The Ganga, which is already in bad shape because of increasing pollution and decreasing water, is now also swiftly moving away from its banks in Patna, the capital of Bihar. No serious scientific attempt has been made to deal with this crisis, experts and activists warn. If this was not enough, the Ganga Pathway project to build an 20.5 km elevated road in the river to ease traffic problems poses a new threat.

Ramakar Jha from the National Institute of Technology, Patna, warned that the Ganga has already shifted 2.5 km-3.5 km from most ghats in Patna because of human interference. The ongoing construction of the Ganga Pathway will push it further away. In some places, the river has been shifted after work started, but by the time it is finished the river will have completely moved away from the city.

He also pointed out the dangers of constructing deep into the river. As the Ganga experiences massive flooding annually from Patna to Farakka, a great amount of silt will be deposited at the pillars being constructed to support the elevated road. The consequences of this are hard to foresee but they are unlikely to be good.

This at a time when beautification work is being carried out at 20 ghats in Patna as part of the $1.5 billion National Ganga River Basin Project, supported by the World Bank. “What is the use when the Ganga has already shifted away from Patna?” asked Ranjeev, a local environmental activist. “It is impossible for visitors to catch a glimpse of the river from most ghats. Ghats now welcome visitors with dry sand all around and no natural sound of the flowing river. Heavy siltation, the depletion of water flow over the years, and encroachments by the powerful builder lobby from Digha to Rajapur have diverted the river’s flow.”

The managing director of the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation, Amrendra Prasad Singh, said the beautification work has been completed at 16 ghats. “The top officials of the state administration are serious to bring back the river to these ghats,” he said. The programme was launched by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar in February 2014. It was to be completed by June 2016, but has been delayed.

An ambitious ghat beautification plan is underway but the Ganga has disappeared from view. Photo credit: Mohd Imran Khan

Kedar Nath Jha, the 92-year-old chief priest of the Collectorate ghat temple, has been a witness to the slow shifting away of the Ganga. He has lived by the river for 49 years and blames interventions in the name of development for the problem. “Now only filth, silt and dry sand of Ganga is found nearby,” he said. “It is a bad sign for Maa Ganga. It will be difficult for the young generation to accept that river water was flowing near the Collectorate ghat until 4-5 years ago and devotees used to take a holy dip and offer Ganga water at the temple.”

Until a decade ago, the Collectorate ghat’s temple would always be crowded, Jha said. With the river moving far away, hardly any devotees visit anymore. “Look at this dirty narrow drain that has replaced Gangaji here,” he added.

The situation has only worsened since work started on the Ganga Pathway, a pet project of the chief minister. “The Ganga has not left out of annoyance, it has been forced out by the bridge builders,” Jha said angrily.

Baba Mahant Manohar Das, chief priest of the Adalat ghat temple, echoed the worry. “The number of visitors to our temples has reduced drastically because the Ganga has shifted away,” he said. “Whatever water is seen in the nearby channel is that of a dirty drain.”

Anta ghat looks over a dry patch of the river. Photo credit: Mohd Imran Khan

Wasted effort?

Suraj Rai and Mahesh Rai, resident of a riverine village locally known as Diara, are also concerned about the deterioration of the river. “We would take a boat to reach our village at Collectorate ghat, now we have to walk 3.5 km,” they said. “It is a big change for us.”

Currently, boats operate 2.5 km-3.5 km away from the banks. Only during the monsoon, when water fills the dry patch, are the boats able to ferry from and to the ghats.

Guddu Baba, who has led the Ganga Bachao Andolan for the last two decades in Patna, said the river has been moving away from its banks since the 1990s. But the processed has quickened in recent years. He questioned the purpose of beautifying the ghats. “It is useless and will serve no purpose because Ganga has shifted away from these ghats,” he said. “Crores of rupees are being spent to develop the banks. But people will miss the beauty of the flowing river.”

With the river gone, villagers living on riverine islands have to cycle or walk great distances. Photo credit: Mohd Imran Khan

Three years ago, Bihar’s water resources department, along with the Inland Waterways Authority of India, initiated steps to bring the river’s flow back to its original course by creating a 7-km long and 15-foot deep channel from Digha to Kalighat. But despite spending $1.2 million to create the channel, they have failed to bring back the Ganga to anywhere near its southern banks.

According to a study by a team of researchers from AN College, Patna, the Ganga is shifting 0.14 km away every year in the city. The study blames the lack of dredging of the riverbed for the last 30 years and large-scale discharge of untreated sewage into the river for this. In the days when steamers used to navigate the river in the city, dredgers from Denmark used to dredge the riverbed before every rainy season.

According to officials, the Inland Waterways Authority of India has refuse to start deep dredging of the channel, citing the heavy discharge of untreated waste, including solid waste, into the river. Regular disposal of sludge-carrying drain water has made it hard to restore the original course of the river. The ongoing construction of the Ganga Pathway has proved a stumbling block to dredge the channel to ensure the smooth flow of water, they added.

However, the chief engineer of the water resources department, Lakshaman Jha, claimed the channel would be restored by 2019 as five proposed sewerage treatment plants will be operationalised. The work on the plants is underway. They are estimated to treat nearly 350 million litres per day of waste.

Ashok Ghosh, chairman of the Bihar Pollution Control Board, said until the sewerage treatment plants start functioning, it is difficult to think of a clean Ganga in Patna.

Mohd Imran Khan is a freelance journalist based in Patna.

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.