June 16, 2016
The Ganga, meandering through 2,500km and draining a quarter of her land mass, reaches the Bay of Bengal in braided distributaries
These navigable distributaries allow the hinterlands to access the Bay of Bengal, and that means trade.
Himalayan rivers like the Ganga carry an important cargo: silt.
For the emerging British empire, the Hooghly was a gateway to Assam, a navigable waterway into the northern Gangetic plains. Trade reoriented itself away from Asia and in the direction of Europe. Calcutta on the east coast, and Bombay on the west became the Empire’s two most important ports.
The Ganga, wild, brown, and strong-willed, had her own plans.
Through the 19th century, the Hooghly was gradually silting; by the early 20th century, ships wary of massive underwater shoals, had to wait for tides to turn in order to reach the port.
The port was in for a change and, so were the people of northern Bengal. The Calcutta Port Trust (now Kolkata Port Trust) tried (and continues to try, to this day) to dredge the river, with little success.
The river continued to lay it on thick.
The birth of a barrage, the decline of a land
In 1853, Sir Arthur Cotton, a British general and irrigation engineer, suggested interrupting the Ganga at Farakka. This, he theorized, would flush the Hooghly with the waters of the main channel of the Ganga. The Hooghly would become navigable, and Calcutta a buzzing port.
The British engineers failed to reach a consensus on a suitable site for the barrage, and the plan to resuscitate Calcutta lay dormant for over a hundred years—until 1957, when the Indian government revived the idea. They called upon a British expert, W. Hensen.
Hensen ratified Cotton’s idea of a barrage at Farakka.
Between 1961 and 1975, when it began operations, a 2.24km-long barrage was built at Farakka, with a feeder channel that pushed water into the Hooghly. It did not work.
Hensen had not considered that the Hooghly was a tidal estuary. The tides push in 78 times the amount of water flowing down the Hooghly at the height of the monsoon. There was not enough water in the river to push out the sediment that the tides naturally sloshed back with greater force.
The Farakka Barrage thus failed in the task it was constructed for—flushing sediment and enabling travel sans hindrance. The port continues to silt up. The barrage now supplies water to the NTPC Ltd plant just south of the barrage, helps in some irrigation, and, as my guide would explain, has a rather sinister unintended consequence.
Landlords at night, beggars in the morning
Tarikul Islam would be my guide as I wandered upstream of the barrage. He was waiting for me outside his jewellery store in Bangitola, a settlement of erosion-affected people in Malda district.
After a few cups of laal saa, milkless, sweet ginger tea, we headed to the northernmost point of West Bengal.
The sun was beginning to dip as we climbed into a long, low country boat. Following a circuitous route that skirted shoals and new sandbar islands, we made our way to the ancient town of Rajmahal, in Jharkhand, where the river enters West Bengal.
Here the Ganga, pregnant with silt, comes around a bend and strikes the Rajmahal hills. Finding no purchase against the hard stone of the right bank, the river ricochets, ramming into the soft clay on the left bank.
What the barrage did to the river at this point was unnatural, and not pretty.
In rudely obstructing the natural course of the Ganga, the Farakka Barrage blocks the transport of sediment. With nowhere to take the silt, the river dumps it at the barrage.
Over time, these deposits accrete, raising the river-bed ever higher. Finding its progress checked, the river carves new channels out of the trap and often, these channels push into the land, eroding all that lies in their path.
As we stand at the ferry dock in Jharkhand, looking out over the Ganga as it courses into West Bengal, Tarikul points out the old channel and the new. “Everyone in this area of West Bengal has lost everything to the river—some lost homes and land eroded 17 times, lost completely to the river,” he says. Tarikul has lost homes and land thrice.
Professor Kalyan Rudra, chairman of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, has worked extensively on this problem and studied the geomorphology of the area. In a 2004 paper he explained the situation. He states, “Deltaic rivers have a tendency to oscillate widely. This ‘swatch of meander sweep’ is proportional to the discharge flowing through the river.
The case of the Ganga in West Bengal is quite different. The river in this stretch upstream of the Ganga is so clogged with sediment that it is compelled to alter course. The mighty river even threatens to outflank the Farakka Barrage and open a new route through the presently moribund channels of Kalindri and Mahananda.”
The Kalindri today has no water flowing through it. It is lush with paddy fields. The Mahananda, on the other hand, flows thinly through the loud press of Malda town.
Unlike earthquakes and floods, erosion is not considered a “natural disaster” in the calculus of bureaucracy. Thus, where governments are quick to announce “relief” in the event of a disaster, loss due to erosion is neither calculated, nor compensated.
“We lose our world,” Tarikul says. “Everything goes into the river, leaving us empty-handed. And the government does not consider this a disaster—there are no allocations of funds for relief.
“Raat ko zamindar, savere ko bhikari (We go to sleep as landowners and wake-up as beggars),” he says.
Lost and found—and lost again
As the Ganga ploughs through the plains, it regurgitates the sediment and soil as sandbar islands known as chars. These chars are birthed by the river, and reclaimed, and birthed again elsewhere; they defy standard land/water classifications, and “belong” to no one.
When it appeared, it showed up on the wrong side of the Jharkhand-West Bengal border—which, unlike other state borders, is not fixed. For some inexplicable reason, the Survey of India demarcated a part of the border between the two states as “the path the Ganga takes”.
The problem is that the Ganga adheres to no permanent path. It moves. A lot. And the border moves with it.
Neither side likes the idea; both dispute the border. Jharkhand claims this char (which has over time added more sediment and joined the mainland) as its own—but it does not claim the people who live on it. Thus the people of Palash Gachhi are nominally Bengalis living in Jharkhand—they fall between bureaucratic cracks and can avail of no services from either state.
Anecdotal evidence supports the belief that infant and maternal mortality on these chars is inordinately high, for most births occur at home, with no proper medical oversight. State averages bury these local spikes.
Since it’s difficult to make a living off the char, the men go looking for jobs elsewhere. Some leave home when they are only 12 for Mumbai.
The house has sheltered him for 12 years—long enough to nurture a sense of security. Except that, the river has crept up too—it’s just 500m from his door.
“Often, they start this useless work in the monsoon, which is stupid. How can you work on fortifying the bank-line when the soil is already wet with rain?” asks Tarikul, who has seen it all before.
I interrupt. Are you not angry? I ask.
He laughs. He picks up a plate.
“How much can this plate hold?” he asks. “You can fill it only so much. After that, there’s nowhere to go. My anger is like that. I could hold only so much. It overflowed, and then it disappeared. I am pushing 60. After seven losses, I still have a roof over my head.
“I don’t know how much longer it will last—the river keeps pushing closer. But for now I have a roof, and I am grateful.”