IT was early morning of the first day of August. Suddenly, a guard noticed a large crack on NH 117, at a distance of barely ten metres from Ganga, at Diamond Harbour, the last important town of South Bengal on the left bank of the river. The locals acted with alacrity to stop the traffic on the road. Within minutes, the crack widened, and on a stretch of about 80 metres, half of the road caved in.
It did not happen on a day of heavy rains. In fact, rains are playing truant in South Bengal this year, encouraging chats on global warming and ‘extreme weather conditions’. After the subsidence, the politicians started their regular blame game. The heavyweight TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee blamed it on the erosion of Ganga, while CPI(M) bigwig Sujan Chakrabarty identified beautification work on the river bank as the culprit. A few Calcutta papers did not report the incident of subsidence on page one the next day. It was business as usual.
The incident should have acted as an eye-opener. But no one was interested to look at the grim bigger picture that points at a large-scale environmental disaster. We have all the information, but we love to treat those as disparate pieces.
What are those pieces of information? Check them out. A few kilometres upstream of Farakka, Ganga is shifting to its left, making the possibility of outflanking the barrage real. Fifty kilometres downstream of the barrage, near Dhulian, the mainstream (Padma) that goes to Bangladesh and the branch (Ganga/Bhagirathi) that flows through India are reducing the distance between them as the branch is inching forward towards the mainstream. The erosion of the left bank of Ganga gobbled down 356 square kms of landmass and displaced 80,000 people of Murshidabad district in the last decade of the last century. Twenty years later, the river that has fallen victim to heavy sedimentation of the bed is wrecking havoc in Nadia (the district in the south of Murshidabad). And now the erosion has spread secret tentacles up to Diamond Harbour, which is 90 kms south of Shantipur, the last town up to which erosion of Ganga had reached so far.
Meanwhile, the hungry tides are advancing as the sea is rising, that too at a higher rate than global average. In another 50 years, the sea will devour the Mangrove forests of the Sunderbans, the last coastal habitat of the Bengal Tiger. With the rise of the sea and the depleted volume of water in the rivers, the level of salinity is increasing in South Bengal. Mangroves that survive only in saline soil are taking roots at the bank of the rivers up to Calcutta and even beyond!
Now, if we read together with all the information, we come across some grim possibilities. If Ganga outflanks Farakka by shifting to an old course (as Kosi River did in 2008 flooding 8 districts of Bihar and displacing nearly 30 lakhs people), or the two streams merge at Dhulian, permanent damage of unimaginable magnitude will be done. Even otherwise, the rivers of the Gangetic plains are choking. As the flow of water slacks off, the rivers eat away the bank and become slacker. Consequently, a century later, large turfs of northern Gangetic plain will turn swampy. At the same time, in future, saline water will make deeper inroads and may destroy large swathes of multi-crop lands in southern part of the plain.
Many urban areas, including Calcutta itself, are under threat as Ganga is not only eroding banks, but its water is seeping into the soil adjacent to it. In the 90s, a foreign research team felt river water was seeping through the ground, making towns like Diamond Harbour unstable. Nobody cared to listen. Now the river-side of the town has turned fragile. The same fate is awaiting the riverbanks of tens of towns on the left bank of the river. The list includes the city of Calcutta.
All together, Bengal is staring at all-round environmental disaster, from north to south. But nobody except some environmentalists is concerned.
The Rage of the Ganga
IN 1975, when Gangabhavan was constructed in Malda district, Ganga flowed five kilometres away from it. That was the time 2.24 km long Farakka barrage started operating. Soon, the blues struck the southern part of Malda district in the form of recurrent floods. On the night of 5th September, 2003, the river devoured Ganga Bhavan sitated some kilometres upstream of Farakka. In less than three decades of Farakka barrage’s existence, the river expanded five kilometres on its left at a point which was just a few kilometres upstream of Farakka.
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