The World Bank’s representatives met a delegation of environmental experts, including Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala, that expressed its concerns about the Jal Marg Vikas (Ganges waterways) project announced by the government, the minutes showed. Its budgetary allocation is Rs 4,200 crore.
The concerns raised included the destruction of the river ecosystem due to inorganic contamination; harmful impact of ship navigation on water; and gradual reduction of the river’s ability to self-purify.
National Waterway-1 (NW1) is a 1,620-km stretch of the Ganges from Allahabad to Haldia. In June, the Centre had made a proposal to the World Bank to revive NW1, later named Jal Marg Vikas in the Budget speech of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The proposal was based on a study by Danish Hydrological Institute, done between Allahabad and Gazipur, a 370-km stretch. In July, the World Bank responded with an offer to provide technical assistance for the initial study, whose outcome would decide investments on the project.
But before a detailed assessment of the NW1 was completed, Union Minister for Road Transport and Highways and Shipping Nitin Gadkari on June 7 outlined a plan that barrages could be constructed at every 100 km on the NW1, among others. This got criticism from environmental experts and scientists.
The presentation to the World Bank cited a threat to Gangetic dolphins and other aquatic flora and fauna because of the barrage construction. It quoted a Swiss study, which said a seven per cent increase in malarial diseases in nearby areas would happen once barrages came.
The World Bank representatives said they were unaware of the plan to construct 16 barrages. They said no funds had been disbursed. While the plan proposes to maintain a depth of at least three metres to make it navigable for barges carrying 1,500-2,000 tonnes, only 560 km (between Haldia and Farakka) has such depth. The rest (1,060 km) requires a study to determine pockets that need dredging.
“The mandate is to provide at least three metres of depth. Now the entire 1,620-km stretch is being considered, another detailed assessment will need to be made,” said an official from the Inland Waterways Authority of India.
However, that could mean even bigger problems in the future, according to Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.
“Maybe, Ganga is not meant for carrying loads of 1,500-2,000-odd tonnes. You can’t manipulate the river flow to further commercial purposes,” he noted.
According to him, constructing barrages and dredging for commercial purposes are no ways of rejuvenating the river. “With more barrages, there’s more siltation, which again requires more dredging which jacks up the costs further. After dredging, there would be the need for constructing embankments, which will be another exercise in futility,” he added.
The World Bank representatives were also briefed about the social implications of the proposal. The adverse impact on river bank communities, the unmitigated displacement of people due to erosion at Farakka, a cost-benefit analysis for all stakeholders involved and whether taxation of the waterway will render it unviable, were also discussed.
The delegation asked the World Bank to consider the 30-odd issues, which it has submitted, before allocating any funds to the project.