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The Gangetic river dolphins are dying a slow death in the Kulshi river of Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district
The Gangetic river dolphins are dying a slow death in the Kulshi river of Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district|Representational image | Wikipedia
DOCUMENTARY

Assam’s river dolphins are in distress, but who’s to blame?

Once a thriving population, the endangered mammals are under threat; illegal sand mining, disposal of industrial effluents, unplanned growth reportedly behind decline

Jayanta K Goswami

Jayanta K Goswami

Guwahati: Assam’s Kulshi river, one of the few remaining habitats of the endangered Ganges river dolphins, is under threat. As if illegal and unscientific sand mining on the river bed was not enough, the construction of a boundary wall at the integrated consumer goods manufacturing and logistics facility of ITC Ltd located at Bortejpur in Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district is leaving the aquatic mammals gasping for breath, quite literally.

From about 40 in 2016 -- as per reports (as no official study as been conducted in recent times) -- the number of river dolphins has come down drastically, with some local residents saying they hardly get to see any in the area now.

A prominent southern tributary of the river Brahmaputra, the Kulshi river is quietly bearing the brunt of unplanned urban development, say experts.

This photo shows how a boundary wall constructed by the ITC has impacted the flow of Kulshi river over time
This photo shows how a boundary wall constructed by the ITC has impacted the flow of Kulshi river over time
EastMojo image

In the past, unscientific mining has triggered erosion on the either banks of the river at various places. Pressure on the river is alarmingly on the rise due to its sand quality and growing demand for sand. The use of suction machines in some sand storage zones of the river bed to extract the minor mineral has made matters worse.

The integrated consumer goods manufacturing and logistics facility of ITC Ltd located at Bortejpur in Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district
The integrated consumer goods manufacturing and logistics facility of ITC Ltd located at Bortejpur in Assam’s Kamrup (rural) district
EastMojo image

Wall of contention

The latest flash point is the construction of a boundary wall at the integrated consumer goods manufacturing and logistics facility of ITC near the river that is allegedly posing a serious threat to the existence of dolphins in Kulshi river. Locals along with environmentalists just have one question in their mind -- how did the management of the company get environmental clearance to build the wall near the habitat of a critically endangered mammal species?

Environment experts feel that the wall constructed by the ITC has adversely affected the dolphin habitats in the Kulshi river
Environment experts feel that the wall constructed by the ITC has adversely affected the dolphin habitats in the Kulshi river
EastMojo image
The controversial  wall continues to be built despite repeated protests from various sections of society
The controversial wall continues to be built despite repeated protests from various sections of society
EastMojo image
Villagers further allege that industrial effluents are being discharged into the Kulshi river causing water pollution. In this picture, one can see some wooden planks allegedly being used to ‘cover up’ the flow
Villagers further allege that industrial effluents are being discharged into the Kulshi river causing water pollution. In this picture, one can see some wooden planks allegedly being used to ‘cover up’ the flow
EastMojo image

Illegal excavation of farmers’ agricultural lands by the company’s management to fill up their own land, among other reasons, have also added fuel to the fire. “It’s a crime to society. This will cause massive ecological imbalance in the entire area. Such invasion of big industrial houses in the name of industrialisation has definitely affected our environment. There is no one in the state machinery to raise their voice against it,” a leading environmentalist of the area alleged.

“Previously on two occasions, we saw unnatural death of Kulshi river fish. This was probably due to the industrial waste released by the companies into the river. Right to environment should be considered as a fundamental right. This river is our property. No company has the right to ruin the ecological balance of the river,” said the environmentalist, adding: “We appeal to the people of the world to raise their voice against such industrial invasion, which has posed a threat to the rare river dolphins available in Kulshi river in Assam.”

The water of Kulshi river is getting polluted over the years. Water turbidity of the river has increased. Ventilating deep shock over the deterioration of water quality and cavalier attitude of the government, fishers blamed the nearby industrial unit. “Water in Kulshi river here used to be crystal clear. Presence of dolphin substantiates it. Now, quality deteriorates,” Krishna Das, a social worker in the locality, said.

EastMojo conducted a test of two water samples collected from Kulshi river at IIT Guwahati. Of the two samples, one was collected from the upper stream of the river while the other was collected from turbid-mix water of the river. This turbid-mix water, villagers allege, is nothing but the waste material coming out of the industrial units into Kulshi river.

Commenting on the alleged pollution caused by the industrial units at Kulshi river, Chandan Mahanta, HoD, Department of Civil Engineering, IIT Guwahati, said, “As a habitat for rare river dolphins, Kulshi river is extremely important. We need to protect and conserve it. It is quite visible that due to population, increasing industrialisation, etc, there are threats to the river and it is not unnatural that water may get contaminated which may affect the dolphins. So it is necessary that we should keep monitoring the water quality, how it is affecting the dolphin habitats, is there any mortality suddenly going up in rapid manner. It is the responsibility of the people to look at that. Hopefully, with all the effort by the local people as well as the scientific community Kulshi river will be protected as a good habitat of dolphins.”

Reacting to the water samples test, carried out at the Centre of Environment, IIT Guwahati, IIT experts on condition of anonymity claimed that the water samples submitted by EastMojo, is very much within the safe zone standard set by the government.

Criticising the limit of safe zone standard maintained by the government, experts at IIT-G believe that if this trend continued in Kulshi river for the next 10 to 15 years, the river along with all its aquatic animals will be vanished.

“Once the government-set standard is crossed, then only we can raise voice officially. But at that moment, we won’t get back the river and so are the aquatic animals. Bharalu river is the perfect example in this connection. For a clean river like Kulshi, there should not be any rise in parameters like Suspended Solids (mg/l), BOD (mg/l), COD (mg/l). Right now, we can’t say anything because it’s very much within the set standard. Once it crosses the government set standard, we will raise our voice but till that moment Kulshi and its aquatic animals will be history,” sources added.

Meanwhile, reacting to the allegations made against the company, the ITC spokesperson through an email told EastMojo, “ITC has complied with all laws and regulations to build the world-class Integrated Consumer Goods Manufacturing and Logistics facility at Rampur in Assam, which has contributed to the state’s food processing and allied sector, whilst generating large-scale sustainable livelihood opportunities. The landmark project by multi-business Indian enterprise ITC is a benchmark in environmental stewardship and is a symbol of Assam’s industrial resurgence.”

In the graphic above, swipe left or right to see how the bank of the Kulshi river changed before and after the construction of the boundary wall by the ITC -- 2015 (left) and 2019 (right)

Meanwhile, Google Earth satellite imagery of the location dating back to five years ago clearly shows that the wall was constructed on the river bank. Latest visuals by EastMojo team also document the current course of the river matching with how it flowed before the factory was constructed.

Meanwhile, Kamal Kumar Baishya, DC, Kamrup (Rural), said that a survey was conducted and the survey report says that the Kulshi river has changed its course over the years and because of this, it seems that the ITC wall was constructed on the river. “The land lawfully belongs to ITC and the river, after changing its course, moved towards this land and, now, it looks like part of river Kulshi. However, if the wall is affecting the course of the river flow, steps will definitely be taken,” Baishya said, adding: I have already asked the additional DC to enquire into the matter. Meanwhile, the ADC concerned is looking at all the technicalities involved. I can’t say, at this moment if the river dolphins are directly affected due to this wall; but if they are then necessary steps will be taken, he said.

Regarding the villagers allegations that the waste materials coming out of the industries pollute the Kulshi river water, the DC Kamrup (Rural) said that they have not received any such complaint so far. “Once we receive such complaints we will definitely work on it.”

While talking to <i>EastMojo</i>, Kamrup (Rural) DC Kamal Kumar Baishya assured people that if the construction of the ITC wall has affected the river dolphins in the area, necessary steps would be taken for protection of the rare animals
While talking to EastMojo, Kamrup (Rural) DC Kamal Kumar Baishya assured people that if the construction of the ITC wall has affected the river dolphins in the area, necessary steps would be taken for protection of the rare animals
EastMojo image

Unscientific sand mining creating havoc for dolphins

One of the most alarming developments in case of diminishing number of river dolphins in the area is the depletion of water levels in the river.

People in the locality attributed the cause of depletion of water levels in the river to exploitative sand mining from the river bed. Unscientific mining has triggered erosion on the either banks at various parts. Pressure on the river is alarmingly on the rise due to its sand quality and growing demand of sand.

People in the locality attribute the cause of depletion of water levels in the river to exploitative sand mining from the riverbed
People in the locality attribute the cause of depletion of water levels in the river to exploitative sand mining from the riverbed
EastMojo image

The use of suction machines in some sand storage zones of the river bed to extract the minor mineral has made the matter worse.

“Some miners use machine to extract huge volume of sand within short period of time. They don’t use machine everywhere. Mechanized mining is carried out in the interior stretch of the river,” residents alleged.

This river is the lifeline for some 200 villages as their primary source of water, fish and construction grade sand. With its close proximity to Guwahati, where real estate development is on the rise, there is pressure on the Kulshi. Rising demands make sand miners plunder the riverbed.

Notably, for manual mining in the river bed, proper approval from the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a must. “Manual mining is not detrimental. Mechanized mining is taking toll on the rivers,” villagers said.

Further, mechanised mining leads water wastage of the river as with sand water is automatically pumped out. Sand is one of the ingredients of river ecosystem. In small tributaries, unsustainable sand extraction can have adverse effect on the integrity of aquatic ecosystem, said experts.

According to scientists, no doubt sand accumulation in river bed reduces depth of river and causes frequent floods. But proper dredging of sand is required to keep the river bed at proper level, scientists say.

Meanwhile, expressing displeasure over the unabated mechanized sand mining in the river, people in the locality alleged that a big racket involving officers in the state administration is directly involved in it.

“Unabated mechanised sand mining in the river is an open secret here. But nobody officially takes steps to prevent it. It’s really unfortunate that everything is being carried out under the very nose of the state forest department and the district administration,” Sailen Talukdar, a local students’ leader alleged.

Railway construction works hindering movement of mammal

It is also alleged that the ongoing construction of the bridge over the river on NH-37 at Kukurmara by Northeast Frontier (NF) Railway has hindered the uninterrupted movement of the mammal.

The course of the river has almost allegedly been blocked except two canals following the silt accumulation at the construction site.

The ongoing construction of a bridge over river on NH-37 at Kukurmara by NF Railway has allegedly hindered the uninterrupted movement of the mammals
The ongoing construction of a bridge over river on NH-37 at Kukurmara by NF Railway has allegedly hindered the uninterrupted movement of the mammals
EastMojo Image

“Migration in search of food stuff is a daily phenomenon for dolphins. But migration of dolphins has come to a halt as the river has become too shallow at the construction site to felicitate the movement of the mammal,” Umesh Kalita, a college teacher alleged.

Drastic depletion of water level, dying water flow, water pollution and dwindling fish population have sounded the death knell of the river’s prized possession, dolphin, world’s most endangered mammal.

Water turbidity of Kulshi river has increased over the years, villagers allege
Water turbidity of Kulshi river has increased over the years, villagers allege
EastMojo image

Experts, locals express concern over issue

The villagers who hold dolphin in high esteem rued with heavy heart that sighting of the mammal in the river has become a rarity since last year. Now, hours-long wait in the dolphin’s favourite site ends up in frustration.

Pointing to the 3-km stretch of the river in Kukurmara, Kalipad Das (40), a local fisherman, lamented: “Schools of dolphins, consisting of 15 to 20, used to play in Boloband area of the river. But the number has plummeted to two in the same area.” This is for the first time Kalipad and of his ilk has witnessed such a dismal scenario in the river bed.

When asked, Kalipad readily contributed the disappearance of the aquatic predator to the acute crisis of fish in the river. Dolphin requires 40 % foodstuff of its body weight. Abundance of fish made the river an ideal abode. “Fish population is depleting. Fisher folks who source their livelihood from the river can no longer capture fish in kilogram in a whole day,” Kalipad informed and added that the starving mammal has migrated to the main course of Brahmaputra river.

“The river dolphins are slowly vanishing because of the degradation of environment. Government is busy bringing more companies here rather than focusing on environment. Kulshi river is dying yet the government is unfazed,” regretted Umesh Kalita, a college teacher.

Experts say, dry season in between January and June is the maximum breeding period. Diet crisis during the gestation period may put the pregnant female in peril. Female gives birth to only a single calf in every two or three years.

What is tiger to the terrestrial ecosystem, river dolphin is to the aquatic ecosystem. Known as indicator species, they ensure balance in the river ecology. Its presence in the river is reflective of sound aquatic ecosystem. Also, their presence helps other species to sustain.

Kulshi river originates from the West Khashi hill ranges at an elevation of around 1800-1900 meter. It travels 100 km down to the north and enters Assam at Ukiam. From Ukiam, the river flows about 50 km and bifurcates at Kulshi village into three branch streams. The three streams take westerly course and converge at Chamaria village. Finally, after traversing 120 km, Kulshi meets Brahamaputra at Bahati near Nagarbera.

Tapash Das, who has rowed country boat for over 10 years, told EastMojo that playful pods of dolphins were very much in evidence. “We used to make quick buck from the visiting tourists. Both the number of dolphins and tourists have dwindled this year,” Tapash said. During the month of February and March, 20 to 25 dolphins are frequently sighted in the river confluence where they can catch fish with ease due to eddy counter current. There are such two confluence zones known as Domukha and Janarmukh.

Krishna Das said, “There is adequate depth and prey in the two confluences where dolphins are spotted. With the construction of the concreted wall by ITC, dolphins deserted the site of Domukha.” Domukha is the outfall of Batha river and channel of Chal Beel.

Villagers, who hold dolphins in high esteem, rued with heavy heart that sighting of the mammal in the river has become a rarity since last year
Villagers, who hold dolphins in high esteem, rued with heavy heart that sighting of the mammal in the river has become a rarity since last year
EastMojo image

On January 23, in 2017, a pregnant dolphin died of labour pain complications in Kulshi river. According to wildlife veterinary expert, death of wild creature due to dystocia (difficult birth caused by an awkwardly positioned fetus) is rare. In the necropsy findings, a fully grown dead male fetus was found to stuck in the birth canal in posterior presentation.

It is worthwhile to note that uncontrolled development was one of the causes of the extinction of The Yangtze River Dolphin Lipotes vexillifer in China.

All the detrimental to the habitat are going on unabated under the very nose of Kamrup West Forest division. Officials of the division prefer turning a blind eye to such menace to the dolphin. “It is beyond our comprehension how such destructive activities can go under the very eyes of forest officials,” fishers wondered.

People made it clear that they are not against development. But development at the cost of dolphins and its habitat is not wanted. Moreover, airing deep anguish over the alleged government lethargy to the protection of the habitat, nature lovers fumed saying if flagship programme like tiger project can be launched to protect nation’s national animal, Royal Bengal Tiger, why the fresh water river dolphin, India’s national and Assam’s state aquatic animal, is left to vanish?