Villagers navigate the floodwaters of the Ganga after heavy rains in Patna district (Photos: Reuters)
GURUGRAM-BASED PRIYARANJAN, whose family lives in Gaya district of Bihar, no longer worries about his kin in the drought-prone region getting access to drinking water. They now receive it round-the-clock from the Ganga. The water, which is collected from the floodwaters up north, is carried through pipes, stored in newly created reservoirs, then treated before the water is transported to districts such as Gaya, under which fall religious centres of importance to both Hinduism and Buddhism. Treated water also reaches cities such as Rajgir in Nalanda district. Like Bodh Gaya in Gaya district where Buddha is known to have attained enlightenment beneath the sacred Bodhi tree, Rajgir is famous for its caves, ruins, inscriptions, and forts considered holy by the Buddhists, besides Hindu and Jain temples and Muslim tombs. In Gaya, Vishnupad temple, which lies on one bank of the Falgu River, and Sitakund, on the other, are important pilgrimage and tourist spots for the Hindus.
All this was made possible thanks to an imaginative project named Ganga Jal Aapoorti Scheme, launched in February 2019, to turn adversity into opportunity in a state notorious for floods, especially in the northern districts, and for drought, mostly in the southern belt. The idea was to store excess floodwater of the Ganga for use in areas with huge water scarcity. In the process, the ₹4,472-crore scheme has helped raise rapidly declining water tables in some parts of the state, apart from supplying drinking water to select areas that are part of its first phase. The second phase will cover the Nawada district, which was once the seat of the Magadha, Shunga, and Gupta empires, an official close to the matter told Open. He said that this new scheme is meant to address the estimated demand for water in the water-scarce areas of Bihar by 2051. This scheme is part of the ambitious, ₹24,000-crore Jal Jeevan Hariyali campaign of the Bihar government that envisages revving up the agriculture sector in the state which employs 80 per cent of the population. The eastern state, interestingly, is the fourth-largest producer of vegetables and the eighth-largest producer of fruits.
Meanwhile, the Ganga Jal Aapoorti Scheme, which is also referred to as the ‘Har Ghar Ganga Jal’ programme, is expected to provide enough and more water for millions of residents as well as tourists that flock to these destinations every year. The government expects the measure to enhance its tourism potential and make travel to these spots a smooth experience.
Explains Sanjay Kumar Jha, minister of water resources in the state: “Bihar faces a double whammy of floods and water scarcity. While cities in the north are flooded during the rains, there is a huge scarcity in townships of the south in summer. This project addresses both problems in one go. What else would describe the Herculean task of lifting the Ganga water upwards—from plains to the hills? We have heard of the Ganga descending from the mountains to the hills, but thanks to our resolve and an extraordinary engineering feat, we see the reverse being achieved.”
That is indeed an evocative statement.
The idea and its successful implementation deserve applause, especially because the government has considered an estimated footfall in the region covered by this scheme. The scheme also expects to meet sustainable development goals through this initiative, says an official close to the ideation and execution of the plan.
This key project transports water that is lifted from the Ganga by constructing an “intake well-cum-pump house” at Hathidah Mokama in Patna district. Water is then stored in reservoirs at three locations—Rajgir, along with Tetar, and Abgila, in Gaya district. Water treatment is done at plants in Rajgir, Gaya, and Nawada. So far, Rajgir, Gaya, and Bodh Gaya have been covered by the scheme. The government says the Nawada phase of the programme will be completed by the end of this year.
The thought of such a grand plan was born out of necessity. Climate change had wreaked havoc in the regions now being connected via the project. Groundwater levels had plummeted and the drinking water crisis had become a curse of menacing proportions. According to the records of the Central Ground Water Board, the level of groundwater near Chandchaura Chowk of Gaya city had decreased by 0.52 metres in the year 2019-20. The groundwater level in Rajgir had fallen by 5.06 metres in the last decade, according to official data. Compounding these odds, rivers here invariably remain dry most of the year. Average rainfall, too, had slid. As a result, pilgrimages to the region became a study in hardship with increasing water shortages. Overseas pilgrims had begun to show reluctance in visiting Bihar.
Jha talks about the programme’s genesis: “While chairing the December 2019 cabinet meeting in Gaya, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had spelled out his grand vision of addressing the long-pending drinking water needs of these ‘Buddhist circuit’ townships. What followed was a long spell of challenge, but a firm commitment to rolling out this project expeditiously.”
According to the government, at the start of the project in 2019, a tributary of the Ganga at Athmal Gola in Patna was chosen as the “intake point” but later, the plan was changed. The state officials contend that they had to overcome logistical nightmares that included the acquisition of land, forest clearance, and building of new infrastructure, among others, to complete the ambitious undertaking. That this is a first-of-its-kind project added to the chaos, but in the end, they managed to succeed, assert officials, who are glad to flaunt the scheme as an environment-friendly one. So is the rubber dam along the Falgu River which uses very few mechanical parts, due to which there is hardly any use of lubricants. Officials tell Open that a 411m-long steel footbridge has been constructed over the rubber dam to connect the left and right banks of the river for devotees to walk easily from Vishnupad Ghat to Sitakund.
State officials that Open spoke to are confident that the success of this project means that similar projects can be undertaken at old reservoirs in south Bihar.
Jha reiterates, “Ganga Jal Apoorti Yojana is a first-of-its-kind project in the country where surplus floodwater from the Ganga is pumped to water-stressed cities and used as drinking water. It was a dream of Shri Nitish Kumar to convert the floodwater of Ganga into potable water for the cities that have no access to the water of the holy river, which has now become a reality.”
The minister, who also has additional responsibilities in the Nitish Kumar cabinet, goes on to argue that Bihar has taken a lead on many unique development and sustainability projects. “Our passion drives our creativity, while a deep commitment to nurturing nature leads us to harness the best that we have while ensuring a sustainable tomorrow. The Ganga Jal Apoorti Yojana and Jal Jeevan Hariyali Mission are some of our finest achievements,” he emphasises.
While the residents of Bodh Gaya and Rajbir are thrilled about the water from the Ganga coming out of their water taps, others in southern Bihar are waiting their turn to be linked to the project. Kumar Vikas, a journalist based in the Haspura area of the Aurangabad district, notes that no such project has been announced for his area, which he says is one of the most drought-prone sectors of the state. He says that he has reported about some four-five blocks of the district that bear the brunt of water scarcity. “These are hilly areas and digging borewells, too, is very tough. We demand that such projects be extended to our district, too,” Vikas avers, adding that focusing on the welfare of tourists alone is not enough. “Residents of the state are equally deserving, and not just the foreigners,” he adds.
Government officials respond that they will soon get to work on more drought-affected areas. By doing so, they hope to contain the fury of the floods in downstream areas of the state since the floodwater is “lifted” and used for drinking purposes. The state suffers from a geographical disadvantage, making it one of the most flood-affected regions in the country. The rains from the mountains of central and eastern Nepal flow into some of the rivers that run through Bihar. During that period, the rivers in spate end up flooding the plains and lowlands of the state.
Minister Jha expects the current project to serve as a model of sustainable ecological management, indicating that more such projects will soon be announced. “What also makes this project special is the scale and incredible speed with which this has been executed—considering the long phase of lockdowns due to the Covid pandemic,” he points out. He commends the hard work of the entire state machinery and its leadership. “The completion of the project has been a hugely gratifying moment for us,” Jha sums up.
Clearly, in a state like Bihar which is constantly ravaged by dry spells of drought as well as extreme inundation, more such schemes are in order.