Features Saturday, March 21, 2015 - 05:30
Monalisa Das | The News Minute | November 19, 2014 | 07:27 PM IST A seven-kilometre stretch on the River Ganga in Varanasi is said to be a sanctuary to a special kind of turtles- the kind that feed on the dead, the flesh eating ones. They eat human and animal remains which are often dumped into the river. Releasing the reptiles in the contaminated water of the Ganga was part of a project, aimed at bringing down pollution levels in the river, initiated after the launch of the Ganga Action Plan in the late eighties. The turtles, which can either be of the herbivorous or carnivorous kind, are reared for almost a year and a half after which they are released in the water. Considered one of the most polluted rivers in the world, the Ganga and the turtles share a symbiotic relation of sorts. From poaching of the turtles to improper implementation of the project and corruption, the success of the project has often been debated. ( Image source: IBN Live ) Dr B D Tripathi, an expert member of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), is of the opinion that the otherwise ‘good concept’ is marred by several flaws. Pointing out loopholes in the project, he said that the location of the sanctuary is not apt. “The sanctuary is situated in a stretch between Rajghat and Ramnagar, which is a highly disturbed and busy area. Boats constantly ply on that stretch. The sanctuary should have been made in a peaceful zone, perhaps somewhere downstream”. Though turtles have been released in the water, adequate measurements have not been taken to ensure they do not swim outside the demarcated stretch. “There are no measures, like nets or barricades, to stop the turtles from leaving the 10 km area of the sanctuary. In such a situation, how does one keep track of the reptiles, he said.  ( Devotees throng a Ganga ghat to take holy dip in the waters of the sacred river on Kartik Purnima in Varanasi; Photo: IANS) “This is also used as an explanation by officials, as on paper they may claim to have released ‘n’ number of turtles in the river. But if no turtles are actually found on the stretch, they can shift the blame to the turtles saying they must have swam away. Who can be held accountable then?” Dr Tripathi asked. He, however, maintains that the concept of using flesh eating turtles to clean the river was a ‘good’ one but that corruption and lack of transparency in implementing the project could be the reasons it has not been successful. The project is still continuing, but mostly on paper and not in reality, he stated. “We have not seen any turtle on that stretch of the river. The government claims to have spent crores of rupees on the project and released thousands of turtles in the river. Of the thousands, how come we haven’t seen even one or two?” he asserted. ( Devotees throng a Ganga ghat to take holy dip in the waters of the sacred river on Kartik Purnima in Patna; Photo: IANS) Dr Tripathi also mentioned that the flow of the river has been affected after the sanctuary was set up in the river. “Since they marked the area as a sanctuary, sand mining was prohibited on the banks. This has led to huge deposition of sand on the banks, which in turn is hampering the proper flow of the river”, he said. Part of a report by ATLAS OBSCURA titled What happened to India’s corpse eating turtles’, reads, ‘As Richard D. Connerney wrote in his book The Upside Down Tree, "In lieu of effective policies that would prevent the dumping of half-burned bodies into rivers and streams, India had turned to this innocent turtle to solve its problems." Ultimately, thousands of turtles died or disappeared, and the Ganges remains a toxic soup today.’  (Sunrise on the banks of River Ganga in Varanasi; Photo: IANS) Om Prakash Singh, Project Officer, Turtle Breeding Centre in Sarnath, Varanasi, however, has a different version to tell. The project, which is funded jointly by the state and central government, has released around 30,000 turtles in the river since its inception in 1987, he claims. When asked whether the location of the sanctuary was in a particularly disturbed area, he said, “Absolutely not. The purpose was not to set up a sanctuary on the Ganga. It was to clean the river and this stretch was chosen because it is one of the dirtiest. If we move the sanctuary from here, it will defeat its very purpose”. So have the turtles helped in bringing down or controlling the pollution levels in the stretch? “Frankly speaking, we have a shortage of staff. The project was supposed to have scientists who would carry out research on the project and come up with results, but that never happened. We do not have latest records on the effect on the pollution levels in the Ganga after the release of these turtles. The positions are still lying vacant”, Mr Singh said. (Children enjoy fishing in the Ganga river in Varanasi; Photo: IANS) “But personally, I feel that the pollution level may not have come down because the turtles are limited and pollution levels have only increased in the past decade or two”, he continued. The pollution on the banks of the river has doubled in the last 15-20 years, and so has the pollution. He also pointed out that since the sanctuary is set in a prime location, many oppose the project. “Land encroachment is a huge problem here. We have prohibited any activities on the banks of the sanctuary and some people just want us to shift to another place so that they can encroach upon the land”, he said. ( People participate in a canoeing rally organised to spread awareness regarding Ganga water from Allahabad to Varanasi; Photo: IANS) He, however, denies that corruption has any role to play in the project. The magnitude of the problem is very huge. Crores of rupees are being spent by the government on cleaning the river. “We too need more funds to be able to get visible results. We need to carry out these activities on a bigger scale. We need more monetary support”, he asserted.
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