Scientists and wildlife conservationists are seeing red over the threat posed to Gangetic river dolphins by the National Waterways project. The animal is protected under Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and is a declared endangered species.
The development of the Ganga for shipping is seen by wildlife conservationists as the single-largest threat to the survival of the species, whose numbers are declining in most parts of their natural habitat, according to Rashid Raza, project scientist, Wildlife Institute of India. This is mainly due to construction of dams and barrages on the river, he says.
India has a huge untapped potential of inland waterways and the Centre plans to develop a 1600-km waterway between Allahabad and Haldia for inland transportation under a Rs. 4200-crore World Bank-aided project as the National Waterway 1.Massive plan
The first phase of the project spanning 1300 km, now under implementation, is from Varanasi to Haldia. It envisages improving the navigability of the river as it passes through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.
The NW1 is seen to have a potential to emerge as the logistics artery for northern India, while reducing the congestion on this high-traffic transport corridor, project documents say. However, this stretch is also home to the endangered dolphin.
River dolphins are found in the Ganga and the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a membership union of government and civil society organisations, listed it as endangered in 1996. There are around 2,500 of the dolphins and the figure is diminishing, says Dr. Raza,
Aside from losing habitat to increased developmental work on the river, the dolphins also suffered due to depletion of prey base, accidental mortality in fishing nets and accidents with vessel propellers.
“The large-scale modification of the river, the proposed movement of numerous ships, may well sound the death knell of the species,” says Dr. Raza. The species are practically blind, and rely on bio-sonar method to move around. The ships’ noise-levels would disrupt the ability to navigate, and find prey,” he elaborated.IUCN concerned
It may be mentioned here that in May 2016, the IUCN too had expressed its concerns to the Union Environment Ministry on this matter. To tackle the threat to dolphins and three other species , the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest Conservation launched in 2016 the Endangered Species Recovery Plans for four species of global importance. This included dolphins and had a purse of Rs. 100 crore.
When contacted, Arnab Bandhyopadhay, lead transport specialist and the leader of the World Bank team working on the project, admitted that the Gangetic dolphin is an iconic animal and said the World Bank and the IWAI were “cognisant of the need to ensure that critical aquatic life in the Ganga isn’t unduly impacted” by the project.
Listing some of the measures included as safeguards, he mentioned issues like minimising dredging (contracts offer incentives for this), restriction on cargo vessels movement through protected habitat areas through river monitoring systems and installation of sound mufflers to reduce underwater noise.
The Inland Waterways Authority of India (IWAI), in its official response, reiterated these points saying that these were part of the mitigation measures recommended by a consortium of consultants.
It said that nesting grounds, breeding and spawning grounds of dolphins would be identified and project activity minimised in those areas.
Sceptics, however, doubt whether this will lessen the threat faced by the dolphins.
“We have been documenting the impact of dredging of the river bed for the NW1 at Bhagalpur in Bihar. We find that river dolphins get highly stressed because of the dredging activity — both because of the sediment being dislodged, creating disturbances, and the noise of the machines,” said Nachiket Kelkar, an ecologist studying dolphins in the Ganga. He said that while the World Bank had some safeguards, it needed to be seen how they were implemented.
The World Bank suggested that barrages may not be the main reason behind the decline in dolphin population, as they were nearly extinct in Nepal and Bangladesh rivers where there are no barrages. They attributed the decline to direct killing for oil, accidental killing due to impact of fishing and separation of wetlands from river with embankments.