Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Sep 09, 2016
The sole reliance on the traditional British engine while constructing Farakka Barrage has created problems at a minimum of two levels.
Farakka row: Time to shelve colonial reductionist engineering, explore Chinese model

National governments often get engaged in a "two-level game" when dealing with transboundary waters. They have to deal with their domestic water regimes, and almost simultaneously get into international transboundary water negotiations, keeping in view their domestic objectives. On the other hand, international agreements also affect domestic hydro-political conditions. Therefore, a move in one game will typically have implications for the outcome of the other. The lower Ganges (flowing through India and Bangladesh) exemplifies this hypothesis, with the Farakka Barrage being the point of contention.

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s call for removal of the Farakka Barrage has created rolls in the ongoing debate on the utility and/or disutility of the Farakka Barrage. The barrage, located in the Indian state of West Bengal, roughly 16.5 kilometres from the border with Bangladesh, was planned to enhance the flow of Bhagirathi-Hooghly branch so as to resuscitate the port at Kolkata (then Calcutta), located downstream. While the Farakka Barrage has been blamed for reducing the streamflow, causing salinity ingression and drying up the Sundarbans delta, the problem with the management of sediments has lately taken an ugly turn with the floods in UP and Bihar. While the Central Water Commission asked for the opening of the barrage gates to release water, large parts of the Malda district in West Bengal on the north of the Farakka Barrage got flooded. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee called this flood a "man-made" one.

As such, the Government of Pakistan and, after 1971, the Government of Bangladesh had been critical of the project as it was apprehended that by enhancing the flow into Bhagirathi-Hooghly, the barrage would reduce the dry season flow of the Ganges/Padma into Bangladesh. In fact, the voices within Indian technocracy, who opposed the project from the perspective of sheer sustainability, like the ones of Mr. Kapil Bhattacharya, were singled out and marginalised. As such, even today, the construction of the Farakka Barrage has been historically the most crucial factor affecting the India-Bangladesh hydro-political relations and the perceptions of transboundary environmental issues.

The Farakka Barrage stands as a classic example of the constructionist thinking based on the reductionist engineering paradigm that looked at short-term economic benefits, ignored the long-term sustainability concerns, and created the 'metabolic rift' between human and nature. This paradigm, promoted by the British colonial legacy, was also formalised under colonial capitalism in South Asia. This reductionist knowledge of water management spread across engineering colleges in India over time. This "half-baked" reductionism keeps on dominating Indian water engineering scenario even after Independence, and has created situations of enhanced damages, livelihoods losses and eventually conflicts at both international and inter-state transboundary levels.

With the existing paradigm being devoid of the knowledge of the complex eco-hydrology and the fluvial geomorphology of Himalayan rivers like the Ganges and Brahmaputra, the possible negative impacts of the construction of the Farakka Barrage were not perceived at the design stage. Most importantly, the British constructionist regime neither understood peak and lean flows, nor the sediment dynamics associated with the flows. This is the most significant knowledge gap and an important consideration in the present discourse that links upstream floods with the Farakka Barrage. Further, without consideration of the sediments, the India-Bangladesh treaty of 1996 on the sharing of the dry season flows at Farakka turned out to be merely an arithmetical exercise.

For years, Bangladesh has perceived the Farakka Barrage as a symbol of India’s evil intent toward their nation, as India’s failure to consider the downstream consequences of the project left space for the assertion that the prime utility of the barrage was not merely to ensure flow to the Kolkata port, but to cause harm to Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). Even if this myth may have subsided, the myth of Farakka Barrage's potential to cause flash floods in Bangladesh through the release of water stored behind the barrage remains alive. However, this myth does not hold water as the barrage is unable to store more than trivial quantities of water, far too little to have a significant effect on floods in Bangladesh. Even recently, the Indian Government made a press release to that effect to clarify this myth.

Notwithstanding the international hydro-political dimension, the flood issue in UP, Bihar, and West Bengal needs a different mirror to reflect at. Flooding in UP and Bihar is an annual phenomenon and is an integral component of the global eco-hydrological cycle. It is reductionist engineering that has perceived flood as "unmixed bane". British engineering knowledge hardly understood that when floodwater recedes, rich silt and sediments that are left behind have made the Gangetic plains the "rice bowl of South Asia." The tradition of ignoring this critical ecosystem service that can be classified as supporting function continues even today.

However, the recent call for Farakka removal is driven more by the perspective of the "man-made floods" due to the construction of the Farakka. This contention seems to have been based on the backwater effect hypothesis, caused by the sedimentation in the Farakka, and consequent cascading of the sediments in the upstream of the barrage. With the sediments acting as obstructions, the water deposits the carried sediments, and take a diversion towards Malda district in West Bengal, where in the narrow channel, it causes bank erosion and flooding.

It is a fact that without obstructions caused by Farakka Barrage and consequently by the accumulating sediments in the upstream of the barrage, the river would have carried the sediment and flushed them out to the Bay of Bengal. But, the present obstructions might have resulted in the water to flow back and cause upstream floods. It may be from this point of view, recent floods in Bihar have been linked with the Farakka Barrage.

On the other hand, the Bengal delta is geo-morphologically dynamic and is built on the huge sediment load carried by the Himalayan rivers, namely, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. The barrage seems to have incapacitated the river’s potential to perform this function. At the same time, going by this logic, the barrage and subsequent lack of sediment separation technology seem to have punctured the "soil formation" service of the ecosystem further downstream. However, even the avowed purpose of resuscitating the Kolkata port has not been satisfied either.

Again, the entire contention of Farakka Barrage removal is not going to solve the problem either, but will further escalate the conflict between the states. There is no doubt that the unintended benefit of the barrage is amelioration of the water problem during lean seasons in the downstream in the densely populated areas of West Bengal, due to the flows through the Bhagirathi-Hooghly channel. As such, the drinking water and sanitation problems of the burgeoning Kolkata metropolis seem to have been resolved because of the barrage, which has not only resuscitated the surface water flow in the channel, but may have also ensured groundwater recharge. Removal of the Farakka will definitely negatively affect the populace and ecosystem services in this part of the State.

The sole reliance on the traditional British engineering while constructing the Farakka Barrage has already created problems at a minimum of two levels: international and interstate. On the other hand, China has developed its own set of ecologically informed engineering while designing its dam on Yangtze. The design helps in flood control, and also uses the peak flow to use the sediments effectively for downstream floodplain cultivation. Sediment is an important variable, and such scientific understanding of sediment management needs to be developed in India as well. This "two-level" game can be managed more effectively with a transboundary river basin organisation that can promote Integrated River Basin Management (IRBM), but that will require a better resolve from all the nations involved.

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Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...

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