Union minister Nitin Gadkari’s ambitious plan of starting a 'water taxi' service from the national capital suffered a setback last month when the National Green Tribunal (NGT) sent a notice to the government over the project. This is just one example of how the minister in charge of inland waterways and the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation will need to balance out the objectives of his two ministries.
The Ministry of Shipping and the Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI) had envisaged a 'water taxi' project on the Yamuna, which would run from Delhi's Wazirabad barrage to Fatehpur Jat in Uttar Pradesh. The 16-km distance is expected to be covered by the water taxi in about 45 minutes and the central government would spend Rs 28 crore, including the cost of building terminals, dredging, and vessels.
The NGT has asked the IWAI, which had approached the tribunal seeking its nod for the commencement of boat transport service on a section of the Yamuna, to come up with a solution for plying ferries on the river without causing damage to it as it is a source of drinking water supply to the national capital.
The challenge facing Gadkari is creating synergy between his two departments – Ganga rejuvenation and inland waterways – as a robust grid of waterways for seamless transportation are required without a hazardous impact on the environment.
Environmental activist and water expert Himanshu Thakkar feels that there are fundamental contradictions between the minister's two departments.
Even in the past, some environmentalists had raised a red flag over construction activity on rivers. However, the minister has said that environment and development should go hand-in-hand. "Thousands of people have died due to floods and silt from the water has also damaged property. Should we not stop this? I feel environment and development should go hand-in-hand. We will not tamper with the natural course of the river; we will divert the excess water from a flood-prone region to another area to avoid any calamity," Gadkari said.
However, Thakkar said that construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam destroyed both the upstream and downstream flow of Narmada. Dredging activity has an adverse impact on the biodiversity of the river and plying of ships leads to increased erosion of river banks, he added.
Under the National Waterways Act of 2016, the government has committed to developing 111 designated national waterways as it is of the view that these waterways would not only reduce logistics costs but also reduce congestion on the road and rail networks, having a multiplier effect on the Indian economy.
The Union government is marching ahead with its Varanasi-Haldia waterway project that is expected to give a boost to the economies of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Uttar Pradesh. The project also includes the construction of multi-modal terminals at Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Haldia (West Bengal), and Sahibganj (Jharkhand). It also passes through Howrah, Kolkata, Bhagalpur, and Patna, along with other cities.
The waterway passes through a reservoir close to a 50-km long Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur.
"The arsenic content at the Badua reservoir in Bhagalpur has gone up 10 times after the dredging activity started and it is in the vicinity of a dolphin sanctuary," Thakkar said.
The sanctuary was established to protect the endangered Gangetic dolphins.
Activists are also of the view that depletion of water has taken place due to dam construction and groundwater use, among other things. Otherwise, in the 1960s, the Ganga was navigable all through the year.
While Ganga rejuvenation is a top priority for the Union government, cleaning the Yamuna comes in as a close second on the list.
In July, river activists floated paper and thermocol models of boats and ships as a mark of protest to remind minister Gadkari of his promise, made two years ago, that the Yamuna would be dredged and cleaned up for launching a ferry service between Delhi and Agra.
There is deficient water in the Yamuna but we will work in co-operation with the state government for the Yamuna cleaning project, Gadkari said.