The National Waterways Bill is being heralded as a transformational infrastructure initiative. Rajeev Gowda raises crucial questions which are yet to be answered
The National Waterways Bill is an ambitious initiative to harness our waterways for transportation infrastructure. But it would be truly ambitious if it also balanced a variety of other concerns.
Firstly, a river is not just a waterway. It is a living ecosystem that we must protect and nurture. As researcher Nachiket Kelkar has demonstrated (A Summary Analysis of the Ecological Impacts of the National Waterways Bill -2015) there are many concerns that need to be addressed with regard to the ecology of rivers. To begin with, consider the Ganga, the cleansing of which was a significant element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign.
The Ganga hosts a variety of endangered species, prominent among which is the Gangetic Dolphin. This is a blind mammal which finds its way around using sonar navigation. When you have heavy traffic, dredging, and other kinds of disturbances in the river, it is going to be particularly challenging for this very special species to survive. The Ganga already is host to a number of animal sanctuaries on the river. Besides the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur, there is a turtle sanctuary from Ram Nagar Fort to Assi Ghat, in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s constituency. There is also the National Chambal Sanctuary. How will the Waterways Bill affect them?
Similarly, there is the 'Namami Gange' initiative. If boats and barges leak fuels into the Ganga, that would be counter to the policy goal of achieving a ‘Swachh Ganga’. Hence, the government must ensure that the vessels that use our waterways utilise newer, cleaner and environment-friendly technology. We need standards for water transport on the lines of standards such as Bharat-V for motorcars.
This issue was tragically highlighted when there was a hazardous oil spill in the Sunderbans which had a hugely negative impact on that critical ecosystem. The Waterways Bill has not considered issues of liability for such accidents. Who will bear the cost of repairing and restoring the ecosystem? This question must be addressed adequately before operations begin.
Fundamentally, the Ministry of Road Transport, Highways and Shipping is not adequately equipped to deal with such ecological and environmental issues. Put simply, this Ministry is in charge of building and moving things. But now it will have to evolve to also ‘protect’ and nurture nature.
For this the Ministry of Road Transport, Highways and Shipping needs to integrate the capacity to assess the cumulative and aggregate environmental impact of the National Waterways Bill. Just obtaining environmental impact clearance for individual projects will not do. The Ministry has to build up capacity within, and in tandem with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to ensure better environmental management.
A basic, crucial question looms large: Where are we going to get the water to ensure that waterways can function as pathways for boat transportation? Consider the case of the Palar, National Waterway No. 75. This is a river which I have a personal connect to. I own farmland on the banks of the Karnataka stretch of the Palar, not part of National Waterway 75. As a child, I even learned swimming in the Palar. It’s other name is Ksheera. It is literally named the “river of milk,” (Paalu means milk in Telugu and Tamil) Forget milk, it does not even have water these days! Development in the catchment area, excessive groundwater exploitation, etc., have ensured that the Palar remains dry most of the year. Are such waterways going to be used only for the short stretch of time when seasonal rivers have some water? This does not make for economically viable investments.
Somehow, even if the Palar were to have more water, what about the competing demands and rights over that resource? As a farmer on the river’s banks, I would strenuously argue for my share of the waters to irrigate my coconut, guava and mango groves.
How will this Bill address the conflicting demands of the water needed for building waterways, and the demands of farmers as well as other people who need drinking water in local villages and towns? Are these locals now going to have their rights to the water eliminated because their waterway has now got “nationalised?”
Along with farmers, many other traditional occupations will be affected. Traditional boatmen will give way to mechanised boats. If the riverine ecosystem is affected by the “waterway-isation” of the river, then fishermen will no longer be able to draw on the historic bounty provided by nature.
Finally, some of the rivers that the National Waterways Bill refers to are inter-State rivers. Some are international rivers. Many are embroiled in disputes, some ongoing for decades. There are numerous conflicts between upper riparians and lower riparians over rights. How does this Bill plan to work around these issues?
The Prime Minister has been talking recently about sustainable development. This ambitious infrastructure-enhancing initiative too must be made sustainable. Otherwise tasks such as dredging will result in far greater damage than what the policy’s makers have envisaged or bargained for. Our civilization was built and achieved glorious heights on the banks of rivers like the Indus, Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Kaveri. We owe it to our ancestors and our descendants to ensure that National Waterways Bill does not convert these noble rivers and their thriving ecosystems into dead transportation canals.