As Bihar faced devastating floods last week, chief minister Nitish Kumar made an unusually strong statement about a politically charged dam.
“The current flood situation has been caused by siltation of river Ganga,” The Indian Express quoted the Bihar chief minister as saying in a conference on August 21. “This situation is the result of silt getting deposited in Ganga after construction of Farakka dam. The only way to remove silt from the river is to remove the dam.”
Evidence now suggests that the flood at that time in Bihar was caused by the sudden release of water from the Bansagar dam across the Sone river in eastern Madhya Pradesh. The dam had been allowed to fill up to 96% of its capacity before more rainfall in its catchment area forced engineers to release that water at once.
But the criticism of the Farakka barrage for causing excessive siltation in the Ganga remains accurate. The dam was considered a doomed project even before it began. But in the 1960s, the media vilified Kapil Bhattacharya, who was the West Bengal government’s chief engineer at the time, for saying exactly what Nitish Kumar would echo five decades later.
Kapil Bhattacharya is perhaps better known in activist circles today for his role as the first president of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights. But he was also superintending engineer with the Irrigation and Waterways Directorate of the West Bengal government in the early 1960s, when plans for the barrage had become all but settled.
The idea to build a barrage across the Ganga at Farakka, ostensibly to flush the Hooghly river free of silt and keep the port at Kolkata open, was suggested by Arthur Cotton, a British irrigation engineer in 1853. Soon after Independence, the West Bengal government began to look into the idea and in 1949, the central government took over planning for it.
The proposed barrage was expected to divert water away from the Padma – as the Ganga is known in Bangladesh – and into the Hooghly, thereby flushing it free of silt.
But Bhattacharya was strongly against this proposal. He believed that the reason the Hooghly was silting was not because of sedimentation carried over hundreds of kilometres from the Himalayas by the Ganga. Instead, two dams on the Damodar and Rupnarayan rivers, western tributaries of the Hooghly, were responsible for it. These dams, he wrote in 1961, in his report, Silting of Calcutta Port, were built without “taking into consideration flood-tides and tide-borne silts” and had hence become choked.
“As a result, the Calcutta Port has been killed and the main drainage channel choked, causing repeated flood-havoc on an ever-increasing scale,” he added. “If my warnings against Farakka Barrage are not heeded, people will have to suffer consequences.”
Bhattacharya believed that the proposed barrage would only increase siltation in the river since in the dry season only half as much water would be available in the dam to divert towards the Hooghly, leading to more siltation. The barrage would also reduce water flow to what was then East Pakistan, which was of concern to the Pakistani government.
Bhattacharya also said that the dam was designed to discharge too little water at times of floods, which would then lead to devastating floods upstream in Malda and Murshidabad in West Bengal and in several districts of Bihar through which the Ganga flows.
All three predictions have come true since.
“Bhattacharya had submitted a memorandum to everyone involved, but the government was not in a mood to hear him,” recalled Sujato Bhadra, who worked closely with the engineer after he resigned from his government job. “The Nehruvian model was of large dams being the temples of modern India. Because of that his entire argument was dismissed by the government.”
'Spy of Pakistan'
Bhattacharya's report was a landmark publication. It was the first scientific breakdown against the logic of large dams in general and of the Farakka Barrage in particular.
All other reports of the Indian government on the dam were highly classified and there was no public access to them within India, let alone foreign countries. Pakistan was naturally concerned as the dam would affect its access to water, but no information was to be had. When Pakistan got a copy of Bhattacharya’s report and used it to argue against the barrage with the Indian government, there was an uproar.
In his book, The Ganga: Water Use in the Indian Subcontinent, Pranab Kumar Parua, the former general manager of the Farakka Barrage Project, traced a timeline of its development. Parua noted that other criticism of the project soon followed Bhattacharya's. These included those by two experts appointed by the Pakistan government to study the project in 1962.
The Indian government was incensed. KL Rao, who was the Union minister of water resources at the time, called Bhattacharya a traitor. Bengali publication Anand Bazar Patrika called him a spy of Pakistan, and Bhattacharya was forced to resign.
The government finally began to build the 2.62 km-long barrage across the Ganga in 1962, and the dam was inaugurated in 1975.
Shift to human rights
Bhattacharya's relations with the West Bengal government were perhaps not as fraught as they were with the Centre. In 1967, he became a member of the West Bengal pay commission, as the Times of India noted in its obituary for the engineer.
He also remained engaged with public life even after his resignation from the government.
When Sushil Banerjee, an elderly freedom fighter, and other activists in Kolkata, decided to create a new human rights organisation to protest human rights violations against suspected Naxalites, among the several people they approached for support was Bhattacharya. The engineer enthusiastically agreed, and even offered the group a room in his house to use as an office. This group would become the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, and Bhattacharya was appointed its first president in 1972. That room remains the association’s office even today.
Bhattacharya remained the association's president till he passed away in December, 1989.