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Why India’s New National Dolphin Day Is a Sham

Why India’s New National Dolphin Day Is a Sham

Photo: Mike Prince/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

  • To increase awareness of dolphin conservation, the environment ministry has designated October 5 as ‘National Dolphin Day’.
  • In the same breath, the government has been pushing projects detrimental to dolphins, including inland waterway schemes that will begin by dredging rivers.
  • Awareness of dolphin conservation is important – as is awareness of how state projects are harming dolphins.

Kochi: On March 25, the Union environment ministry declared that India will celebrate every October 5 as ‘National Dolphin Day’. The idea, according to the ministry, is to increase awareness of dolphins and their need for conservation.

Dolphins in India face multiple threats. Ironically, many are from the same government that has created this ‘dolphin day’ – even as it aggressively pushes projects, including inland waterways, that will damage dolphin habitat, pollute water bodies and degrade their homes.

India’s waters support around 30 species of marine mammals, including river dolphins. The Indus river dolphin (Platanista minor) is restricted to the Indus system, including the Sutlej, Ravi and Beas rivers, and the Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) to the Ganga-Brahmaputra systems.

Marine and estuarine dolphins such as the Indian Ocean humpback dolphin and Irrawaddy dolphin, concentrated in Odisha’s Chilika lake, swim off our coasts too. They’re not very well-known.

Naturally, increasing awareness about dolphins is important. This is also the ostensible aim of the newly designated ‘National Dolphin Day’. In Union environment minister Bhupender Yadav’s words, generating awareness and community participation are crucial if we are to protect India’s dolphins.

He also called dolphins an ‘indicator species’ – i.e. one whose population status and survival indicates the health of its host ecosystem, and that of associated species.

Dolphins fit the bill well. In 2012, scientists found that the fate of the Yangtze river dolphin mirrored that of two economically important fish species in the Yangtze. Over three decades, as the dolphin population fell, so did those of the fish. All three are now possibly extinct.

In the Ganga, the Gangetic river dolphin is inching closer to extinction thanks to large hydropower projects and barrages, according to a 2018 report commissioned as part of ‘Namami Gange’, the government scheme to restore the Ganga. These projects are being led by the Indian government. The document reportedly noted that water flow between Haridwar and Varanasi is now only 10% of what it was before, as water is diverted into canals.

Lower down, the Farakka Barrage, which controls river flow through sluice gates, has changed salinity and altered the fish population.

These seem to tell on the river dolphin. The number of river dolphins dropped from 207 in 2015 to 154 in 2017 in Bihar’s Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary.

The government has also mooted several inland waterway projects in river dolphin habitats, with even more in the pipeline.

In 2014, the then-new Narendra Modi government revived the ‘National Waterway 1’ project. Here around 1,600 km of the Ganga, from Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh to Haldia in West Bengal, will be used for commercial transport. Barges will ply goods including hazardous substances, coal and fly-ash for industrial use.

The movement of these vessels increases underwater noise, which changes dolphins’ echolocation behaviour and stresses them, a 2019 study by ecologists, including Nachiket Kelkar, found. Echolocation is crucial for Gangetic river dolphins: that’s how they find their way underwater, catch their prey and communicate to each other.

Developing the waterway also involves dredging and constructing terminals on the riverbank.

Dredging is bad for river dolphins and their habitats. It exposes them to more underwater noise, including from the dredging vessels; destroys the complexity of the dolphins’ habitat and those of its prey; disturbs riverbed sediments; and changes the biogeochemical characteristics of the river stretch. Kelkar and his colleagues observed that dolphins avoided dredged channels in some parts of the Ganga in Bihar.

Also read: India’s Biodiversity Stressed From Loss of Freshwater Systems, Agricultural Waste

The Brahmaputra system is also going the Ganga way. River dolphins are as good as locally extinct from the Barak, a tributary of the Brahmaputra – where it used to be common around four decades ago – a different 2019 study found. Causes include construction of sluice gates, embankments, dredging, extraction of water for irrigation and domestic use, and aquatic pollution.

Less than a month ago, an Inland Waterways Authority of India vessel made its pilot voyage between National Waterways 1 and 2 – a journey of around 2,300 km, from Patna to Pandu Port, through Bangladesh – ferrying 200 metric tonnes of food grain. More fixed schedule sails are reportedly on the cards.

The ongoing push for increased riverine trade between India and Bangladesh could increase vessel traffic here.

In 2009, India designated the Gangetic river dolphin to be India’s national aquatic animal. If these are the challenges such an important animal faces, what can a ‘National Dolphin Day’ achieve for other dolphin species?

The Irrawaddy dolphin, found in the Chilika Lake. Photo: Mike Prince/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Similar issues plague marine dolphins. We don’t understand them well enough but they include deep-sea mining, unsustainable fishing, getting trapped in  abandoned or ‘ghost’ nets and archaic seismic-survey methods, marine ecologist Dipani Sutaria said.

Species such as humpback and common dolphins also get caught inadvertently in gillnets, used by tuna-fishing vessels in the Indian Ocean. In 2020, Sutaria and her colleagues estimated that around 80,000 individuals die this way every year – as bycatch.

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi has mentioned Project Dolphin 1 in many of his speeches, no work has begun and the situation on the ground remains unchanged, The Indian Express quoted Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat as saying on March 16.

‘Talking and talking’

Nonetheless, days like ‘National Dolphin Day’ are important for “symbolic benefits”, allowing as they do organisations and state functionaries to organise events around the day and raise awareness, Kelkar, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Trust, told The Wire Science.

But they may not mean much for on-ground conservation, he added.

Too much emphasis on awareness is “an easy way out” as it may create the impression that awareness will automatically resolve or address threats, according to Kelkar.

“If you keep organising rallies and workshops, and distributing posters and pamphlets, you don’t need to look at what actually needs to be done.” 

Apart from dams and waterway projects, there are numerous local issues that river dolphins have to contend with, such as plastic pollution and getting caught as bycatch. And they require more effort to tackle on the ground at various levels, Kelkar said.

“How do we use the energy and drive generated by the ‘National Dolphin Day’ to set realistic targets to achieve tangible short term conservation benefits, is the right question to ask. At present we are doing a lot of talking and talking, which is ending in nothing concrete.”

  1. A scheme similar to Project Tiger, which he announced in 2020

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