Ganges Dam Leaves Devastating Legacy In 1970, India built a huge dam called the Farakka Barrage to protect the port of Calcutta from silt flowing in the Ganges River. But the dam has had widespread and devastating effects for people living along the Ganges.
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Ganges Dam Leaves Devastating Legacy

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Ganges Dam Leaves Devastating Legacy

Ganges Dam Leaves Devastating Legacy

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Last week, Julian Crandall Hollick paused on his five-month journey down Ganga - the Ganges River - to examine the mystery of its purifying waters.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: As he continued his journey, Julian reached West Bengal. There, the river turned south toward the Bay of Bengal, 300 miles away.

In 1970, the Indian government built a huge dam - what Indians call a barrage -to control the flow of Ganga. The dam sits near the border with Bangladesh. It's known as the Farakka barrage.

And as Julian Crandall Hollick tells us, it has caused huge problems. Today's installment is called, simply, Farakka.

(Soundbite of boat creaking)

JULIAN CRANDALL HOLLICK: We've been rowing a steady 30 miles a day now for two weeks. The river is as broad as an ocean and lonely. Very few signs of human life to the untrained eye the back of beyond - except, of course, it's not. There must be millions of people living in villages on either bank. They just live with their backs turned away from the river.

That all changes at the instant we crossed over to West Bengal. It's teeming with activity, and I've never really figured out why.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: My friend Kalyan Rudra, a geography professor in Calcutta, has asked us to meet him 20 kilometers north of Farakka at a village called Panchanandapur. On the map, it appears to lie well in land. But when we reached Panchanandapur, we find it's right on the banks of Ganga.

You're saying the river used to be here?

Dr. KALYAN RUDRA (Geography Professor, Calcutta University): Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. The river was initially flowing along this channel. But since the construction of this barrage, the river has an increasing tendency to migrate eastward.

HOLLICK: This took how many years to migrate - this river to shift?

Dr. RUDRA: It took about 30 years to migrate.

HOLLICK: And how far is the distance?

Dr. RUDRA: This level, nine kilometer at this point.

HOLLICK: So you're saying that Ganga here shifted eastward nine kilometers, which is, what, about five to six miles, in 30 years.

Dr. RUDRA: Thirty years.

HOLLICK: At this rate, Panchanandapur could disappear into Ganga at any moment.

Mr. RAJAL ISLAM(ph) (Resident, Panchanandapur): (Singing in foreign language)

HOLLICK: That evening, Rajal Islam sings a traditional Bengali lament - how Ganga has destroyed everything he owns here in Panchanandapur.

Mr. ISLAM: (Singing in foreign language)

HOLLICK: Afterwards, I sit with Jalaldin Hamed(ph), our host.

When did the river - when did the Ganga here start eroding Panchanandapur?

Mr. JALALDIN HAMED (Resident, Panchanandapur): The erosion started since 1961. It was a prosperous agricultural village. The people largely depend on agriculture. We had very extensive mango orchards. We had bamboo grooves. And we were very prosperous and happy. But everything was swallowed by the river. It is about 17 acres of land I've lost into the river. It was mango orchards and also rice cultivating fields. Everything disappeared in front of me. And I witnessed, helplessly, all these devastation.

HOLLICK: Indigo factories, sugar mill, hospital - all swallowed up by Ganga; last year, the police station and a two-story government building. But something very strange has happened. Ganga shifted so fast and so much the same land has now reemerged on the far side of the river. And many villagers now take a boat across every morning to their old farm land. Some, like Java Ahmed(ph), have even moved permanently to the new sandbanks, or char lands, six miles on the other side as the crow flies.

Mr. JAVA AHMED (Resident, Panchanandapur): ((Through translator) My original home was eroded by the Ganga. And I was compelled to migrate here.

HOLLICK: How many people live here?

Mr. AHMED: (Through translator) At about 5,000.

HOLLICK: And you consider you're in West Bengal here, right?

Mr. AHMED: (Through translator) We are keen to live within the territory of West Bengal, but the government of West Bengal does not recognize us.

HOLLICK: So no legal title, even though surveyors have found many of the old boundary markings. Then, things become positively Kafka-esque.

Mr. MOHAMMED FAKI ALI(ph) (Resident, Panchanandapur): (Through translator) The government of West Bengal declines to accept the tax I want to pay.

HOLLICK: Refuses to accept. No taxes. Mohammed Faki Ali weighs up the other pros and cons.

Mr. ALI: (Through translator) The advantage is that land here is very fertile. Disadvantage is that I have no citizenship. My children do not have any educational facilities.

HOLLICK: No citizenship means he can't vote because if Calcutta recognizes these people exist on this new char or sandbank, not only would they have to provide those basic services, but also they'd have to register them to vote. Ah, but who would get their votes? The ruling party is not sure. So the land and the people remain in legal limbo.

(Soundbite of people talking)

HOLLICK: Back in Panchanandapur, Kila Buks(ph) says the rich can always find new housing in the nearby town of Malda. It's the poor who have to survive in tents until their land reemerges on the far side of Ganga.

Why do you think the river is trying to make Panchanandapur disappear? What is the reason?

Mr. KILA BUKS: (Through translator) Basically - and the main reason is Farakka.

(Soundbite of boat creaking)

HOLLICK: Next morning, we set out for Farakka. Ganga is now awfully broad and flat. She divides and subdivides. And for the first and only time, we lose our way.

(Soundbite of boat creaking)

HOLLICK: The water's suddenly become very clear. All trace of currents a mere suggestion. There's a hazy stillness - the feeling of rowing across a vast pond to nowhere. Our captain Arki Sinup(ph) peers into the haze.

Mr. ARKI SINUP (Boat Captain): (Speaking in foreign language)

Unidentified Woman: You could see it?

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. SINUP: (Speaking in foreign language)

HOLLICK: Farakka was built at the narrowest point on the Ganga, just two and a half kilometers wide, to divert water to Calcutta down south and flush out the silt that was clogging up its port. Great idea on paper, but it hasn't worked out in practice.

Calcutta Port is still silty, and Graham Chaplin(ph), one of our scientists onboard, says it's caused huge problems upstream.

Mr. GRAHAM CHAPLIN (Scientist): It does always (unintelligible), I believe. I cannot understand that the scale of this problem was not anticipated. Either they had to know from the start that they had engineering solutions or may be the project shouldn't have been completed the way it started.

HOLLICK: Yeah. But you haven't spelled out what the scale of the problem was.

Mr. CHAPLIN: Well, the scale of the problem is siltation upstream of the barrage. It could render the whole barrage completely useless within a few years.

HOLLICK: All rivers, especially Monsoon Rivers, erode their banks. They carry rocks and earth downstream. And then they deposit them whenever and wherever they hit an obstacle. Now, Ganga's traditionally meandered back and forth within clearly defined boundaries. But Farakka is like a solid wall. It's upset the dynamics of Ganga, exaggerated her annual swing.

Dr. RUDRA: The Farakka carries more than 700 million tons of silt annually. And large part of this sediment is being trapped in the upstream area. The Farakka has created a pond there.

HOLLICK: So much sand has been dropped behind the barrage that half its gates can't open. They're clogged up with silt. And worse, the silt has raised the riverbed more than 20 feet so Ganga now has to flow its final few kilometers uphill into the barrage, forming a clear, still, shallow pond behind. And there's a potentially more devastating consequence that affects Panchanandapur.

Dr. RUDRA: But now, the river is trying to totally alter its course.

HOLLICK: Kalyan says things began to get worse soon after Farakka was built.

Dr. RUDRA: The river has become so choked or clogged with the sediment load. And millions of tons of boulders are being added into the riverbed every year. And the ruins of these villages are also added into the river. So river cannot flow along this channel. It tries to open a new channel, outflanking the barrage.

HOLLICK: Flowing through Panchanandapur is a small country river called Pagla. All that's now separating Pagla from Ganga is a massive stone embankment. And Kalyan says if that ever collapses, Ganga will flow into Pagla and totally change course - head off to the north, 10, 20, even 30 kilometers, and bypass the famous barrage before rejoining its old course, but this time, well inside Bangladesh. Not everyone agrees.

Mr. P.K. PARUA (Former Chief Engineer, Farakka Barrage Project): Ganga can never flow down through Pagla.

HOLLICK: P.K. Parua is a former chief engineer of Farakka. Parua believes Pagla is simply too small to become the new course of Ganga.

Mr. PARUA: So if somebody apprehends that Ganga will bypass Pagla and go down, making the barrage obsolete for its purpose, for the specific purpose, which it is being originally constructed, I do not believe. It will never happen.

HOLLICK: Never is a dangerous word. P.K. Parua does agree Farakka has ruined the lives of millions of fishermen upstream because there's no fish ladder to help fish migrate up river past the barrage, and the once vigorous river economy is all but ceased to exist. But Parua is proud. Calcutta Port is still open for small cargo ships. Mona Tashwan(ph), who was born here in Panchanandapur, begs to differ.

Mr. MONA TASHAWAN (Resident, Panchanandapur): To protect the Calcutta Port, Farakka barrage was created. But at the time of the creator they don't know the consequences after the construction of the barrage.

HOLLICK: The house in which Mona Tashwan was born collapsed into Ganga just four months back.

Mr. TASHWAN: If you don't stop the flow of the river, you don't disturb him. You learn to live with the nature of the river. You cannot control him.

HOLLICK: Mona Tashawan has (unintelligible) come back here next year and may find nothing.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

HOLLICK: A few months later I returned to Panchanandapur. It's now a vast bomb crater filled with water.

Mr. TAJAMAL HUQ (Village Farmer): This happened when the Ganga was not flowing above the danger(ph) level.

HOLLICK: So it just eroded?

Mr. HUQ: Just eroded.

HOLLICK: The river bank crumbled. Two-thirds of the village collapsed into Ganga. Tajamal Huq had been farming that day on the sandbanks across the river.

Mr. HUQ: When we came back in the evening, there was nothing around. We slept, and about 2 a.m. in the midnight, somebody cried that erosion has started. We came out, and our home disappeared into the river.

HOLLICK: But why? Why did Ganga suddenly swallow up Panchanandapur? The simple answer is that it had nowhere else to flow when it hit Farakka.

Dr. RUDRA: So there is a conflict between backward rushing flow and downward flowing the river. We have changed the hydraulic gradient of the river. And in the peak of the monsoon, the effect of the (unintelligible) increases.

HOLLICK: And it meets the flow coming down and…

Dr. RUDRA: And flow going…

HOLLICK: …tries to find…

Dr. RUDRA: An alternative route.

HOLLICK: Sideways.

Dr. RUDRA: Sideways.

HOLLICK: And once Ganga had breached the embankment, she poured down into Pagla for several hours until the two rivers were at the same height.

Dr. RUDRA: But if it - and of this one, it will simply outflank the barrage.

HOLLICK: I presume if that - if this starts happening and it outflanks Farakka, Farakka could become just a white elephant.

Dr. RUDRA: If Ganga opens the outlet outflanking the barrage, then the entire project will be redundant because the Pagla Canal will be totally dried up. So this multi-million rupees project, which is now (unintelligible) for the national (unintelligible) will be totally redundant.

(Soundbite of water splashing and woman singing in Hindi)

HOLLICK: I'm Julian Crandall Hollick in Panchanandapur, West Bengal.

(Soundbite of water splashing and woman singing in Hindi)

HANSEN: Farraka was edited and produced by Tina Morris and Fernando Ruiz del Prado. The interpreters were Roger Chatergee(ph) and Caljun Woodruff(ph). Special thanks to Sorab Sorrangi(ph) for permission to use excerpts from his film "Bangon(ph)" or "Erosion."

Julian's account of the whole trip "Ganga: A Journey Down the River Ganges" has just been published by Island Press. You can hear earlier installments of the series and view pictures and the map at our Web site

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