Holistic approach needed to clean the Ganga

The National Mission for Cleaning Ganga was set up in 2014 and the Namami Gange programme was launched the year after, with a budget outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore. The implementation of the flagship programme was followed by the framing of a draft National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2019 to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament.

A recently-released citizen’s report, ‘Rejuvenating Ganga’ by the India Rivers Forum, a consortium of several NGOs, points out that in spite of many laudable efforts, there is a need to critically review why earlier river-cleaning efforts from the mid-1980s have thus far not been successful. A key reason for the failure of the Ganga and Yamuna action plans was that there was a single-point focus on the main branch of the river.

Drastic reduction in flows of Ganga

The report ‘Rejuvenating Ganga’ discusses river flow models which point to a drastic reduction in annual and seasonal flow in the Ganga and its tributaries over a period of 31 years, from 1975 to 2005. The Ganga has seen a 45% flow reduction at Farakka and a 57% reduction at Ganga Sagar in the span of these three decades.

Except for a few left bank tributaries such as Ghaghra, Gandak and Kosi, the Ganga would have been in a grimmer state than today, because all its right bank tributaries (Yamuna, Chambal, Sindh, Betwa, Sone, Kiul and Damodar) have already been heavily compromised with dams and barrages.

The reduction in flow varies across the Ganga’s different sub-basins during the monsoon months. Flow reduction is higher in the sub-basins joining the Ganga from the south, the maximum being Sindh with 75% flow reduction. The sub-basins joining the Ganga from the north side had a lesser reduction in flow, the highest being 40% for the Upper Yamuna. The non-monsoon period presents an altogether different situation with a very small fraction of flow left during the period, especially in the sub-basins joining the Ganga from the southern side. Reduction is also considerable (ranging from 44% to 94%) even in the flows of the sub-basins joining the Ganga from the northern side.

Studies on rainfall variability over time in the Ganga basin indicate no drastic change in mean annual rainfall in the basin. So, the reduction in flow in the main stem of the Ganga and its key tributaries can be attributed to large scale impoundment and diversion of river water at dams and barrages in the basin.

The Namami Gange programme must define the desired flows in the Ganga main stem and its tributaries to allow for the rejuvenation of the river.

Related: Saving Ganga: Just clean-up won't do

Need to focus on tributaries

The Ganga basin has eight major rivers - Yamuna, Son, Ramganga, Gomti, Ghaghra, Gandak, Kosi and Damodar. Yet, the majority of the funds were spent on pollution-abatement measures on the main stem of the Ganga and on the upper Yamuna basin, which constitutes just 20% of the Ganga basin. The tributaries that feed the river, were overlooked.

The report further raises the issues arising from the presence of at least 1000 dams spread across the entire Ganges basin that has undoubtedly affected the health of the Ganga river system by obstructing the natural flow of the river and its tributaries. Adding to these woes for the basin, is the diversion of water for various purposes; ruthless sand and boulder mining; indiscriminate extraction of groundwater and loss of flood plains and wetlands.

Freeing up “river space”

If the Centre is keen to rejuvenate the river Ganga, it is important to see it as a holistic system and not just focus on the main stem, and to escalate planning and decision-making to the basin level. All further construction on the river banks must be stopped and sand and boulder removal from the river bed needs to be strictly regulated.

Further, there is a need to define “river space” on either bank of the river, that inundates during high floods and which form, as its riparian edge, an integral part of the river system so that its banks are free from encroachment. Flood plains, as these are popularly called, serve a number of ecological functions and offer many ecosystem services. Over time it has been observed that river space has been encroached upon, embanked and its land use converted into either agriculture in rural stretches of the river or into residential, commercial or industrial use in most of its urban stretches. Such conversion of river space not only plays havoc with the integrity of a river system but also brings misery and loss of life and property to people when the river floods. Flood plains around river basins must be respected and protected.

Related: Dirty flows the Ganga: Why plans to clean the river have come a cropper 

Recommendations of the Citizen’s Report

  • Since the cause of Ganga rejuvenation is multifarious and complex and cannot be achieved just through pollution abatement measures, there is a need to constitute a standing Ganga Assembly with wide representation (academicians, scientists, researchers, sociologists, administrators, technologists, saints and spiritual leaders, legal experts, authors, media persons, legislators, representatives of local people with livelihood dependence on the river, NGOs), membership and a considerable life period (2 years). This is essential so that issues are dealt with and discussed in a transparent and participatory manner. The Ganga Assembly needs to reflect voices and opinions from all over the Ganga basin and beyond, to ensure fair representation and a space to take into account all perspectives, for the sake of the river.
  • The NMCG should assess the likely impact of climate change on various components of the Ganga basin. It should especially look at enhancing the longevity of glaciers and the sustainability of current precipitation levels.
  • There is a need to introduce Integrated River Basin Management at the level of second, third and fourth order streams. A massive program of water saving agronomic practises, efficient irrigation technologies, effecting changes in cropping patterns through strategic orientation of minimum support prices for water saving, are all measures that should be introduced. The target is to almost entirely irrigate crops through rain, groundwater and soil moisture, mostly eliminating the need to use surface water from rivers for irrigation.
  • To restore e-flows, all proposed projects in the Ganga river basin should be cancelled, including construction of projects in the headstreams of the Ganga. As a medium-term measure, old dams should be decommissioned as irrigation efficiencies are improved. With the advent of renewables and surplus capacity in thermal power generation, proposals for new hydroelectric projects should be dropped, while existing ones are decommissioned.
  • The inland waterways and riverfront development projects should be withdrawn, as well as the interlinking of rivers scheme because they are all immeasurably harmful to the Ganga. Urban settlements should move towards water efficient technologies and practices, such as dry toilets for example, and recycling of treated water.  
  • Integrity of the floodplains as space for the rivers should be maintained, as envisaged in the Ganga Authorities Notification and also in the draft River Regulation Zone. Enforcement mechanisms for the same need to be instituted.
  • Data on the hydrology of smaller rivers is mostly absent. Data collection regarding flows at various points even at the level of second and third order streams needs to be instituted urgently. The data generation arm of CWC must be insulated and made independent of the project wing, to protect against a conflict of interest. Procedures of data collection and real time data must be readily available on the website. Alternatively, there could be an independent, autonomous body engaged in collection of data relating to rivers.
  • Urgent steps need to be taken to implement the recommendations of the Mihir Shah Committee (2016) so that the CWC and CGWB start to function in a more integrated manner.

Download the report below.