marine wildlife

Gangetic dolphin's habitat lies in the path of a proposed waterway from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal

The dredging of rivers for the construction of national waterway 1 impacts dolphins and the sound of machines impedes the nearly blind aquatic animal's hearing.

In March 2016, India passed the National Waterways Act, which marks 106 rivers to be engineered into cargo-carrying waterways. The rationale is that shipping is “greener” than road traffic. But, according to Nachiket Kelkar of the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment, “there has unfortunately been barely any debate on the ecological and social risks the National Waterways Act poses to river biodiversity and to the communities that depend on the river.”

The importance of riverine ecology, and of livelihoods needs, seems to be absent from the radar of not just the administrative and political circles, but also prominent environmental and scientific groups.

As per the plan, National Waterway 1 will go from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal along the Ganga and then along its arms – the Bhagirathi and the Hooghly. It will involve the construction of more barrages along the river and heavy dredging of silt, so that a width of 45 metres and a depth of three metres can be maintained throughout. This would enable passage for barges carrying 1,500-2,000 tonnes of cargo.

A turtle finds refuge on a silt island [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
A turtle finds refuge on a silt island [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

“Constructing more dams between Allahabad and Haldia will convert the Ganga into big ponds," said Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. "It will adversely affect the river’s ecosystem. We should allow uninterrupted flow of the Ganga waters." Kumar has turned into the most prominent critic of the Farakka barrage, blaming it for the current floods in Bihar.

The barrage, meant to flush the Hooghly and save Kolkata port from siltation, has had unintended consequences downstream as well.

Kelkar, writing for the South Asia Network for Dams Rivers and People, has analysed the National Waterways Act and clearly called out its implications. Now, as he and I sit by the Ganga watching the sun haemorrhage into the river, his observations come alive.

The sun setting over the Ganga [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
The sun setting over the Ganga [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

Dangerous depth

We see a dredger silhouetted against the fiery orange shimmer of the river. It scoops up sediments from the river bed and plumes it back into the main channel. This is crucial to maintaining navigability of National Waterway 1, given the Ganga’s heavy sediment load – and it is also a potential death knell for aquatic species.

“Such dredging dislodges river sediment, thereby destroying fish breeding grounds, habitats for endangered fresh-water turtles, fishes, sensitive aquatic invertebrates, and other organisms," Kelkar wrote. "In particular, substrate-breeding fish species are negatively affected by dredging and might even become locally extinct following failed breeding. As a bulk of fisheries depends on benthic (bottom-dwelling) fishes in most of India’s larger rivers, this will mean important threat to the sustainable production of fish in these systems as well."

As we travel along the river, a more sinister fallout of dredging comes to the fore. The plume that the dredger jets into the river’s main channel settles further downstream and functions like a plug. This plug heightens the riverbed in the centre, and deepens it by the shores. Imagine a “W” shaped river bed, with its elbows resting near the shores. In its turn the river, obstructed by these plugs and trying to find the path of least resistance, rushes into and over these deep channels, scouring off silt from under the concrete of the ghats.

This is where locals and pilgrims take a dip in the holy river. Thus far, no one had any reason to expect a sudden deep fall off. But over the last six months, since dredging has become regular in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, there have been 20 deaths by drowning in Bhagalpur’s Barari Ghat alone – people washed away because the ground beneath their feet was replaced by fast-flowing undercurrents.

Moreover, to state the obvious, dredging should not be happening in the sanctuary, much less during the vital fish-breeding season.

The plot thickens with the non-appearance of the dolphins.

Where have all the dolphins gone?

The Gangetic dolphin is almost completely blind. Evolving in silty, murky environs for over 30 million years, it has all but lost its eyesight. Its eyes have no lenses, and it can only sense the direction of diffuse light. It lives by echolocation; sound is everything to this most ancient of all cetaceans. It navigates, feeds, avoids danger, finds mates, breeds, nurses babies, and lives by echolocation.

What effects will the sound of the dredger, and continuous navigation by large barges and tourist ships have on this creature?

Ongoing research by the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre has predicted local extinction of Ganges river dolphins from many rivers without adequate flow. River dolphin hearing of lower echolocation frequencies can be masked by dredging and vessel engine sounds, which might seriously limit their ability to find food and navigate. Also, the physical upheaval of river sediment caused by dredging appears to be disturbing to river dolphins.

Kelkar’s team has also identified the negative impacts of heavy dredging on dolphins near Bhagalpur.

“River dolphins, in May 2014, moved about two kilometres downstream from a regularly used hotspot area near Barari, Bhagalpur town and stayed there for nearly one full week during which the Inland Waterways Authority of India conducted intensive dredging operations near the Vikramshila Setu,” the team wrote. Surfacing frequency of the dolphins (breathing time between dives) reduced approximately three times compared to a natural dive-rate of 1.5-2.5 minutes during feeding peaks.

“In dolphins, this is a clear indication of stressful physiological and body conditions,” Kelkar said. “Further, Ganges river dolphins are highly vocal in normal circumstances, but their acoustic activity was noted to be much lower than on an average non-dredging day. Also, river dolphin mortality due to boat propeller hits has been recorded on a couple of occasions from the same area. During the movement of tourist cruise ships, we observed that the impact of loud sounds produced by the engines lasted for over two minutes – in which river dolphin diving behaviour showed signs of suppression.”

Clearly, dredging is not dolphin-friendly. Over 90% of the endangered Gangetic dolphin population overlaps with the proposed national waterways. And this is India’s National Aquatic Animal.

Even if the dolphins had to move, where would they go? The dredgers and barges would be almost everywhere. After I left, the Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre team did a short survey on this stretch of the river and confirmed that the dolphin sightings in short stretches around Bhagalpur and Kahalgaon have fallen 66-75%. There have been whispers of dolphin deaths, which are still unconfirmed.

Falling waters

In the pre-monsoon season of 2016, water levels in this stretch of the Ganga are at their lowest ever.

The marks on the rocks show how low the water has fallen [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]
The marks on the rocks show how low the water has fallen [image by Arati Kumar-Rao]

The Ganga and upstream tributaries have been dammed several times over, diverted into canals, sucked up for irrigation, and syphoned off into power generation.

While the monsoons may make it seem like there is a “surplus” of water, it is dry season flows that should be the determining factor. And dry season flows in most of India’s rivers are dismal. There is also the rather inconvenient matter of a rapidly receding Gangotri glacier, which is now receding at 10-22 metres a year. At some point, the freshwater available will begin to diminish.

Add to that the inherent hazards of shipping cargo along ecologically invaluable ecosystems. The consistency of mishaps in the Bangladesh Sundarbans, including an oil spill, should set alarm bells ringing.

The Ganga’s waters feed and support 600 million people. Misguided engineering has already contributed to disastrous social and ecological outcomes (Farakka being just one case in point); mishaps and more engineering may just be the proverbial last straw that breaks this camel’s back.

One evening, after crisscrossing the river taking depth readings and becoming increasingly alarmed at the pronounced “W” of the channel we were in, we climbed an ancient granite outcropping in the middle of the Ganga. Squeezing between and clambering over rocks, half-climbing a tree to reach nearly 100 metres above the river for a bird’s eye view, we watched yet another day dissolve.

It is the last day of May. The waters of the Ganga should have started to rise by now. But the depth meter shows a lower value than two months before. Either there is less melt water this year, or whatever had come down from the Himalayas is impounded behind dams.

Holy water is to be had for cities (that can now be purchased online), water is channelled for farmers and sucked for power. What is left? No water. No fish. No livelihood. No dolphins.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.