Cleaning the Ganga - Jal Shakti Namami Gange project

The river Ganga is the largest river in the country. The number of people and the variety of life forms it has historically supported is beyond the imagination of anyone. Even though pollution has colored the water black, there is still a hope remaining that we will see the river cleaned, sooner or later.

Jal Shakti

The ruling party fulfilled one of its key election promises this week as a new ministry, christened the 'Jal Shakti' (Water Power) Ministry was formed. The ministry which is placed under the charge of Mr. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat will look into all matters related to water resources. Thus in practice, it has combined the erstwhile Ministries of Water Resources and Drinking Water and Sanitation.

There was some confusion as no change in the earlier Allocation of Business Rules has been made till now. Since the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation was unallocated during the distribution of portfolios, there were some who were of the opinion that as an unallocated ministry, it remained under the charge of the PM, while others thought that the Ministry was now combined under the new Jal Shakti ministry.

These official formalities notwithstanding, the step to create an integrated ministry to address all water-related issues have brought a certain amount of focus back on the degradation of water resources and the government's mandate to clean the Ganges. The new ministry will have these issues on its hand (in addition to handling interstate and international river water disputes). One of its major responsibilities will be to successfully implement the Namami Gange (Obeisance to the Ganges) project.

The unholy pollution

Rivers across India are polluted that is for sure. The ones in the Northern part of the country, especially Ganga and Yamuna, are considered one of the most polluted in the world, even though pollution of rivers is not unknown in other parts of India either. But due to their cultural importance and also because of the fact that they support a major chunk of India's population and agriculture, these two rivers become a lot more important in any discussion on river pollution. This is especially true for Ganga, the river for which cleaning efforts have been continuing since Rajiv Gandhi's era.

Prior to the 2014 elections, cleaning the Ganga was again raised as a major issue. The erstwhile Ministry of Water Resources was expanded to include Ganga Rejuvenation into its name as well as the scope of responsibilities, soon after the elections. In 2014, the Namami Gange project was launched which had a total project outlay of a massive Rs 20,000 crores for the next five years. This appears impressive when seen in the light of previous efforts when Rs 4,000 crores were spent over the previous 30 years (1985-2015). However, the initial enthusiasm wore off in a couple of years after allegations that the government has not been able to release all the sanctioned funds.

Narratives and counter-narratives

The initiatives related to cleaning the Ganga have understandably come under a lot of scrutiny. In July 2018 and again in 2019, India Today ran a series of reports relating to the progress of the various initiatives. The reports were mostly discouraging. In response to an RTI filed by India Today, the Ganga Rejuvenation Ministry answered that there was a 58% increase in contamination (an increase over 2014 level) from fecal coliform bacteria in Varanasi (the Prime Minister's constituency). Forget about a decrease in pollution. The pollution had actually increased! Ground reports from Varanasi also showed how dead aquatic life had become an eyesore in the supposedly holy river. The quantity of dissolved oxygen was almost depressingly low. Television reports on the same media outlet in early 2019 again showed the progress of the various Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) sanctioned under the supervision of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG).

This time around the NMCG came up to its defense. It replied how 151 sewage treatment projects had been taken up, 112 on the mainstream of the Ganga and 39 on various tributaries of the river. 37 of these 151 had been completed while the rest were at advanced stages of completion. It said how since 2016, a Hybrid Annuity-PPP model had been used to carry out efficient management practices in STPs and also how there was a performance-linked payment method in place. In case of aquatic life, it outlined the various schemes it had undertaken in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India.

Concluding words

Whatever the narrative from the side of ministers and bureaucrats, one thing which does not change is that the River Ganga (or for that matter most rivers in India) are far from being 'clean'. Lakhs of people and countless fauna are still bearing the brunt of thoughtless human activities along the banks of the supposedly holy river. Even a schoolboy knows the sources of pollution. Yet tens of governments at the state and the center have come and gone, without any radical change. The people living along the banks are aware of the pollution, yet for some reason, there is almost a universal lack of willingness to act. It was more than a hundred years ago when Malaviya and a few other visionaries forced the British to recognize the importance of maintaining the natural flow of the river. Whatever their intentions and whatever their successes, we have to carry the same effort forward. It is a blemish on us if the river which we tout as holy is allowed to be polluted in such a manner. Beyond forming new ministries or departments, it would be much better for some concrete results to appear.


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