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The rejuvenation and cleaning of river Ganga have been a challenge that no administration could solve till now. Historically, river Ganga has had a significant place in all of India’s cultural and economic landscape, so much so that a Chola King once ordered to bring water of river Ganga to legitimise his claim to the throne. When Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned for 2014 general election, they had Ganga rejuvenation as one of the top priority of their government. The government rolled out a programme called Namami Ganga in 2014 to clean and monitor river Ganga. This article tries to analyse the past programmes for cleaning Ganga and the bottlenecks faced by the current programme.

River Ganga plays a crucial part in the cultural and economic development of North India. It covers 11 states that are home to 600 million people and serves water to 40% of India’s population. However, it is now considered as one of the ten most threatened river basins in the world. The pollution along the river has increased such that it is not only unfit for drinking, but it would also be harmful to use for agricultural purposes. According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the river is unfit for drinking and bathing the whole way till it drains into the Bay of Bengal barring few spots in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. According to water activist Manoj Misra, coliform levels (the presence of dangerous bacteria in the water) of river Ganga showed in the map is ten times the permissible limit for drinking. According to the World Bank Sponsored Study (State of Environment Report - U.P.), pollution levels in the Ganga are contributing 9 - 12% of the total disease burden in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.).

Cities like Kanpur, Allahabad (Prayagraj), Varanasi, Patna and Kolkata use the river extensively for urban sanitation and dumping of the majority of their sewage. The downstream is consuming untreated water that was subject to ablutions and other ritual waste. Open defecation in the rural areas along the river is also a major contributor to this pollution. Furthermore, numerous industrial plants have found to dump their waste without treatment. According to CPCB, only 28% of wastewater generated along the river is treated before dumping. Above all, the river needs a clear flow along its path for natural cleaning but projects and embankments along the river have slowed down the flow. The pollution of river Ganga also has adverse effects on the biodiversity. Certain species like Gangetic dolphin, Golden Mahaseer and freshwater turtles are on the verge of extinction.

The issue was first recognized during 1986 and the government announced the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) planned to be implemented in two phases. The GAP focused entirely on urban wastewater treatment and related infrastructure projects. Nearly 7000 crores were spent on the building of sewage and water treatment plants in the urban areas and the maintenance was given to the agencies that constructed the plants. Later abatement projects were carried out by the Central Ganga Authority to take preventive measures and complete the sewage treatment plants in all other areas. After nearly 3000 crores being spent on the GAP, the plan was terminated in 2004. A 2004 parliamentary committee report declared the project to be a complete failure due to untimely sanctioning of funds and lack of funds in certain projects. Many sewage treatment plants (STPs) planned they were left incomplete ignoring industry pollutants and not including local people into the process. Little efforts were made to change the sewage disposal behaviour of local people. Later in 2009, National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was constituted with 7000 crores and 1 billion dollars were pledged by the World Bank. Even it proved to be a waste of an effort as it only constructed some sewage treatment plants of 700 ml capacity, prevention of certain projects over the river and creation of eco-sensitive zones. However, there has been no visible progress in any of the projects mainly due to severe underutilization of sanctioned funds.

The flagship programme National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG)/ Namame Ganga of NDA government to clean river Ganga was started in June 2014 and sanctioned 20000 crores towards rejuvenation, protection and management projects along the river. The programme aimed to create sewage treatment infrastructure, river-surface cleaning, industrial effluent monitoring, biodiversity and public awareness. As of March 2017, Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) had reported that the government did not utilize single paise from the clean Ganga funds of 198 crores earmarked for Ganga rejuvenation. National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) report published in December 2017 stated that only 18 projects were completed from 187 sanctioned mainly because of lack of well-connected sewage networks in the urban areas. All of the projects completed were sanitation and sewage treatment projects and none of the projects includes rural sanitation, industrial effluent monitoring, afforestation or biodiversity conservation.

All these efforts by the governments over the years have been focused on the treatment of sewages. On the contrary, most of the urban and rural population still does not have a proper, suitable sewage system. So, it will be crucial to building such sewage systems in future projects. Currently, the rejuvenation is being implemented and monitored by the central agencies when sanitation and sewage systems are being controlled by local bodies. It should not be one size fits all approach, every region in banks of the river has its unique problems and means of disposal. In Varanasi, there will be burning of carcasses but in sewage issue in Kolkata will be mixing of sewage water with fish cultures in the ponds and overflow of that water in the river flow. There should be a decentralized approach to this issue and local bodies should be given the responsibility of maintaining a few kilometre stretches of the river.

The state and local bodies can be made accountable and there can be real-time monitoring of the level of pollution with this approach. According to Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report in 2017 titled “Performance Audit of the Rejuvenation of River Ganga”, the pollution level of the river is several hundred times near certain urban areas where the bulk of industries lie. The National Green Tribunal or NGRBA can be given complete authority in processing complaints of pollution from industries and to monitor their emission levels actively.

Other than the above-discussed solutions, environmentalist Prof. Agarwal emphasized the importance of naturally treating Ganga by allowing it to flow without restriction. Prof Agarwal’s main agenda was to ensure that natural flow of water in the river. If river flow slows down, the sediment and the pollutants will settle out. But the side note is that all the pollutants currently in the river cannot be cleaned naturally. There are numerous innovations continuous recently like trash skimmers which can be utilized to treat the solid and plastic waste. It has been over 30 years since the first action plan and there hasn’t been any significant improvement in the quality of water in the river. The implementation should be limited to sewage treatment; there should be a decentralised and multi-sectoral approach to the issue.

References:

Dayal, R. (June 18, 2018) Why Plans to Clean the River Have Come a Cropper. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 21. Issue 25. (22-25).

Roy, A. (Feb 15, 2018) Ganga: Why generous flows of funds have failed so far. Observer Research Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.orfonline.org/research/ganga-generous-flows-funds-failed/

Kaur, B. (Oct 26, 2018) Namami Gange: 5 reasons why Ganga will not be clean by 2020. DownToEarth. Retrieved from https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/water/namami-gange-5-reasons-why-ganga-will-not-be-clean-by-2020-61891

Rai, B. (April 2013) Pollution and Conservation of Ganga River in Modern India. International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications. Vol 3. Issue 4. (1-4)

Photo Credit: Business Insider

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Written By Chanakya Yadav

Bachelors student in Materials Engineering, IIT Madras.

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