Namami Gange not holding water

The Ganga clean-up drive may go on but won’t yield result without better planning, execution and coordination between Centre, states and stakeholders.
The Ganga at Varanasi (Source: India Water Portal Flickr Photos)
The Ganga at Varanasi (Source: India Water Portal Flickr Photos)

After the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power with Narendra Modi as the prime minister of the country on May 26, 2014, the new government initiated several key programmes with the protection of the environment in mind. One of the major programmes that gained momentum instantly was the Ganga river rejuvenation. As part of it, the water ministry was renamed Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and is being headed by Uma Bharti. The name of the ministry speaks volumes about its objective--make the Ganga clean. Carrying forward the earlier theme of “aviral Ganga, nirmal Ganga”, the ministry proposed to prepare a policy initiative for the revival of the 2,525-km-long Ganga river as well as other important rivers in the country. 

This is not the first time that a government gets concerned about the Ganga. In fact, the year 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) initiated by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986. This was followed by the launch of the second phase of the plan in 1993 that included the river’s tributaries also. In 2009, another major authority, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was constituted by the Congress-led government but that too came with its own shortcomings. Almost Rs 27,000 crore have already been spent in the past. Despite the expenditures made, the river continues to remain polluted, thanks to poor coordination and execution of these plans. To fill the gaps of the earlier plans, the new government launched an integrated Ganga conservation mission called Namami Gange. 

Polythene bags and solid waste where the Ganga water receded in Allahabad.

Let’s see if the mission, which has completed two years, has achieved its goals and where lies the gap?

Government gets into action

Following the formation of the new water ministry, the first step taken was the inclusion of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), the National Mission for Clean Ganga and other related authorities within the ambit of the ministry in order to expand its role. The government also organised Ganga Manthan, the first national dialogue on the Ganga river that was attended by various ministries, MPs, scientists, experts, religious leaders and NGOs. After one dialogue, it lost steam. 

One of the major steps that has been taken after the new government came into power is the roping in of seven other ministries--Human Resources Development, Ayush, Shipping and Tourism, Drinking Water and Rural Development, Railways, and Youth Affairs--for better coordination of the river’s revival. Recently, the water and the agriculture ministries joined hands for the speedy implementation of Namami Gange with the agriculture ministry to focus on promoting organic farming in the villages along the Ganga. Apart from help from within the country, the government has also sought international help for the river’s revival. It sees the cleaning up of Europe’s Rhine river as a successful model and wants to replicate it without considering the fact that the Rhine is half the length of the Ganga river and took almost three decades to clean up. An implementation agreement has been signed for the same between the Indian government and the German International Cooperation (GIZ)

The government also initiated several schemes under the Ganga clean-up mission. The first major step taken in this regard is the identification of 11 states along the river for connecting them to a well-laid sewer network. Following this, the Nirmal Ganga Sahbhagita scheme was launched to develop a sustainable partnership with 118 urban local bodies (ULBs) located along the Ganga with an objective to involve more and more sectors into the revival mission. Recently, to fast track the implementation of the clean-up programme, the water ministry launched 231 projects at 103 locations across seven states, with an estimated cost of Rs 1500 crore. 

Budgetary allocations

In the financial years 2014-15 and 2015-16, the government allocated Rs 2,037 crore and Rs 4,173 crore for the Namami Gange programme and in May 2015, the programme got a financial boost of Rs 20,000 crore as the government approved the funds for utilisation in the next five years. The fund transfer to the Uttarakhand and the Uttar Pradesh governments, however, have been stopped by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) as it got irked by the two states for their failure to provide the data on the sewage they are generating. 

Technological advancement

The two major technological advancements in Ganga revival under the BJP government are the launch of the Clean Ganga Portal and Bhuvan Ganga Mobile application. Both the website and the app share the same objective--to enable public participation in the gigantic task of the Ganga clean-up. Along with this, the water ministry has also joined hands with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to understand the behaviour of the rivers and the changes they undergo every year or at regular intervals. The study, however, will involve understanding the major changes in the 12 big and critical rivers in the country and not just the Ganga river. 

Stricter norms, slow start

To meet big goals, big efforts are needed. It also calls for bigger investigations and stricter norms. Same applies for Namami Gange. One of the major cause for pollution in the river is the inflow of industrial and domestic sewage. In the last two years, the water ministry has ordered all the polluting industries along the Ganga to set up sensor-based real-time online effluent monitoring systems and warned them of action several times if they failed to do so. However, only 66 percent of the grossly polluting industries have complied with this order. Also, out of the 231 projects that have launched in the first phase, 193 of them are related to ghats or crematoria development and surface cleaning. Only a few projects address the core issue of untreated sewage entering the river and have long-term effects.

The Ganga at Kachla, Uttar PradeshDespite all the efforts taken, the Ganga continues to be in the same situation that it was. In August this year, the response to a right to information (RTI) filed has revealed that almost Rs 3,000 crore has been spent for the project with no concrete results. According to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) report in September this year, the river water contains bacterial contamination besides traces of pollutants like heavy metals and pesticides due to the 1,072 highly polluting industries from Haridwar to Kanpur that are still releasing heavy metals and pesticides into the river. Moreover, experts have also warned against taking bath in the Ganga in Bihar, especially in Patna, as the river water in this segment contains bacteria and coliform in quantities much higher than the permissible limits. What is more surprising is that the government of Uttar Pradesh, where the pollution in the river is maximum, is unable to furnish the quantity of the total number of industries near the river and the waste discharged by them.

The government has assured the Supreme Court that the Ganga will be clean by 2018. The year 2017 is just around the corner with no positive reports on the mission so far. Even the Supreme Court has expressed its unhappiness at the government’s performance in this regard. According to the court, the Centre's action plan may not help clean the Ganga even after 200 years and the court has sought a stage-wise clean-up of the river. However, the CPCB submitted a new draft plan in December last year for cleaning the river in four segments based on the geography, the eco-flow of the river and the pollution load. In its draft, CPCB has called for “commissioning in-site treatment of the 144 drains joining the Ganga river or any other actions without waiting for full-fledged sewage treatment plants as it may be a time-taking process”. 

Unfulfilled promises

There are several promises of the government that still remains on paper. They include:

Given the vague clean-up plan, the promotion of hydropower development and the interlinking of rivers which the experts feel would adversely affect the flow of the river, there seems little hope for the Ganga. But there is one important thing that the project has done successfully--it has increased awareness about the river among the masses. 

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