The approach towards dam-building on rivers is to save every drop of sweet water from “running waste” into the sea. That dammed water is then redirected to those the government decides need it the most. These are typically urban centres, industrial zones, and farmers. But those who love the river say the one who needs the water first is the Narmada herself. It is an ideological chasm between those who live off the river, and those who would harness it.
What happens when there is no water left for the river? It begins to die. That death begins with the death of the organisms that live in it, and spreads to the death of organisms that live off it.
At the office of the Narmada Grievance Redressal Authority, Medha Patkar is pleading the case of Hazariabhai, a Bhilali adivasi from Barwani district. A community that survives on fishing, it has been allocated compensatory land 100km away from the river. The story repeats itself along the route of the river as fishermen seek access to former breeding grounds that are now submerged and restricted. As mangroves vanish, flow turns to dead water, and the river runs dry. While the GDP of India from agriculture always includes fisheries — it contributes 1.1% of the GDP, 5.15 % of the agricultural GDP; India ranks second globally in fisheries, and the sector engages 14 million people with an output of 10.07 metric tonnes — the protests of fishermen are almost always suppressed.
In Bharuch, Kamlesh Madhivala, 38, Praveen Madhivala, 43, Heral Dheemar, 38 and Praveen Machi, 31 — members of the Samast Bharuch Machimar Samiti and under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan — led a 4,000-member march to the district collector’s office on April 17. They protested on behalf of 35,000 fishermen who would be affected. It was not their first protest against the construction of the Bhadbuth Weir-cumCauseway at Kalpasar. The fishermen waved black flags at the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his visit last year.
The tendering process is on and construction is expected to begin in six months, raising the barrage at Ambetha near Dahej, 5.15km downstream. The project received Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) clearance in August 2017. The protestors say they were not consulted or informed, and were only able to file objections in November 2017, a month after the objection period lapsed. The NGT accepted the application nevertheless after all, livelihoods were at stake. The barrage will “save” the flow of sweet water out of the Gulf of Khambat, form a final wall between river and sea, and divert water to the Kalpasar reservoir, envisaged as a sweet water lake, to also draw tourism.
Except, the fishermen fear, nothing about it will be sweet. Already, they say, their hilsa fishing boats lie on sewage coming from the towns downstream, carried in with sea water as it encroaches on the absent river’s territory. Once dammed, nothing will move the filthy water out from the stilled river. It will accumulate sewage and industrial effluents, they predict. At the river bank, the Narmada barely exists.
Without consistent flow from the Sardar Sarovar dam throughout the year, the ingress of the sea is unstoppable, says Mahesh Pandya, environmentalist and director of NGO Paryavaran Mitra. The banks on both sides of the river have already turned saline, salt surfaces on the baking river bed. Nothing will grow here soon enough — another Kutch in the making. Protection walls line the west bank, as the river has begun to veer left. But they’ve been futile.
When she flowed, the Narmada dug the soil out from behind the protection wall and went on her way.
Most importantly for the fishermen, they fear their livelihood will be over. The Narmada’s hilsa is expected to die out in three years. The Narmada’s most famous catch, the hilsa is female. The Nar Hilsa, or male hilsa, spawns in other estuaries, but the female tends to return to the mouth of the Narmada. The fish uniquely spawns in the brackish waters caused by the back and forth of the sangam - the mixing of river and sea during June, July and August. During the other nine months, the fishermen survive on other fish. But what they make in those three months is much larger than what they make off the rest of the year put together and is what allows them to perform marriages, build homes, and replace nets and boats.
The weir will cut off this unique ecosystem. Officials from the Kalpasar project last year explained how they planned to build a fish lock for the hilsa to climb. The fishermen say they wanted to laugh in their faces. The hilsa, unlike the Atlantic salmon, for whom the lock systems work, cannot climb or fly. Once the female hilsa dies out, it is only a matter of time for the male.
Of the remaining river species, 80% have already disappeared. Varieties they used to fish don’t exist anymore: the Masheer, the unique Narmada prawn, disappeared in 2003. Local varieties called magyan, diggar, modda, gojira, and jeeptha too are also not to be found. Now, they get crocker fish and gotya instead. As of 2014, Praveen Dheemar used to carry off five tempos full of hilsa, he says. The fish would reach Kolkata the next day by train, where it would retail for Rs 800-1200 a kilogram. Now, he barely fills a tempo.
The fishermen also helpfully pointed out a flaw in the design of the dam to its technical team. “Every year, the sea deposits silt in the river. All it takes is one monsoon day, and the river in full spate tosses the silt back to the river. This has been the natural pattern of the river for centuries,” says Kamlesh Madhivala. With the dam and restriction of water flow in dry summers, this exchange no long persists. So silt builds up. The fishermen say the salinity of the river was 4.5 EC (electrical conductivity) six months ago — that equals 16 feet of silt deposits. With repeated ingress of sea water, this increases. The weir’s height is designed at 86 feet. With Bharuch lying 36 feet upstream, and salinity expected to be 6.5 EC —an additional 20 feet of silt —the usefulness of the dam is reduced by half.
VP Kapadia, chief engineer of the Kalpasar project, says the fishermen’s fears are natural, but believes the project will actually save them. He said the government does not have official salinity figures but will release some in the first week of May, after taking samples only after the full moon, so as to measure it at its worst and doing an EC test as well as a chloride test. “There is no water now in the river but once the weir is built, it will retain what water is there. The impression that hilsa and other migratory fish will lose breeding grounds is false, as the weir is designed to include a fish path. This small channel will allow the intermingling of fresh water with the sea water to simulate breeding grounds. In fact, now when there is no water, the situation is worse,” he says. The size of the channel and the amount of water it will release is a dynamic consideration. As for the silt, Kapadia says there will be no change to the dam’s height, which will cause other engineering issues such as more submergence of villages, but will require them to undertake a desilting of the riverbed.
The indigenous knowledge of those who know the river first-hand is slowly being backed by research. A January 2017 study by Utpal Bhaumik et al, researchers of the Central Inland Fisheries Institute (CIFRI) showed that temperature changes along the river when it was not dammed were once naturally variegated. In its upper ranges, it was milder (15.0-30.5 Celsius), the central highlands and lower plains held at 19 to 33 degrees. These fluctuated by 7-9 degrees depending on the season. Post damming, the river got divided into some stagnant parts and some that flowed. “This creates two different environments,” Bhaumik says. It made the temperature change erratic. The process began to kill off plankton, microphylae, floating and aquatic fauna. In the middle and lower zones, the level of dissolved oxygen fluctuated. The ambient chloride values increased in the lower Narmada because of less freshwater discharge and incoming tidal salinity. Experts say the dying of fish species has been two decades in the making.
In 1996, K Sankaran Unni of CIFRI had found 174 species of river plankton and 111 kinds of zoo plankton covering nearly 550km of the river between Amarkantak and Sethanighat. By 2009, SN Singh, also from CIFRI Barrackpore, was reporting only 72 macrobenthic organisms in the estuary. The diversity and density of organisms are indicative of environmental conditions. “The Narmada river, with existing, ongoing, and proposed river valley projects, faces the pressure of severe shortages of river flow and a resultant acute shrinkage of habitat areas for the benthic organisms. The riverbed with mostly gravel, pebbles, and boulders has been gradually replaced by a coarse sand bed, which does not support the growth of macrobenthic fauna,” Bhaumik notes. In the building of the Indira Sagar dam, the nesting habitats of the shastradhara turtle, alongside that of crocodiles and monitor lizards, were submerged. The destruction of river turtle habitats greatly upset the ecological balance .
In 1941, Hora and Nair (authors of Fishes of the Satpura Range, Central Pronices, Records in Indian Museum, Calcutta), recorded 40 species of fish from the Satpura range alone. In 1967, Karamchandani et al (CIFRI) recorded 77 species in just the upper and middle zones. In 1990, Doria found 76 species within the river in Madhya Pradesh. In 1991, Rao et al (Inland Fisheries Society) studied the whole river and found only 84 species. Arjun Shulka and Sunita Sharma (Model Science College, Jabalpur) in 2017 found 25 species in the post monsoon season.
Annual fish production in the Narmada was estimated at 269.8 metric tonnes (Dubey, 1984) between 1958–1959 and 1965–1966, i.e. prior to the development of dams. Figures through the years and recent figures for fisheries from the Narmada alone are not available.
The fish-loving Bengalis are having the worst of it. In the estuary, the carp, mainly the Mahseer, rohu, kuhi or gunia, declined as have gegra and reta. Large catfish have been replaced by medium and small species. After the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam, giant freshwater prawns, unique to the river, declined. The brood stock of Hilsa moved to only breed within 100km of the Gulf of Cambay. “Annual catch of 16,000 tons of the species (hilsa) during 1990-1991 reduced to 4,000 tons in 2007-2008 and indicated a 75% decline in production over a period of one-and-a-half decades” Bhoumik notes.
The river bank of the Narmada has now receded 3km away from the oncebustling Bharuch bunder. Locals in the old fishing villages recall having to move to higher ground for the roaring monsoon floods, collecting driftwood that would last them as firewood stocks for the whole year. “If they dam her up like this she will cease to flow. If she dies, our livelihood may go. No one will miss her more than us,” says Hiralbhai Dheemar.