Of Dams, Dacoits And Death – The Saga Of The Chambal Gharials
June 2011: Emerging from the northern slopes of the Vindhyan escarpment, the Chambal river is undisputedly the last bastion of the gharial, harbouring its most significant remaining breeding populations. However, it is not without its own share of peril.
Sitting at the bow with Kaptan Singh at the stern, I was finally afloat on the Chambal after having spent a greater part of the month waiting out the peak winter fog, fixing a leaky tin boat and finding a willing field assistant-cum-oarsman. We were both a little undecided on how trustworthy our boat was and realising that neither of us were particularly adept at rowing or swimming, we quickly donned our life-jackets on our first trial run, trying to row in tandem without flipping the craft over. After proceeding under the bridge and its filthy precincts at Rajghat on our way up-river, we were finally treated to the legendary backdrop of the Chambal – sandy beaches, ochre-red sandstone cliffs and the maze of ravines alternating on either side of the river. But our joy was soon replaced with the arrival of a train of tractors playing a medley of raucous songs and squabbling over sand-mining rights. It was a stark reminder of the pressures facing this river and of things to come in the following months. Although designated as a Protected Area (PA), the National Chambal Sanctuary is under siege from a range of human activities, the violent disposition of locals and unexplained population collapses in the past.
The Chambal riverscape has suffered greatly due to the construction of dams and the diversion of river water for irrigation. The presence of over 200 irrigation projects and four major dams in the Chambal Basin has severely reduced water levels and the river does not flow below the Kota barrage for most of the year. These notwithstanding, 52 irrigation projects are under construction and 376 projects have been planned in the basin. Two major tributaries, the Parbati and Kali Sindh, are the main sources of water flowing in the Chambal in the downstream section. However, the new Parbati-Kali Sindh-Chambal Link proposes to divert the ‘surplus’ waters of the Parbati, Newaj and Kalisindh rivers to the Gandhisagar/Rana Pratap Sagar Dam on the Chambal. This will now deny the Chambal whatever water it receives from these tributaries. On the other hand, in the past, erratic water releases have inundated several nesting sites and washed away gharials and other wildlife outside the sanctuary.
Despite having read and heard of the water crisis on the Chambal, I never did comprehend the urgency of the situation until our boat ran aground mid-river and necessitated a role reversal. Instead of being transported by the boat, we now found ourselves carrying the boat around at almost every bend in the river. For a rowboat, with a draft of under a foot, to flounder clearly meant that the river was no longer a functional, single body of water. Gharials and river dolphins can no longer move, unhindered, along the length of the river, and are left to bide their time in a series of isolated pools, awaiting the next monsoon.
This is when they are most vulnerable to gill-net and dynamite fishing. These shallow, sandy stretches are also subject to constant human presence and disturbance, having been usurped for riverside cultivation and sand-mining. Additionally, prime-nesting sites on mid-river islands and sandbars become more accessible, resulting in increased nest destruction and hatchling mortality, from feral dog predation and cattle trampling. And in the face of increasing proposals for water extraction and impoundments on the Chambal and nation-wide river-linking aspirations, the above threats will only be exacerbated.
A CROCODILE CURIOUS
The gharial Gavialis gangeticus is a unique crocodilian, characterised by its long, thin snout and the bulbous ‘ghara’ at the end of the male’s snout. It is a specialist fish-eater, the most aquatic, and arguably the largest of all living reptiles, along with saltwater crocodiles. Endemic to the Indian subcontinent, it was once common in the river systems of Pakistan, northern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal. However, they are now restricted to a few, scattered locations in India and Nepal. It is becoming increasingly rare due to land-use changes, loss of nesting sites, increased mortality in fishing nets, egg-collection for consumption, livestock disturbances and is especially at risk from flow regulation because it prefers fast-flowing river habitats, which are prime sites for dams.
A VIOLENT PAST
Not only was the Chambal conducive to gharials but the lay of the land also served as a veritable bulwark for brigands. The Chambal badlands have had a tradition of dacoity – from the famous Chinese traveller, Huen Tsang who was reported to have been robbed here in the 7th Century; and the Rajputs who sought refuge in the ravines, from the invading Mughals, ambushing and plundering from here; to the several political fugitives, rebels and outlaws who have since sheltered and operated out of here. And their motives have been as varied as the characters themselves – feudalism, hegemony, social insecurity, revenge, honour-killing, discordant family conditions and a combination of badlands and repeated drought. The locals’ flair for violence continues today, for reasons driven by choice rather than chance.
We were treated to some of this local flavour on several occasions – while one man attempted to steal our life-jackets, another group of youngsters managed to sink our boat in the shallows. And all the while, people demanded free boat-rides! The perpetrators always threatened to either shoot or drown us every time we resisted or protested. And with guns slung across almost every man’s shoulder, there was no reason to disbelieve them. These and other such incidents were quite disconcerting and we reinforced our ranks with Kaptan’s nephew, Jagdish, whose yesteryear training as a wrestler held us in good stead.
This infamy of the Chambal has often been credited with having kept the region relatively undisturbed by development. However, today’s dacoits are party to the plunder, revelling in extortion and ransom. Their menacing presence is a source of constant harassment for enforcement personnel and researchers alike. The resultant absence of a watchful eye over the sanctuary allows mafias engaged in sand-mining, fishing and turtle poaching to hold sway.
By the mid-1990s the Central Government decided that Project Crocodile had served its purpose and withdrew all funds. This effectively dismantled the protection mechanism of the local Forest Department and no significant surveys or studies ensued in the following years. Predictably, things took a turn for the worse. Surveys between 2003 and 2006 revealed less than 250 breeding adults in the wild. Official estimates show that the Chambal population crashed from 1,289 to 514 in a span of five years. This was the first of the dramatic population declines, resulting in a status change to ‘Critically Endangered’. And to twist the knife in the gharials’ already gaping wounds, over 100 gharial perished between late 2007 and early 2008 in a mystery die-off in the Chambal that mostly affected large immature and adult animals. The causes of this catastrophe remain unknown, but it is believed that a nephro-toxin was responsible.
THE CURRENT SCENARIO
Worryingly, voices from within the official machinery call it a department-in-denial, and mention attempts to cover-up previous die-offs. Even when we reported a gharial drowned in a gill-net, the veterinarian chose to unearth a few lung worms and pass it off as a natural death. The Chambal and its residents continue to be threatened by a plethora of reasons, the most serious being the insatiable demand for its water, fish and sand. Aside from vying to drain the river dry, the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh which administer the Chambal, have shown no interest in either understanding or acknowledging the ecological importance of this river. It is the last remnant river in the greater Gangetic Drainage Basin, which still retains significant conservation values, and is a key repository for a long list of other threatened fauna – Ganges river dolphins, marsh crocodiles, crowned river turtles, three-striped and red-crowned roofed turtles, Indian narrow-headed and peacock soft-shell turtles, Indian Skimmers, Black-bellied Terns, Sarus Cranes, Long-billed, White-backed and Red-headed Vultures, giant freshwater stingrays and mahseer, among others. Riparian habitats are among the most densely human-populated and modified areas. And subsequently, riverine biodiversity are also amongst the most threatened. The gharials’ fate is symbolic of the dilemma facing all riverine taxa and unless issues of riverscape integrity are addressed we will lose these enigmatic, endangered creatures and in the process, compromise the water security of dependant people.
Surveys in the early 1970’s by J.C. Daniel, S. Biswas, Rom Whitaker and D. Basu, among others, reported less than 200 individuals, revealing the precarious situation of the gharial. In fact, by 1973, it was realised that all three species of Indian crocodilians were facing a severe population decline. The enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972 followed by the initiation of Project Crocodile in 1975 by the Government of India in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation helped stem this decline. The period between then and the early 1990’s witnessed several surveys, ecological and behavioural studies and captive-breeding projects. A number of PAs, including the National Chambal Sanctuary, were established and over 5,000 captive-reared gharial were released in this period. Project Crocodile was declared amongst the most successful conservation initiatives.
ECOLOGICAL IMPACTS OF THE PROPOSED KANERA LIFT IRRIGATION SCHEME
The Kanera Lift Irrigation Scheme on the Chambal river at Kanera, District Bhind, Madhya Pradesh has been proposed in an area that is one of the few breeding sites of the critically endangered gharial. It is also home to the Gangetic dolphin, marsh crocodile and several migratory and resident birds. Approach roads and pipelines have been proposed adjacent to ravines and thorn forests that harbour wolves, caracals, civets and more. According to a study report by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) in 2010, “The construction of pillars, the intake well and the jack well will adversely affect the river bed and the sand bar directly; are likely to change the river morphology, which will affect the gharial nesting beaches and enhance sedimentation in the downstream. If these projects become operational, there will be no flow in the river and there will be deficit in water availability in the downstream.” The flow regime of the river has already shown a declining trend in the last two decades and resulted in isolated sub-populations of gharials and dolphins. A second report by WII in 2011 further adds: “The minimum flow requirement for long term survival of gharials is 164.34 m3/sec and for dolphins 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 dolphin in the river stretch between Dholpur and Panchhnada. The period of reduced availability of flow also corresponds to the gharial breeding season. As the suitable habitat at present is already compromised by 50 per cent or less in lean months, further withdrawal of water will negatively impact the habitat suitability for gharial and dolphins significantly. The minimum flow requirement for long term survival of gharials and dolphin could be achieved if flow from Kota barrage and other subsidiary dams in the Chambal basin is restored.”
by Tarun Nair