The Gangetic Dolphin is an exclusive species, one of the only five types of river dolphins found in the whole world. India is lucky – her rivers, especially the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, are blessed with an abundance of these dolphins. Or rather, they used to be, until poachers came in and hunted them down to a pitiful 2000 (and less), over the course of the last several years.
Additionally, factors like polluted water, habitat disintegration and encroachments have also played a major role in declining the population of Gangetic Dolphins in the country.
The problem is simple. Gangetic Dolphins need saving. And the solution too looks simple. Narendra Modi’s 10-year plan for the conservation of Dolphins and their aquatic habitat – the ‘Project Gangetic Dolphin’ announced this 15th of August, 2020.
But the journey of ‘saving’ India’s Gangetic Dolphins actually goes back some couple of years, right back to 2016.
To upkeep and maintain the cleanliness of the river Ganga, the Modi government had initiated the formation of the National Ganga Council (NGC) in 2016. The primary agenda of this Council was (and still is) to work on the “protection, prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution in River Ganga and its rejuvenation to its natural and pristine condition, and to ensure continuous adequate flow of water.”
The council consists of Chief Ministers from the five states through which the Ganga flows – Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, and Bihar, as well as nine Union Ministers and the Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog. Its presiding Chairman is PM Narendra Modi himself.
The Council was also made responsible for the revival of marine life in India. And that obviously also included the revival of the Gangetic River Dolphins, one of the oldest creatures in the world as per the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
Here’s an interesting fact about the Gangetic Dolphins: they are blind. They can only sustain themselves in freshwater, and due to their lack of vision, they are forced to catch their prey using ultrasonic sound waves.
So what happens to them when there is increased human encroachment on water resources, habitat fragmentation due to dams and fishing, and consequent life-risk from direct killing? You’re right. They find it difficult to sustain themselves anymore. They might eventually become extinct.
Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened. According to the WWF, these Dolphins had their initial habitats in the rivers of Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Bihar. But as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), they currently fall under the “endangered species” category.
All of which leads us to the questions, what has the National Ganga Council been doing since 2016? What were their achievements in the last four years? And how much of the natural habitat of our Gangetic Dolphins were they able to revive?
An RTI filed in 2019 revealed some astonishing facts. Until the mid of 2019, the NGC had not even met once in more than two years of their functioning. As per the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, they had to hold one, or more meetings, every year, at their discretion. Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and parliamentary committee also raised concerns about the government’s promise to clean ganga.
The council finally met for the first time in December 2019.
Should we be concerned about the Government’s glorious new ‘Project Dolphin’ then? The answer probably isn’t a yes. It is, why shouldn’t we?
It so happens that the NGC was just one of the many initiatives the Government had put in place in an effort to protect the Dolphins of India. Some of the other efforts to preserve and increase their population include the Conservation Action Plan for the Gangetic Dolphin (2010-2020), which is responsible to work on mitigating the threats faced by these dolphins (such as river traffic, water contamination, polluted irrigation canals, and depletion of their prey).
What more, the Gangetic Dolphins had also been included in Schedule-1 of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, meaning they were assigned the highest degree of protection against animal hunting.
A data between January and March 2018, reported 962 Gangetic Dolphins in Assam have 962 Gangetic Dolphins and 1275 in UP. The Gangetic Dolphin is also Assam’s state aquatic animal. The government made a positive move for protecting the Dolphins in Assam, by prohibiting sand lifting from rivers, a measure that has helped their already diminishing population.
Under these circumstances, it is hard for us to believe in the new ‘Project Dolphin’ of the Government of India. Even though Dolphins have been assigned utmost protection in our country, time and again, the ground reality remains that a lack of rigorous intervention has resulted in them becoming an endangered species.
For Project Dolphin to become a success, the government has to take exactly the same course, as it took in Project Tiger. Mobilizing the local communities, coming up with clear timelines, global collaboration, capacity building and adopting robust implementation mechanisms can only create a sustainable habitat for the dolphins.
Not to forget, improved political will for reviving the complete Ganga ecosystem, will play a determining role. Otherwise, Project Dolphin will continue to remain a grand Independence Day announcement and an ambitious conservation scheme on papers.
(Both the authors work with the research and communications team at SDC Foundation. Upasana tweets at @upasanaray1)