Voters along the banks of the Ganga, which begins its journey in Uttarakhand, feel that while the Union government’s aim of rejuvenating the river is still a distant goal, the political credibility of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is high and their ‘faith’ in his promise of working for the river continues.
In Uttarakhand, the Ganga is the supreme embodiment and repository of faith. The hill state is home to Char Dham, Rishikesh and Haridwar, some of the holiest of Hindu shrines and pilgrim destinations and thus rejuvenating the river is a major issue here.
Voters, however, feel that the Ganga in itself does not shape up as an electoral plank and is instead linked with the overall issue of development in the hill state. The citizens of Uttarakhand are not particularly impressed with the tardy progress on Namami Gange, a flagship programme of the Union government. However, they believe that Modi and his government are definitely doing more than the Congress did.
“The Ganga is an emotive issue for people here. It is a matter of faith. Unlike the Ram Mandir, the Ganga is not and should not be an election issue. If at all, issues around it like cleanliness and water quality should be taken up more aggressively. While no government has really done much about these issues, at least Modi has highlighted it," said Harish Chandra Dubey, a salesman at a cloth shop on the banks of the river in Rishikesh.
In 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had won all the five Lok Sabha seats in Uttarakhand and three years later, it swept the state in the assembly elections, pushing the Congress to a distant second position. The BJP had spoken about rejuvenation of the river in its election campaigns. To the people, the PM owning up to the holy river’s spiritual importance matters. Most of them feel he is the only one who has done so.
“Narendra Modi is the only prime minister who says he is the ‘son’ of the Ganga. No political leader talks about the Ganga like the prime minister does," said Ujala Devi, who puts tilak on visitors at the Har ki Pauri ghat in Haridwar. Modi has an “emotive connect" with people, she said.
However, several voters whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on the river, said that apart from cleaning of the ghats, not much has happened under the current regime. The Union government is yet to deliver two key promises of Namami Gange, which is “Aviral Dhara" (continuous flow) and “Nirmal Dhara" (unpolluted flow), they said.
Voters particularly in Devprayag expressed concerns over the environmental impact that some of the infrastructure projects, like the expansion and construction of all-weather roads under the Char Dham National Highway Project, could have on the Ganga. Devprayag is considered holy because of the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda, which gives form to the Ganga which then flows down to the plains. Millions visit the site each year.
“Only cleaning the ghats does not help and focus should be on bigger problems like pollution. Even on the Char Dham project, proper dumping spots have been made but local contractors often dump the debris in the open which contaminates the Ganga," said Yamuna Prasad Dabral, a priest at Badrinath temple, whose family stays in Devprayag. Dabral, however, said that when it comes to elections, the BJP is his only choice.
The project is also seen as a faith-linked pitch by the BJP-led Union government. The road project aims to develop 889km of national highways leading to key pilgrimage sites of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath as well as a part of route leading to start of the Kailash Mansarovar yatra.
The region has also witnessed a series of protests in the form of fasts by seers for Ganga preservation. Last year, veteran environmental activist G.D. Agarwal died in Rishikesh after fasting for 111 days. Another young seer, Atmabodhanand, 26, is now fasting at the same ashram as Agarwal, Matri Sadan in Haridwar.
“Political parties raise issues but nothing is done about it. The water quality has gone down drastically over the years. The Ganga is invaluable and it should be a priority for everyone," said Swami Dayanand, who was a close aide of Agarwal and stays at Matri Sadan.