By Tarun Nair

Emerging from the northern slopes of the Vindhyan escarpment, the Chambal River is undisputedly the last bastion of the gharial, harbouring its most significant remaining breeding populations. However, it is not without its own share of peril.

Sitting at the bow, and with Kaptan Singh at the stern, I was finally afloat on the Chambal, after having spent a greater part of the month waiting out the peak winter fog, fixing a leaky tin boat and finding a willing field assistant-cum-oarsman. We were both a little undecided on how trustworthy our boat was, and realising that neither of us were particularly adept at rowing or swimming, we quickly donned our lifejackets on our first trial run, trying to row in tandem without flipping the craft over. After proceeding under the bridge and its filthy precincts at Rajghat, on our way up-river, we were finally treated to the legendary backdrop of the Chambal – sandy beaches, ochre-red sandstone cliffs and the maze of ravines, alternating on either side of the river. That glee was gone with the arrival of a train of tractors, playing a medley of raucous songs, and squabbling over sand-mining rights. It was a stark reminder of the pressures facing this river, and also of things to come in the following months.  Although designated as a protected area, the National Chambal Sanctuary is under siege from a range of human activities, the violent disposition of locals and unexplained population collapses in the past.

The Chambal riverscape has suffered severely from dams and diversion of river water for irrigation. The presence of over 200 irrigation projects and 4 major dams in the Chambal Basin has severely reduced water levels, and the river does not flow below the Kota barrage for most of the year. These notwithstanding, 52 irrigation projects are under construction and 376 projects have been planned in the basin. Two major tributaries, the Parbati and Kali Sindh, are the main sources of water flowing in the Chambal, in the downstream section. However, the new Parbati-Kali Sindh-Chambal Link proposes to divert the ‘surplus’ waters of Parbati, Newaj and Kalisindh rivers to the Gandhisagar/ Rana Pratap Sagar Dam on the Chambal. This will now deny the Chambal whatever water it receives from these tributaries. On the other hand, erratic water releases in the past have inundated several nesting sites and washed away gharials and other wildlife outside the sanctuary.

Despite having read and heard of the water crisis on the Chambal, I never did comprehend the urgency of the situation until our boat ran aground mid-river, and necessitated a role reversal. We were now carrying the boat around, at almost every bend in the river, instead of how we had intended it the other way round. For a rowboat, with a draft of under a foot, to founder clearly meant that the river was no longer a functional single body of water. Gharials and river dolphins could no longer move, unhindered, along the length of the river, and were left to bide their time in a series of isolated pools, awaiting the next monsoon.

This is when they are most vulnerable to gill-net and dynamite fishing. These shallow, sandy stretches are also subject to constant human presence and disturbance, having been usurped for riverside cultivation and sand-mining. Additionally, prime-nesting sites on mid-river islands and sandbars become more accessible, resulting in increased nest destruction and hatchling mortality, from feral dog predation and cattle trampling. And in the face of increasing proposals for water extraction and impoundments on the Chambal, and nation-wide river-linking aspirations, the above threats will only be exacerbated.

A violent past

Not only was the Chambal conducive to gharials but the lay of the land also served as a veritable bulwark for brigands. The Chambal badlands have had a tradition of dacoity – from the famous Chinese traveller, Huen Tsang who was reported to have been robbed here in the 7th Century; and the Rajputs who sought refuge in the ravines, from the invading Mughals, ambushing and plundering from here; to the several political fugitives, rebels and outlaws who have since sheltered and operated out of here. And their motives have been as varied as the characters themselves – feudalism, hegemony, social insecurity, revenge, honour-killing, discordant family conditions, and a combination of badlands and repeated drought. The locals’ flair for violence continues today, for reasons driven by choice rather than chance.

We were treated to some of this local flavour on several occasions – while one man attempted to steal our life-jackets, another group of youngsters managed to sink our boat in the shallows. And all the while, people demanded free boat-rides! The perpetrators always threatened to either shoot or drown us, every time we resisted or protested.  And with guns slung across almost every man’s shoulder, there was no excuse to disbelieve.  These and other such incidents were quite disconcerting, and we reinforced our ranks with Kaptan’s nephew, Jagdish, whose yesteryear training as a wrestler held us in good stead.

This infamy of the Chambal has often been credited to have kept the region relatively undisturbed by development. However, today’s dacoits are party to the plunder, revelling in extortion and ransom. Their menacing presence is a source of constant harassment for enforcement personnel and researchers alike. The resultant absence of a watchful eye over the sanctuary allowed mafias engaged in sand-mining, fishing and turtle poaching to move in and hold sway.

By the mid-1990’s the Central Government decided that Project Crocodile had served its purpose and decided to withdraw funds. This cessation in official support effectively dismantled the protection mechanism of the local forest departments, and no significant surveys or studies ensued in the following years. And predictably, things took a turn for the worse. Surveys between 2003 and -06 revealed less than 250 breeding adults in the wild. Official estimates show that the Chambal population crashed from 1289 to 514 in a span of 5 years. This was the first of the dramatic population declines, resulting in a status change to ‘Critically Endangered’. And to twist the knife in the gharials already gaping wounds, over 100 gharial perished between late 2007 and early 2008, in a mystery die-off in the Chambal, mostly affecting large immature and adult animals. The causes of this catastrophe remain unknown, but believed to be a nephro-toxin.

The current scenario

Worryingly, voices from within the official machinery, call it a department-in-denial, and mention attempts to cover-up previous die-offs. Even when we reported a gharial drowned in gill-net, the veterinarian chose to unearth a few lung worms and pass it off as a natural death. The Chambal and its residents continue to be threatened by a plethora of reasons, the most serious being the insatiable demand for its water, fish and sand. Aside from vying to drain the river dry, the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh which administer the Chambal, have shown no interest in either understanding or acknowledging the ecological importance of this river. It is the last remnant river in the greater Gangetic Drainage Basin, which still retains significant conservation values, and is a key repository for a long list of other threatened fauna – Ganges river dolphins, marsh crocodiles, crowned river turtles, three-striped and red-crowned roofed turtles, Indian narrow-headed and peacock soft-shell turtles, Indian skimmers, black-bellied terns, sarus cranes, long-billed, white-backed and red-headed vultures, giant freshwater stingrays and mahseer, among others. Riparian habitats are among the most densely human-populated and modified areas. And subsequently, riverine biodiversity are also amongst the most threatened. The gharials fate is symbolic of the dilemma facing all riverine taxa, and unless issues of riverscape integrity are addressed we will lose these enigmatic, endangered creatures and in the process, compromise the water security of dependant people.

An edited version of this article was featured in the June 2011 issue of Sanctuary Asia.