Nitish Kumar is upset with the Farakka Barrage and wants it to be gone. It is easier said than done - something that the Bihar chief minister is well aware of.
He has clarified that while it may be impractical to dismantle the Farakka Barrage, something has to be done about the massive silting that results in regular flooding in his state.
Kumar says he has been speaking against the barrage for over a decade now but no one is listening; Bihar gets 19 per cent less rainfall and yet ends up flooded. According to expert estimates, the average depth of the Ganga has decreased by 50 per cent between Patna and Farakka since the barrage was commissioned in 1975.
The Ganga carries 2.9 billion metric tonnes of sediment into the Bay of Bengal, and the contention is that quite a bit of it is getting left behind because of the Farakka Barrage. Ironically, the idea of a barrage at Farakka was to de-silt the Hooghly river but in the process it ended up silting the Ganga.
The primary reason Farakka was built was to have more water to flush silt down the Hooghly and keep Calcutta Port alive.
In the 1950s and 60s, Calcutta Port may still have been important but in 2016, when Kumar is crying Farakka to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Kolkata Port has been a "has been" for quite some years now.
|Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has been crying Farakka to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for quite some time now.|
In fact, the Bihar government brought out a White Paper in 1975, concerned that Delhi signed the Ganga Treaty without consulting Bihar. Farakka had always been a dam of contention. In the early 1950s, when Pakistan raised concerns over India wanting to dam the Ganga, India had phoo-phooed the idea saying it was hypothetical.
But by 1961, the Farakka Barrage Project authority was set up with the mandate to execute and then operate and maintain the Farakka Barrage project. In 1971, the thorn in the side of Farakka got removed with the demise of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh.
The newly formed country, obliged to India for all the birthing help, agreed to the Farakka Barrage under condition of limited trial operation. The barrage was formally commissioned in 1975 and India kept diverting water even after the expiry of the agreed-upon trial period between India and Bangladesh.
In 1976, Bangladesh complained to the UN but nothing came of it. In 1977, India and Bangladesh signed a simple water-sharing treaty that gave Bangladesh 80 per cent water during the dry season but the locks at Farakka were in the hands of India and the water diverted down the Hooghly was more than India's fair share. Finally after years of ill will, the Ganga Water Treaty was signed in 1996. With the treaty in place, some amount of resolution came, but water experts do not consider it an ideal understanding because the treaty was limited to volume and not use.
The treaty divides water flow without sharing the value and uses of the river between India and Bangladesh. It does not concern benefit-sharing, nor is it a comprehensive river sharing and management treaty. During the dry months, deltaic Bangladesh still faces water shortage in its riverine channels, resulting in increased salinity and in times of rainy season there is massive flooding. In a sense, almost every problem in the country associated with water has been attributed to the impact of Farakka.
And though India diverts most of its water share down the Hooghly, the Kolkata Port has still complained that enough water does not exist there between January and May, and this affects river transport in the region. The other issue of concern at the Farakka Barrage is the ageing of machinery and low maintenance. The 2,245-metre barrage has 123 gates and the government has itself admitted that some of these gates have outlived their life.
In March 2015, Gate 49 was swept away releasing a huge quantity of water into Bangladesh, flooding the land beyond the barrage.
On March 18, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee wrote to the Prime Minister demanding immediate repair works to be carried out. Between 2010 and 2015, three of the barrage's gates collapsed.
Government experts have said that all 123 gates need to be replaced and while about 55 are being targeted by the end of the 12th Five-Year Plan, in 2017, the remaining 68 would still stay vulnerable. Things are not looking so good for the barrage and nobody in its vicinity seems to be liking it. But tell that to the nine-year-old who has his face glued to the window rails of a night train crossing the barrage - two-and-a-half kilometre of sensory overdose, the whistling wind, thunderous rumble of crashing water, the clickity-clack of the rails, the glow and shadows thrown by passing light and the whizzing by of massive steel girders.
The magic of Farakka Barrage holds, if not in what it does then in what it evokes.