The 'Kachhua' or Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS), the world's only protected area dedicated to freshwater turtles, situated in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency Varanasi, is set to be wiped off the conservation map of India.
Authorities have cited the sanctuary as a "threat" to the famous ghats on the bank of the Ganga and say that the sanctuary has failed to fulfil its objectives. Accordingly, no mining or dredging could be undertaken in the river owing to the presence of the sanctuary as a result of which the ghats get submerged in the flood seasons.
This has become an obstacle for a multi-crore inland waterways project on River Ganga that will pass through Varanasi and end in West Bengal's Haldia, and therefore, the Uttar Pradesh government has written to the Centre asking for the Kachhua sanctuary in Varanasi to be 'de-notified'.
The request to do so was sent following a meeting of the State Board of Wildlife of Uttar Pradesh on August 30, 2018.
A proposal is reportedly pending clearance with the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to shut the 220 hectares (ha) Turtle Wildlife Sanctuary (TWS), situated in seven-km stretch of the Ganges between Rajghat (Malviya Bridge) to Ramnagar Fort in Varanasi district.
Committee set up
The ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) has set up a committee to decide whether the Varanasi Turtle Sanctuary should be de-notified.
The committee consisting of the, Varanasi, District Magistrate, Varanasi and officials from the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) has been formed "to look at an entire gamut of issues including how the turtle sanctuary was impacting the ghats and recommend what should be doneabout the sanctuary."
Ironically, the turtle sanctuary was set up in 1989 under the Ganga action plan so that carnivorous turtles could help scavenge half burnt corpses and aid in cleaning the water.
First sanctuary to be de-notified
According to the United Nations Environment consultant Bahar Dutt, the state government has submitted a proposal to the Government of India asking for the "Kachhua sanctuary" in Varanasi to be 'denotified' following a meeting of the State Board of Wildlife of Uttar Pradesh on August 30, 2018.
The government want to turn this section of the river into a part of a 1,620-km long national waterways project funded jointly by the Centre and World Bank at an estimated cost of Rs. 5369.18 crore.
The project proposes to build multi-modal terminals at Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, Sahibganj, Bihar and Haldia in West Bengal. It will also involve roll-on roll-off (Ro-Ro) ferry passenger services. A series of thermal power plants are also being planned in Uttar Pradesh alongside the river that could be the main beneficiaries of the Ganga waterways programme.
Wildlife Report says 5 out of 13 Turtles found
The July 2018 report titled 'Assessment of the Wildlife Values of the Ganga River from Bijnor to Ballia including Turtle wildlife sanctuary (TWS), Uttar Pradesh', states that in a field survey conducted in the sanctuary "only five of the 13 species of turtles found in the Ganga were observed".
The turtle sanctuary
The project at an estimated cost ₹1.34 crore would contribute to the sustenance of more than 2,000 aquatic species, including threatened gharials, dolphins and turtles in the Ganga.
The Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad are home to some of the most endangered fauna like turtles (Batagur kachuga, Batagur dhongoka, Nilssonia gangetica, Chitra indica, Hardella thurjii etc.), the National Aquatic Animal - Gangetic dolphin (Platanista gangetica), the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and numerous migratory and resident birds. The government had planned such a sanctuary in Varanasi in 1989 under the Ganga Action Plan-I.
To accord protection to tortoise, the seven-km stretch of the river in Varanasi between Ramnagar fort and rail-road bridge was notified as a sanctuary in 1989 under the Ganga Action Plan. Till 2016-17, at least 11,946 turtles had been released in the river.
However, its future hangs in the balance as the Uttar Pradesh government and the Union Environment Ministry are considering de-notifying it over construction activities along the bank.