It is common knowledge that the river Ganga, considered sacred by millions of Hindus, is polluted. It is so polluted that some stretches of the river are unfit even for bathing, particularly during the lean seasons. The national river of India is a lifeline to millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their livelihoods. As per a recent report, 118 towns located along the river basin discharge more than two-thirds of the untreated sewage generated by them into the river. Though the government has set 2018 as a deadline to complete the ambitious project of cleaning Ganga, it continues to be a herculean task.
A paper titled Dirty Flows the Ganga: Why Plans to Clean the River Have Come a Cropper published in the Economic & Political Weekly dated June 16, 2016, attempts to understand why the river continues to be polluted despite numerous cleanliness plans and programmes. It goes on to suggest some remedial measures to address this issue.
Cleaning Ganga: Initiatives undertaken
The paper describes the timeline, projects and plans that have been initiated by various governments for cleaning the river. One of the first such attempts was a comprehensive survey undertaken way back in 1979. The paper then follows the journey of the river through major towns and cities and details how these contribute to its pollution or abstract its water for irrigation. The paper brings forth the paradox of how a life sustaining, revered river remains polluted, adversely affecting the flora and fauna depending on it.
The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched in June 1985, with an aim to clean the river. For its implementation, the Central Ganga Authority was set up, which was later renamed as the National River Conservation Authority. The paper does an evaluation of the programme and highlights that the plan:
- was focused mainly on urban waste water
- was financed by the central government
- was concentrated on a few highly-populated towns and centres
- addressed only the ‘end-of-the-pipe’ waste-water treatment
- had both unconventional and existing technologies adopted for the treatment plants installed
- had most of their work carried out by the city development authority, the municipality, or the state’s irrigation and flood control department, who were also in charge of maintaining them
- involved various diverse agencies which complicated the process of decision making
- aimed to tackle 2,794 MLD of sewage; even as NRCD estimated the total sewage generation in towns along Ganga and its tributaries at 5,044 MLD
- had a major flaw in inaccurately estimating the amount of sewage
- failed in its objective to bring water quality of Ganga and its tributaries to bathing levels, according to the CAG report
- failed due to reasons including underperformance of completed Sewage Treatment Plans (STPs), inadequate treatment of effluents, ineffective monitoring, deficient public awareness and participation
- had a positive impact on the rivers biota due to the improved physio-chemical quality of the water
Who is responsible?
The paper questions why these river-cleaning schemes, which began more than 40 years ago, failed to bring about the desired results; why no accountability has been established. It attempts to spell out the possible reasons for this gap. The paper calls for an urgent need for effective policy implementation and better enforcement of the notifications and the law. The paper argues on the importance of the ecological flow (e-flow), and the quantity of water allowed to flow unhindered in the river, which is a matter of dispute between engineers, environmentalists and wildlife conservationists.
The paper cites the main problems that need to be addressed to ensure a nirmal, aviral Ganga are the inadequate flow of water, the growing quantum of untreated sewage discharged into it and the lack of enforcement against the industries that discharge waste into the river.
The paper shares the examples of a few international rivers, and suggests that cleaning of Ganga must be done innovatively as a public private partnership (PPP) entrepreneurial activity, that includes the civil society, educational institutions and religious and cultural groups. Citing the positive example of the Maha Kumbh, 2013, where the combined efforts of the central and the state governments had a positive impact on the pollution, the paper asserts that the task, though monumental, is doable. It adds that the project must be a national programme of action, with greater public awareness and participation and improved centre-state coordination.
The paper suggests that views from various stakeholders that include volunteers, NGOs, officials, academicians, local communities and religious groups taken into account will help the cause. It advocates assigning specific stretches along the length of the river to either the government or the corporates for cleaning and maintenance, and also waterfront developments as a part of CSR activities for companies to reduce the burden on the exchequer. The paper stresses that there must be complete clarity on the leadership, autonomy, accountability and professional management of the project and the central government funding to the states for infrastructure creation and operation must be conditional. It further clarifies that as the cities will be the custodians for these assets created, they need to be strengthened. Impoverished municipal bodies and Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) that suffer from inadequate technical and management capacity or lack of funds must be supported.
The paper concludes that for the Clean Ganga Project to succeed, concrete action is needed, along with a clear cut responsibility and accountability. Some of the suggestions include:
- Prioritise action on high pollution load drains that discharge into the river for immediate impact
- Plan in situ treatment for drains
- Reuse and recycle treated effluent rather than putting it back in open drains
- Ensure industries meet legally prescribed discharge standards
- Warrant effective policy implementation and ruthless enforcement of the notifications, rules and laws
- Clean the city, for the river to be clean
Please download the complete paper from below.