FOR CENTURIES, dark, foreboding myths saved the Chambal the fate of India’s other great rivers. The Charmanyavati, describes the Mahabharata, originated from a mountain of dripping leather (charma) after King Rantideva sacrificed thousands of cows. If that was not intimidating enough, Draupadi, distraught by her humiliation after that infamous game of dice, cursed that all who would drink from the Charmanyavati that flowed through Shakuni’s kingdom be damned.
In a culture where rivers are worshipped, such disrepute meant that the Chambal, by all means mightier than the Yamuna, would be slighted as a tributary of the latter. Unsurprisingly, no great cities or shrines came up on its banks. This traditional isolation fostered the badland reputation of the ravines where all manner of black sheep — rebel tribesmen and later bandits — found refuge. But it also helped the Chambal remain one of India’s most pristine rivers.
Even today, it has the highest conservation value among the rivers in the greater Gangetic basin. The Chambal hosts the largest contiguous and most viable breeding populations of the critically endangered gharial and the red-crowned roofed turtle. The river is also one of the most important habitats of the Gangetic dolphin, Indian skimmer, black-bellied tern, sarus crane and a host of endangered turtle species.
One of the choicest wintering sites of migratory birds, the Chambal is also a big contributor of fish stock to the Ganga. For more than a dozen national parks and sanctuaries, such as Ranthambore, Keladevi, Kuno-Palpur, Madhav and Darrah- Mukundra, the river ark is the vital corridor for dispersal of wildlife in an otherwise fragmented forest landscape.
But the Chambal’s splendid isolation, albeit cursed, started to wane after Independence when people living in the arid districts of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh became too desperate. By 1960, the first dam on the river — Gandhi Sagar — was built on the Rajasthan-MP border.
In the next five decades, six major irrigation projects — Rana Pratap Sagar, Jawahar Sagar and Kota Barrage, Parbati Pick-up Weir, Harish Chander Sagar and Gudha Dam — 12 medium, 134 minor and several panchayat-level projects came up in the Chambal basin. There are hundreds more in the pipeline while work continues on several dozens.
The bane of mainstreaming — storage, extraction and diversion of water, sand mining, fishing and riparian cultivation by flattening ravines — is disrupting the Chambal’s water flow (see graphic), polluting and fragmenting its aquatic ecosystem and the forest landscape that support more than 550 species.
Downstream of Kota Barrage, the river now depends entirely on its tributaries, which are mostly seasonal and heavily harvested themselves. The result is an alarming drop in pre-monsoon water flow and the water level (see graphic). So much so that only 10-15 percent of the Chambal’s 435-km-long, high-potential gharial and dolphin habitat between Pali in Rajasthan and Pachnada in Uttar Pradesh retains the minimum depth required for the species during the driest periods between May and July.
Nobody outside the government knows the Chambal’s discharge and flow rates. It is part of the Gangetic basin, which makes the data classified. So, nobody can tell if the Central Water Commission’s 1992 guideline, that the minimum flow in a river should not be less than the average of 10 days’ minimum flow in its natural state, is being followed while harvesting huge volumes of Chambal water in the name of helping farmers.
Between 1990 and 2007, the average quantity of water used for irrigation by Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh through Gandhi Sagar Dam and Kota Barrage decreased by 22.6 percent and 41.4 percent, respectively, while the use of water for industrial purpose increased by around 300 percent. By 2003, almost 41 percent of all water use was non- irrigational. The impact is evident.
At Kherli village, around 40 km downstream from Kota Barrage, farmers are happy that they get enough canal water from the barrage during the October-February crop season. Less than a kilometre away at Bhakto ka Ghat, one can walk across the knee-deep waters of the Chambal that is barely 15 m wide. “The river’s level will go down by another foot or so by the end of summer, but it never dries up,” assures a farmer in between dips in the canal water.
Of course, it doesn’t. Base flow or groundwater surge keeps big rivers trickling even in the worst of times. Besides, the run-off from the agricultural fields also reaches the Chambal. The irony is not lost on an elderly villager watching the lush fields: “Now, the Chambal waits for a few drops of its own water to flow back via canals and fields. Can you believe we needed boats to cross the river here when I was young?”
The sad trickle continues downstream of Kota Barrage till the Kali Sindh contributes some water. The still narrow and shallow stream gains some respectability at Pali where the Parbati joins in. “At the confluence last April, the depth of Parbati was 3.7 m while the Chambal was just 0.6 m deep. The Parbati’s flow was 0.4 foot per second, the Chambal’s was zero,” says wildlife biologist Niladri Dasgupta, who has been studying the river.
A river’s health depends on the quality and quantity of its water. Barring a few stretches — for example, Rajasthan’s Kota-Keshoriapatan belt where a minor tributary brings industrial effluents — the Chambal’s water is of an enviable ‘A’ category as per the Central Pollution Control Board standards. It is the water quantity — water depth and flow — that threatens the river ecology.
According to studies conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), the Chambal’s water flow receded to as low as 16.38 cubic metres (or 16,380 litres) per second during June-July in 2009. The average lean flow of the Chambal is 58.53 m3/sec in April. For a perspective, compare this with the peak monsoon flow of 2,074.28 m3/sec in August. The lean flow works out to be less than 3 percent of the peak flow.
“This never happens in a natural system. The dams and irrigation canals were meant for utilising surplus monsoon water. But these projects refuse to release any water in the river channel during the summer months,” explains Dr Rajiv Chauhan, an Etawah-based wildlife biologist who red-flagged the mysterious epidemic that killed around 100 gharials in 2007-08.
Even the overall flow in the Chambal has been showing an annual slide of 3.4 percent since the 1990s. The WII’s Chambal studies statistically established that river depth decreases with a fall in river flow. The minimum flow and depth required for gharials is 151 m3/sec and 5 m while Gangetic dolphins, India’s national aquatic animal, need at least 266.42 m3/sec flow and 7 m deep waters. By 2011, gharials were losing half of their Chambal habitat during February-June, while dolphins found themselves out of depth as early as November.
When riverine habitat shrinks, it also gets fragmented, trapping aquatic animals in relatively deeper segments of the riverbed called pools. Being territorial, gharials don’t leave their own areas for longer stretches of deeper waters. In such a scenario, starvation is a distinct possibility as animals are trapped in pools too small to sustain them with enough fish stock. There are instances when dolphins inadvertently reached shallow waters chasing fish and got fatally stuck.
Shallow waters allow increased human interference, including access to otherwise inaccessible nesting islands. Confined in pools, the animals become vulnerable to secondary threats, such as local contamination, blast fishing or poaching.
Poor river flow also alters the natural morphology of deep pools. Dams restrict siltation and sand deposition downstream, limiting breeding sites of ground-nesting species such as gharials, skimmers and turtles. To make matters worse, dams conveniently release unseasonal water, often during nesting periods, drowning sandbanks and river islands formed by the sediments carried by the Chambal’s tributaries.
It is no paradox that gharials, the most charismatic species of the Chambal, are more visible here than ever. An acute decline in their numbers during 1999- 2006 saw the reptile’s status being changed to “critically endangered”. But in spite of losing more than a hundred gharials to a mysterious epidemic in 2007-08, the Chambal population has not dipped below the 1,100-mark — simply because too many young gharials are being released here under a re-stocking programme.
While the focus of Project Crocodile’s rear-and-release strategy was on egg collection and returning juvenile gharials to the wild, little attention has been paid to improving field conditions. Never mind that wherever habitat loss and other threats finished off a gharial population, no restocking could revive the species. After more than 5,000 juveniles were released countrywide, gharials are still breeding only where they had a residual population to begin with.
“More than two-thirds of the world’s wild gharials are in the Chambal. This population needs to stabilise naturally to give us a correct picture. The available financial and human resources should be invested in securing the habitat, not to keep filling it up artificially,” says Tarun Nair, who has been studying the gharials.
Uttar Pradesh has abandoned the rear-and-release strategy but replaced it with the practice of covering the nests with thorny branches or nets. But barriers don’t let other females nest and even stop hatchlings from emerging when forest staff forget to remove the covers in time. Experts, including Nair, recommend in-situ protection of entire nesting sites rather than individual nests.
On both banks of the final 600-km stretch of the river, a total of 1,810 sq km was notified as the tri-state National Chambal Sanctuary (NCS) by Uttar Pradesh (1979), Madhya Pradesh (1982) and Rajasthan (1983). But illegal sand mining continues to be rampant along the Chambal, particularly in the Rajasthan-Madhya Pradesh stretch (see graphic). The Banas, an important tributary, is also scarred by mining.
Sand mining is by far the most serious threat to the nesting habitat of gharials and turtles. Even for basking, gharials prefer sand banks for the moisture it provides. Stone quarrying — both manual and using dynamite — is also common in the upper sections of the Chambal and is destroying key otter habitat.
Unlike mining, which affects reproduction rates, gill nets, hook-lines and dynamite used for illegal fishing (see graphic) along the Chambal kill gharials, dolphins and other species. Juvenile gharials are particularly susceptible to gill nets. During a field survey conducted by the NGO TigerWatch in 2009, volunteers recorded 97 fishermen catching 10-200 kg fish daily in a 110-km stretch downstream of Pali. Apart from entangling gharials and dolphins, fishing in such quantities takes away the prey from aquatic predators.
Farmers are no less an adversary. Riverbank agriculture, involving flattening of ravines with earthmovers, is altering the Chambal’s ecosystem. Thousands of these squatters have set up noisy pumps to directly extract water from the river for their agricultural plots. Oil leaks from these pumps and use of chemical fertiliser and pesticides so close to the river are now endangering the very purity of the Chambal.
Since ravines are considered wasteland, the loss of this unique habitat does not even register with the policymakers. Ravines act as flood barriers and stop aquatic animals from drifting far from the river during floods. Rapid replacement of ravines with agriculture also compromises the Chambal’s corridor value so critical for forest connectivity in the landscape.
Unfortunately, the capacity of three state forest departments to protect the NCS is woefully inadequate. The only motorised boats are available with the Madhya Pradesh forest department. In Uttar Pradesh, the recent mass transfers of the ground staff has left no experienced hands in the field. Sources in the department claim that collusion between a section of the ground staff and fishermen is making it tough to stop illegal fishing despite the best efforts of the top brass.
Rajasthan, the least equipped of the three states to protect the Chambal’s riverine ecology, has recently requisitioned a few motorised boats. When contacted, Forest Minister Bina Kak assured that she would soon shift the headquarters of her department’s Chambal unit from Sawai Madhopur to a more strategic location in Dholpur.
But effective protection will be impossible unless range offices are created for every 50-km stretch with permanent guard posts at every 10 km of the 600- km-long sanctuary. Capacity building and better infrastructure is also essential for a change in the defensive mindset. Reports of a dozen gharial deaths “with 2007-like symptoms” near Etawah in UP in the recent past has so far elicited the familiar response: denial of any crisis.
For any management input to work, the Chambal must have enough water. Since the declaration of the NCS in the early 1980s, several lift-irrigation and other developmental projects have come up in gross disregard of the law, without either Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) reports or green clearances.
Any project within 10 km of a sanctuary goes to the National Board for Wildlife for clearance. But the bypasses are many. For example, the 2008 EIA report of the Dholpur water-lift project mentioned that the lift is 18 km away from the Van Vihar sanctuary, conveniently omitting the fact that the river itself is a sanctuary. It went on to claim, “As there is no significant flora and fauna in or around Chambal river, there should also not be any ecological impacts from the increase in (water) abstraction.”
Weighing against this was a WII report that warned, “extraction of water through the proposed Dholpur lift will reduce the optimal habitat of the gharial to almost 20.5 percent and of the dolphin to almost 0 percent in the months of March and April”. Yet, the lift is in place, feeding drinking and irrigation water to places as far as Bharatpur.
Of the three major tributaries of the Chambal, the Banas already loses much of its water to dozens of irrigation projects. The proposed linking project to connect and take water from three dams — Patanpur on Parbati, Mohanpura on Newaj and Kundaliya at Kali Sindh river — to either the Gandhi Sagar or Rana Pratap Sagar reservoir will deny Chambal its other two lifelines.
In modern times, environmental water requirements are considered a compromise between water resource development and the maintenance of a river at ecologically acceptable conditions. Since different ecological functions require different flow types, a river needs a range of lean period flows, rather than a fixed minimum flow. To maintain the habitat suitability of gharials and dolphins in the Chambal, indicate WII studies, a minimum flow range of 151-266 m3/sec is necessary.
It is only fair that the mighty river that gathers more than 10 times its minimum flow requirement during monsoons is allowed its essential share during the lean months. For that, adequate quantities of water have to be released from the Kota Barrage and other dams in the Chambal basin. Given the current water deficit, no new projects — be it river-linking or lift irrigation — is viable on this river or in its basin as any additional harvesting of water will have to be compensated by releasing water from, or lowering the capacity of the existing projects.
Consigned to a policy blackhole with little public attention, the Chambal can’t expect this turnaround to come easy. The river that made good of an ancient curse may yet choke under the “blessing” that is development.