One of the last remaining rivers of the Great Ganges River System, the Chambal runs a course of 965km till it meets the Yamuna. Relatively unpolluted, this river harbors not just the largest population of critically endangered gharials in the world but also boasts a high density of the elusive and endangered gangetic dolphin. Even so, over 150 irrigation projects dot the Chambal basin and are compounded by four major hydroelectric projects that were initiated in the 1970s. Recognizing the ecological fragility of the river system, the Standing Committee of the country’s apex board for wildlife, the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), recommended a final three project proposal near protected areas on the Chambal in 2011 on the condition that no new projects on the river would be considered in the future. Yet, barely two years down the line, a proposal for the “construction of intake well near left bank of Chambal river at Kota barrage reservoir which falling in National Chambal Ghariyal Sanctuary Rajasthan” (sic) was presented to the Standing Committee in its 28th meeting held on 20 March 2013. The proposal was rejected by the Committee in view of not just the earlier decision, but also on the basis of a report submitted by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) regarding water intake from the Chambal. However, the proposal was up for reconsideration in the June 2013 meeting of the Standing Committee and sources say that it is on the agenda for the next meeting as well.
The enigmatic, fish-eating gharial has a long and sordid conservation history. In the 1940’s, an estimated 5,000 – 10,000 gharials occupied the Gangetic river system but by the early 70’s their numbers had plummeted to barely 200 individuals. A few years later, in 1975, the government swung into action creating Project Crocodile. Through this, six gharial sanctuaries and 16 ‘rearing – centres’ were set up. Over the next 17 years, 5,000 captive bred gharials were released into the wild and in 1996, Project Crocodile was labeled a success and all funding was withdrawn. Yet, with inadequate protection and monitoring, the gharial population crashed again. In 2006, it was estimated that fewer than 250 breeding adults remained across fragmented habitats and the following year, the gharial was listed as a critically endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). To put it simply, the gharial population has declined by approximately 98 percent in the last 60 years.
The Chambal river that holds 48 percent of the total gharial population is under much stress from habitat destruction, even though a 600km stretch of the river between Jawahar Sagar dam in Rajasthan and Panchhanada in Uttar Pradesh has been declared the National Chambal Sanctuary. The Gharial Conservation Alliance (GCA), an international organisation dedicated to saving gharials from extinction, names habitat destruction and death through illegal fishing as the most significant threats to the survival of this reptile. On their website they highlight the damage caused, writing, “Dams, barrages and irrigation projects are changing the course and water level of the rivers. In some areas, diversion of rivers and extraction of water for irrigation have drastically lowered river levels, making some former habitats now inhospitable for gharials, especially during the dry season. In some areas, the release of monsoon overflow water from dams, or the release of water for dam maintenance, has a devastating tidal-wave like effect on gharials. Many gharials are washed out of Protected Areas by these floodwaters, where they are more likely to be killed, and are sometimes washed all the way out to sea. This is thought to be a significant source of mortality in hatchling gharials.”
A report submitted by the Wildlife Institute of India to the NBWL in 2011 validates the GCA’s claims. In the course of the study, the authors found that the minimum water flow requirement for long-term survival of gharials is 164.34 m3/sec and for dolphin it is 289.67 m3/sec. At present, this flow is available only during the months of July to October for gharial and July to September for dolphins in the river stretch between Dholpur and Panchhnada. The report further states, “The period of reduced availability of flow also corresponds to the breeding season of gharial. As the suitable habitat at present is already compromised by 50 percent or less in lean months, further drawl of water will negatively impact the habitat suitability for gharial and dolphin significantly.”
The applicant agency requesting the construction of the intake well, promotes the proposal as a project of public interest as there is an acute water shortage in the ‘remote area’ of Kota city. Yet, the Kota Barrage already extracts massive volumes of water from the Chambal, so much so, that the discharge downstream after the barrage is zero in the lean season. Further, the use of water for drinking and industrial purposes has increased three fold even though water extraction for irrigation has decreased by 22 percent in Rajasthan. It is important to note that whilst the project proponent has mentioned water shortage as the reason to construct the intake well, it has not specified whether the water is for industrial or drinking purposes. For the record, Kota is one of northern India’s largest industrial hubs.
The minutes of the 28th meeting of the standing committee clearly note the dissent of several non-official members. Though the Chief Wildlife Warden of Rajasthan backs the project, committee members MD Madhusudan, Prerna Bindra, Dr M K Ranjitsinh and Kishore Rithe – were all recorded to have expressed deep concern as to the exploitation of the river. In lieu of their views, the proposal was rejected. They reiterated the recommendation of the WII, itself an autonomous body under the MoEF that concluded, “… any further abstraction of water would adversely impact the conservation of the two major vertebrate species the “Critically Endangered” gharial and the Gangetic dolphin which has also been designated as ‘national aquatic animal’.” Conservationists are now hoping that Board members stick to this precedent and continue to reject proposals on the Chambal River.
Whilst the fate of the gharial, the gangetic dolphin and the dozens of denizens of the Indian wild are decided in Ministry boardrooms, there is some good news from the field. In the first week of June, the efforts of the Uttar Pradesh Forest Department paid off and 55 gharial nests that were protected around the clock, yielded dozens of hatchlings. Pictures shared by the Forest Department show glassy eyed, vulnerable, baby gharials barely 6-inches long, protected zealously by both mother and father. Some experts though, argue that egg protection is a minor part of gharial conservation. In an article for Conservation India, conservation biologist Tarun Nair notes, “Egg collection and rear-and-release programmes are touted as a panacea to gharial conservation challenges, attract favourable media attention and hence are popular management interventions. While these strategies hope to address hatchling and juvenile mortality, they do not address current threats to gharial populations that are primarily from hydrologic diversions, sand mining, fishing and riverside cultivation.”
Sure enough, Forest officials have done all they can to bring the hatchlings to this point. As to their continued survival? It depends on the protection of their river.