- A luxury cruise has been hailed as the start of a new age of Indian tourism.
- But conservationists fear the impact of increased river traffic and pollution.
- The MV Ganga Vilas will begin its journey from Varanasi and sail around 3,200 km in 51 days to reach Dibrugarh in Assam.
The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has officially launched the “world’s longest river cruise” from the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh. The luxury voyage will last 51 days, traveling 3,200km via Dhaka in Bangladesh to Dibrugarh in Assam, crossing 27 river systems.
The Longest Cruise
The MV Ganga Vilas will pass through Kaithi village, 30 km from Varanasi at the confluence of the Ganges and Gomti River, where the deep water and slower currents around the intersection provide a safe habitat for the endangered dolphin. It is one of a number of protected cetacean habitats on the route of the cruise, including Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bihar. Platanista gangetica is one of the two freshwater dolphin species in south Asia, alongside Platanista minor or the Indus river dolphin, found in Pakistan and the Beas River in north India. The Ganges river dolphin faces a number of threats, including water pollution, excessive water extraction and poaching.
“The cruises are a dangerous proposition in addition to all the existing risks for the dolphins,” said Ravindra Kumar Sinha, whose conservation efforts led the government to designate Gangetic dolphins as a protected species in the 1990s. Their numbers have risen in recent years, with about 3,200 in the Ganges and 500 in the Brahmaputra, due to improved water conditions and conservation initiatives. Gangetic dolphins are “almost blind” and navigate the murky waters and forage for food using echolocation clicks. Jagdish Krishnaswamy, an ecohydrologist from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore, said: “The underwater noise pollution due to the increased traffic of cruise, cargo vessels and mechanized boats interferes with the echolocation clicks making their very existence arduous.”
Kashif Siddiqui, marketing director of Antara cruises, said the MV Ganga Vilas cruise was so popular that trips were sold out for the next two years. “We are following all the environmental precautions and government guidelines,” he said. Promotional material for the cruise, says: “With sustainable principles at its heart, the Ganga Vilas incorporates pollution prevention and noise control technologies…” At present, about 100 cruises operate on the NW-1 Ganges and NW-2 Brahmaputra routes, with the government looking to increase the number 10-fold.
There are also fears over high vibrations and noise from dredging operations to maintain minimum depths for navigation of cruise vessels on the NW-1 Ganges route. An environmental assessment carried out by the Inland Waterways Authority of India said that behavioral changes in fish, dolphins and turtles due to dredging noise “may not be significant” and mortality is not anticipated, because these organisms “normally move away from the dredging spots”.
If precautionary conservation principles are not applied today, waterways will not be sustainable in the long term. You cannot promote cruises on Ganga as eco-tourism, while endangering the habitat and the existence of Gangetic dolphins.
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