Ravindra Kumar Sinha has spent most of his life along the Ganga, worrying about the Gangetic river dolphin. He remembers being mesmerised the first time he saw them. He was seven, and a pod of the dolphins were leaping in and out of the water at Patna. “It seemed like the river was full of them.”
Having aced biology in school and junior college, he eventually moved from his village to Patna for a Bachelors degree and then a Masters in zoology. “Initially, it took me time to make friends in the city,” says Sinha, now 67. “So in my free time, I would sit on the banks of the river near the university and watch the dolphins emerge from the water.”
He would go on to teach zoology at the university, and earn a PhD in the hydrobiology of the Ganga. This meant studying the river, its water quality, and species such as the otter, alligator, turtle and, of course, the Gangetic dolphin. So little had the Ganga’s hydrobiology been studied at that point that people warned him he was making a mistake. “They said I would find no reference literature or experts to consult,” Sinha says. “But by then I had made up my mind.”
As part of his PhD, Sinha began to study something that had started to worry him: it seemed like there weren’t as many dolphins in the water as there used to be. He wasn’t wrong. When Sinha began work on his PhD in the 1980s, dolphins were still being indiscriminately slaughtered in the Ganga, mainly for their oil, which was prized as bait for catfish and for its supposedly medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Coupled with a naturally slow birth rate (dolphins only reach sexual maturity at age 10, gestation is nine months, and females have just one calf at a time), their population was plummeting. (While the slaughter stopped in the 1990s, a new threat now looms: pollution and the degradation of their habitat.)
Back to Sinha, the more he learnt, the more worried he became. He decided that, alongside his research, he had to act. “What would I do with research if the species didn’t even survive,” he says. He began taking long trips down the Ganga, talking to fishermen, students, local leaders and policy makers about alternatives they could use as catfish bait, and how the river itself and all the life in it would suffer if the dolphin was lost. It helped that his efforts were highlighted by the media, he says.
In 1985, another major boost came in the form of a ₹28 lakh allotment under the central government’s Ganga Action Plan. “With the money, we funded more travel, more awareness campaigns, and bought equipment for the university’s zoology lab.”
By the late 1990s, the killings had stopped. Enforcement of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 helped, as did the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which declared the Gangetic dolphin endangered in 1996. That tag, incidentally, still stands. Sinha’s work continued. In 2010, he helped frame the Conservation Action Plan for the Ganges River Dolphin, for the Union Government. In 2012, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, accepted Sinha’s proposal to set up National Dolphin Research Centre (NDRC), on the Patna University campus. NDRC occupies over 8,000 sq metres and was inaugurated last month.
Ahluwalia still remembers Sinha’s passion. “He told me all about how the Gangetic dolphin is unique to the river and how they are going extinct. I assured him of support. But as with government projects like these it takes a while to take shape.”
Sinha is now vice-chancellor of the Shri Mata Vaishno Devi University in Jammu. But the Centre is the literal concretisation of his legacy. “I used to worry that my research would all sit on a shelf in a library. I am now confident that this work will continue after me.”