With an agreement between India and Bangladesh on sharing of Teesta river water remaining elusive, the neighbouring nation would continue to depend on thousands of cusecs of water from Ganga flowing through the Farakka barrage for irrigation and other activities.
The barrage in West Bengal, with an overhead railway line and a road, also serves the Northeast as a lifeline to its economic activities. Bangladesh is also a major stakeholder in the barrage — which was commissioned in 1975 and billed by the then government as an ‘infrastructure marvel’ of strategic importance — as it acts as a stimulator to its economy.
Dhaka and New Delhi had inked an agreement in 1996 to allow an assured supply of water for the neighbouring nation’s farm sector. The India-Bangladesh Treaty mandates India to maintain a particular level of flow of Ganga water. In fact Prime Minister Narendra Modi had, in one his speeches during his recent tour to Bangladesh, said, “Our rivers should nurture our relationship, not become a source of discord. Water sharing is, above all, a human issue. It affects life and livelihood on both sides of the border.”
The barrage is also crucial for preservation and maintenance of the Kolkata Port by improving the water regime and navigability of the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system. The increased upland supply from Ganga at Farakka into Bhagirathi reduces salinity and ensures sweet water supply to Kolkata and surrounding areas. The river system, the feeder canal and the navigation lock at Farakka form part of the Haldia-Allahabad inland waterway.
In March this year, water flowing through the barrage swept away a Gate Number-49 sending huge quantity of water into Bangladesh. It was West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who sounded the wake-up call by writing to Modi on March 18 demanding that repair works should be carried out in the barrage expressly to prevent damages to its gates. During the last five years three gates of Farakka barrage have collapsed, according to a senior official of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation.
Earlier, by the end of 12th Five Year Plan, the Farakka Barrage Project Authority had planned to replace all 123 gates and the head regulator.
However, on account of delay in approval of plan scheme of the project, the work order for replacement of 33 gates could be placed on June 25, 2013, that is after a lapse of more than a year of commencement of current plan period, according to the official.
The Authority has informed the ministry earlier this year that as per experience gained from the ongoing work, replacement of about 15 gates in a year is achievable with the existing constraints.
As of now, 14 gates have been replaced and the target is to replace another nine gates during the current financial year.
In the remaining two years of the 12th Five Year Plan, another 30 gates would likely be replaced. So the target is to replace 55 of the 123 gates.
The water resources ministry has asked the Authority to execute replacement works in a time-bound manner.
Adding to existing problems of the barrage, Union Minister of State for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Sanwar Lal Jat, informed the Lok Sabha on March 19 that the National Green Tribunal has served a notice to the government in response to a petition before it.
In their application the petitioners have claimed compensation of the order of Rs 13,101 crore per year on the pretext of damaging the environment by different water resources and hydel power projects of India. Out of this amount, Rs 3,326 crore per year has been claimed from Farakka barrage project.
The matter is under the tribunal’s consideration, he added.
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Water Resources, in its report in April this year, has held the water resources ministry responsible for spending about Rs 3.71 crore in 2012-13, Rs 4.30 crore in 2013-14 and Rs 9.4 crore in 2014-15 out of the allocated Rs 91 crore for replacement of the gates during the current plan period, which shows the sluggish manner in which the works were executed.
“The committee deprecate such attitude of the ministry in completion of work. They, therefore, desire that the work of replacement of gates should be undertaken in a time bound and target oriented manner and fix the responsibility for laxity in the matter. They also desire that immediate measures should be taken to recruit more technical manpower and be apprised accordingly,” it said in its report to the Lok Sabha.