The revival of the Ganga has been a popular political theme for many years now, and for good reason. The river is a core element of northern India’s cultural and economic landscape. The Bharatiya Janata Party was no different—Ganga figured as a major policy point in its manifesto for the 2014 elections. But the two years since have seen signal lack of action, so much so that the National Green Tribunal was forced to ask the centre: “Out of the 2,500km stretch of the river Ganga, tell us one place where it is clean.”
In this context, the 231 projects launched last week as part of Namami Gange—Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project—holds much significance.
History, however, serves up a warning: the Ganga Action Plan which began in 1985 managed to do little after spending a massive Rs.900 crores across 15 years. Bad planning and execution, corruption, poor coordination between the centre and states—there were many reasons.
A repeat is no longer an option. The Ganga is struggling to cope with the sewage waste and industrial effluents dumped into it. Its deterioration has significant consequences, economic and otherwise.
The official statistics show that the sewage treatment plants (STPs) are currently running at a deficiency of 55%. According to a Centre for Science and Environment briefing paper, it may be as high as 80%. The problem of STPs is three-fold: underestimation, shortage and underutilization due to lack of a well-connected underground sewage system. A plan to clean the Ganga should thus require better groundwork at the core stage of assessing the scope of the problem. The planning and development of adequate supporting infrastructure depends upon this.
The organic pollutants in the sewage waste and the chemicals in the industrial discharge have severely affected the freshwater ecosystem. The diminishing figures of the Gangetic Dolphin and the celebrated hilsa fish are cases in point. With respect to monitoring of industries, the government has been more effective, although not sufficiently so.
The Central Pollution Control Board has been dogging polluting factories and ordering closure of industrial units for not keeping up with real-time monitoring and effluent treatment norms.
The problems associated with river Ganga, however, do not end or begin in its middle course dotted by factories. The upstream of the river, where Bhagirathi and Alaknanda join to form the Ganga, is part of a very fragile Himalayan ecosystem. Caution is needed in implementing the Namame Gange projects along this stretch. The Kedarnath flood of Uttarakhand is an example of what a combination of melting glaciers and mindless construction can do to a sensitive geological zone.
Meanwhile, increased fishing activity and vessel traffic are proving to be the disturbing element downstream. Deploying more scientific methods for fishing and limiting it to levels enough for species’ sustenance might help without significantly affecting livelihoods. The direct consequences of climate change are also felt in the lower belts, around the Ganga Sagar region. Land is disappearing but no comprehensive plans have emerged as yet to provide for the rehabilitation of the region’s inhabitants.
The pollution associated with religious festivities that revolve around the Ganga is also a problem, albeit a delicate one. According to estimates of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, the Kumbh Mela of 2013, which witnessed the participation of 100 million people, also saw organic pollution level in the water increase by around 70%. Given the religious and cultural relevance of such festivals, the government will have to put a great deal of thought into how best to deal with the problem.
Every river has a natural ability to engage in self-purification, provided it has minimum flow. Ganga, which supports around 40% of the irrigated land in the country, often has little water left for this purification process. The excessive groundwater extraction and numerous barrages across the river which hinder its flow prevent this.
The clean Ganga mission faces an uphill struggle. But it is not an impossible task. The Thames and Rhine rivers were resurrected years after they were given up for dead. Every element specified on Namami Gange’s agenda—aviral dhara (continuous flow), nirmal dhara (clean flow), ecological restoration, geological safeguarding, disaster management, sustainable agriculture and environmental knowledge-building and sensitization—is relevant and better thought out than that of its predecessor. Now, the government must follow through effectively if its electoral promise is to be more than merely that.
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