The news is out. On December 2, 2009, Government of India announced its plans of taking a loan to clean the Ganga. This time around the World Bank is extending Rs $1 billion [Rs 4500 crore] loan to India. This is reportedly the first phase of the $3 billion loan for this massive programme.
Aren’t we tempted to ask? Is investment the solution to the problems of the Ganga? If that were the case then Ganga would have been clean by now. Since the launch of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985 about Rs 1,400 crore have been spent so far. The objective was to restore the river back to bathing water quality. In the last 25 years GAP was chasing hardware [read pipes/sewers and sewage treatment plants] targets and the pollution levels have only increased—the coliform levels (count of pathogenic micro-organisms) in the river at all places (except Rishikesh upstream) make the river unfit bathing and other human activities. As per the reports of the Central Pollution Control Board, about 45% of the river is still unfit for bathing or drinking. Reason: about 45% of the sewage generated in the basin still reaches the river untreated. Today, Ganga contributes about 40% of the polluted river stretch in India. Not what Rajiv Gandhi would have dreamt about when he laundhed the GAP.
One of the failures of the Ganga Action plan was that it was a completely bureaucratic exercise, top-down, end of the pipe interventions. Lack of data on the water use and wastewater generation ensured that the plans failed mierably. Today we find that sewers laid are not connected to STPs and STPs installed have no sewage to treat and even if they have sewage there is no electricity to run. More importantly in many towns we also find that the treated effluent is untreated one negating the effort wasting precious human and financial resources. Many times, the STPs and the other hardware are badly maintained due to lack of skills and finances. Thus, many of us have witnessed money being poured down the drain in the last 25 years in the name of Ganga.
This is not to say, investment is not required. We are only curious and concerned about the plans on which the money will be invested. What are the plans to bring the river back to life? Only thing we know at this point in time is that the Bank assistance will focus on three areas -- building the institutions and knowledge base for Ganga basin management, helping build a global consortium of financiers, and financing priority investments. Details are still unknown.
Are we learning from our past mistakes? What gave us hope way back in 2008, was the fact that government accepted that all is not well with GAP. Please recollect that the Government of India declared Ganga a National River on Nov 4, 2008 to extend adequate attention to the revival of the holy river. A press communiqué from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on this occassion read: “there is a need to replace the current piecemeal efforts taken up in a fragmented manner in select cities with an integrated approach that sees the river as an ecological entity and addresses issues of quantity in terms of water flows along with issues of quality.”
The Prime Minister emphasized the importance of involving citizens. He directed his officials that “detailed final proposals may be prepared within two months after necessary wide ranging consultations.” He also pointed out the importance of recognizing the spirit of the Ganga Action Plan as conceived in 1985 by the then Prime Minister Shri Rajiv Gandhi of making the cleaning of the Ganga River a people's movement. [Nov 4, 2008 PMO Press release]
Subsequently, to give focused attention to the Ganga clean- up, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was notified on February 20, 2009. It mandated the NGRBA to address the problem of pollution in the river in a holistic and comprehensive manner by taking into account water quality, minimum ecological flows, sustainable access and other issues. NGRBA was notified as an empowered planning, financing, monitoring and coordinating authority for the Ganga River under the Environment Protection Act. Terms of reference of the NGRBA in fact gave a lot of hope to many of us.[NGRBA Notification]
It was widely reported that in the first meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on Oct 5, 2009, “a slew of proposals for effective cleaning up of the river was discussed, including the involvement of international financial institutions like the World Bank.” The meeting also set a target that by 2020 no untreated municipal sewage and untreated industrial effluents will be allowed to flow into river Ganga. “ To interpret this news, it seems that some plans are ready and are being finalised. But, where are we today in terms of people's participation? No one knows. Will the government put these plans in public domain and call for opinion of the civil society who is passionate about the revival of the river and contributing their bit towards its revival? Or will it want the people living in the basin to be as disconnected as they are today with the river and its pollution? Do we want citizens to continue to be disconnected from the campaign and continue to flush and forget in style? The fact that there is a need to involve the communities and reconnect them to the river has been debated and accepted many times. Let’s not undermine the fact that success of the programme to bring the river back to life will rest with the involvement of communities’ right from planning to monitoring.
With the Cabinet gearing to clear the newer edition of the GAP, there are some very critical unanswered questions: Will there be any consultations on the plans and strategies for the Ganga? Will the Prime Minister’s vision of making Ganga clean-up programme a people’s campaign become a reality? How long shall we wait for answers?