rarely reach their normal outlets to the sea’ (Magdoff 2013).The large-scale diversion of the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers resulted in the disastrous drying up of the Aral Sea (Micklin 2007). Similarly, the degradation of China’s Yangtze River by dams, over-fishing, pollution, dense boat traffic, sedimentation and sand-mining has driven species such as the Chinese paddlefish, the Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, the Yangtze giant soft shell turtle and the Chinese alligator to either extinction or critical endangerment, and the lower Yangtze is even characterised as ‘cancerous’ (Dudgeon 2010).

Closer home, the Indus is one of the most fragmented and modified rivers in the world after more than 150 years of barrage and dam construction and diversion of water for irrigation, (Braulik, et al. 2014). The Indus’ waters barely reach the sea and its delta now suffers severe saline ingress and coastal erosion (Kravtsova, et al. 2009). The historical range of the Indus River dolphin is fragmented into 17 river sections and the species has been extirpated from 10 of them (Braulik, et al. 2014). Other freshwater, and once widespread, mega-fauna like marsh crocodiles and otters now survive only in a few isolated areas, wild turtle numbers are greatly reduced, the hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) fishery has totally collapsed, and the gharial is now extinct in Pakistan (Braulik, et al. 2015 and references therein). Although other causes like hunting and fishing-related mortalities have played a role, the large-scale water abstraction for irrigation was a major reason for these species depletions (Braulik, et al. 2014). The fate of these rivers is foreboding for the Chambal and India’s other rivers.

For how long the Chambal continues to flow, and for how long we will continue to see and hear its untamed sights and sounds, will depend on how soon we can wean away from our exploitative dependence on this river, on how effectively we keep the many ecologically divisive forces at bay, and on when we finally restore its natural flow regimes. Our rivers are deserving of reverence for their ability to nourish and nurture life, not merely to wash away our sins and sewage. According rights, and even personhood, to our rivers may help reverse the damage, and countries like Bolivia, Ecuador and New Zealand have shown us the way. But are we willing?

The gharial may never again ‘abound in all great rivers of Northern India‘, as Andrew Leith Adams (1867) had once observed in the latter half of the nineteenth century. But we can surely allow it to survive and flourish in the few remaining areas that the species lives on in, and hope that it eventually recolonises at least parts of its historic range. The gharial certainly has the tenacity to do so. We just must play our part.

Sitting at sundown, I watched a bask of gharials slide back into the deep, dark depths of the Chambal. And time and again, I am reminded that the gharial could just as easily slide into the oblivion of indifference. I am left wondering if the deliverance of our rivers rests in the hands of homegrown monkey-wrench gangs. I returned the following morning and the gharials eventually emerged to haul themselves up the soft sand, their bodies glistening in the morning sun. The Chambal still gives me hope.

Tarun Nair is a conservation biologist with an affinity towards crocodiles and rivers. More about his work here.