Despite strong rhetoric, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government has struggled to clean the Ganga and other rivers
MUMBAI/NEW DELHI :
Rivers are considered the source of all life, but in India they are becoming deadly. Every day, across the country, tonnes of waste is dumped into rivers, polluting their waters, choking their flow and endangering millions who rely on them. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has tried to address this, with an emphasis on the Ganga, but failed to make much progress.
Since 2015, India’s rivers have become even more polluted. In 2015, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) had identified 302 polluted stretches of more than 12,000km in rivers across the country. These included 51 heavily polluted stretches, where water was particularly hazardous. By 2018, this had increased to 351 polluted stretches, with 61 heavily polluted.
Cleaning up rivers is a complex task. Water is a state subject, but rivers cut across states. And, at the centre, different ministries are responsible for different aspects of river management. The ministry of water resources oversees river flow management, but the responsibility for cleaning rivers falls under the environment ministry. Specifically, the ministry implements the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP), which helps state governments address pollution in their rivers. Under the NDA-II, this has changed. Overall NRCP funding has been slashed as attention has shifted to the Ganga.
Previous governments, too, had created dedicated programmes for the Ganga (such as the Ganga Action Plan), but none have given it the attention, both in rhetoric and funding, that the BJP has. The focus on the Ganga is understandable. It is India’s most important river, flowing through five states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal) and affects more than 400 million people settled on its banks. For the BJP, the Ganga also holds special significance as it is a holy river for Hindus. In the 2014 election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi referred to the cleaning of the river as a mission and calling.
To do this, the NDA-II regime launched a stand-alone department for Ganga rejuvenation within the water resources ministry and the Prime Minister himself heads the National Ganga Council. Through the Namami Gange, an integrated conservation programme that brings together state governments and other central ministries, the NDA government promised to clean the river by 2019. This deadline has since been extended to 2020, but this, too, is unlikely to be met.
Even with the renewed focus on the Ganga, data from CPCB suggests that there has been no improvement in river quality. Three rounds of testing for biological water quality at different locations across the river in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal show no change between 2014 and 2018. Even more recent data confirms the Ganga’s enduring pollution. As per the CPCB portal, at the 61 live monitoring stations in the Ganga, only at 13 points was the water fit for bathing last month.
The government though has criticized this measure as being ‘qualitative’ and claims that, on other measures, pollution levels are decreasing. However, even on these other measures, Ganga contains hazardous levels of pollution. For instance, one such measure is the amount of faecal bacteria in that water. According to the latest data available from CPCB’s live monitoring stations, the Ganga contains so much faecal bacteria that even bathing in the river is dangerous. At the 61 live monitoring stations, only at 13 points was the water fit for bathing. This is after government claims of complete sanitation coverage in 4,465 villages on the banks of the Ganga and open defecation no longer polluting the river.
One reason for this failure could be the lack of effective implementation of the Namami Gange plan, with funds lying unspent. Namami Gange was announced as a ₹20,000 crore project, but actual spending has been far less. For instance, the water ministry set aside ₹9,000 crore for the Ganga in the last four years, but less than half of that has actually been spent. This financial mismanagement was highlighted in a 2017 Comptroller and Auditor General of India performance audit, which also pointed out general mismanagement and major shortage in staff as major issues with Namami Gange.
As a result, the daily large-scale discharge of liquid and solid waste into the Ganga remains unchecked. Every day, nearly three billion litres of sewage is dumped into the Ganga, but existing sewage treatment capacity along the river can only treat 2.25 billion litres per day. More worryingly, less than one-third (32%) of the total solid waste generated daily (11,729 tonnes) can be treated with the capacity of current treatment plants. In 2018, CPCB revealed that there were 961 industrial units on the Ganga’s banks and 211 of these were flouting regulations regarding waste water.
All this is exacerbated by the decreasing flow in the Ganga. A river’s flow is an important natural method through which waste can be diluted. But, according to one study, the Ganga’s flow has decreased by more than half since the 1970s partly because of dam construction upstream. Changing river flow also has other environmental implications. The Ganga is home to over 140 fish species and 90 amphibian species – many of which are now endangered.
The Ganga’s woes are merely the biggest manifestation of the larger problem of ebbing, polluted rivers and the country’s overall water challenge. As river water becomes unusable, it forces more groundwater extraction, which deepens another water-related crisis. Analysts have stressed that India needs a more holistic approach to water management. They argue that current efforts are stymied by the poor governance created by the myriad institutions that oversee water. Perhaps realizing this, the BJP has promised a separate water ministry in their 2019 election manifesto. Whether this happens or not, India’s rivers need urgent attention.