Giving the Ganga its due

Giving the Ganga its due

The mighty Ganga is worshipped and defiled by the same people. There have been many honest attempts over the past 25 years to clean up the powerful river that provides water to some 400 million people for their domestic, agricultural and industrial use. Most have been sorry failures.

The World Bank said on Wednesday that it would lend $1 billion to the Indian government to clean up the Ganga and would also help India access another $4 billion to stop dumping of untreated waste into its waters. But money alone will not do the trick: environment minister Jairam Ramesh has earlier candidly admitted that the government does not have much to show for the Rs17,000 crore it has spent till now to clean up the Ganga.

This newspaper had published a series of front-page stories in early September on the decline of the great river. The current state of affairs is not for want to trying or the lack of funding. Corruption is one obvious issue, but not the only one.

For example, our reportage had shown how the power crisis in the Ganga basin ensures that the effluent treatment plants in big cities such as Varanasi do not function for around 8 hours a day, which effectively means that one-third of the city’s sewage is dumped into the river without being treated—perhaps much more since the cities of the Gangetic basin have too few effluent treatment plants to begin with.

Then there are problems originating in polluting industries in cities such as Kanpur, where it is difficult to get owners of these small industries to invest their own money to treat effluents. A small bribe to some low-level government functionary is a cheap way to avoid extra spending.

The World Bank loans could be a useful catalyst for one more attempt to clean the Ganga, hopefully a more successful one.

Who should drive change and direct the money given by the World Bank? The new Ganga River Basin Authority, part of the larger national river authority under the Prime Minister, is the best option right now. But to avoid too much top-down direction, which comes with its own problems of muddling and meddling, the government would do well to involve local civil society and religious bodies as well.

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