Will The Ganga Be Cleaned This century?

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Image: Varun Ramesh
Despite tall claims and false promises, successive Governments have failed at cleaning India's national river - the Ganges.

In March 2017, the river Ganges was accorded ‘Human status’ by the Uttarakhand High Court. This judgement makes it one of the most abused humans on the planet. Decades of dumping dead bodies, industrial effluents and pollutants make it one of the most polluted humans in the world. Yet, this has not stopped the government from making claims to make the Ganges clean again.

In 2014, the newly crowned Narendra Modi administration announced the Namami Gange Mission as their flagship programme. Modi promised that the river would be clean by Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary – 2019. The Ministry of Irrigation was renamed as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, with Uma Bharti as its chief. 2020 was set as a deadline, and Rs.20,000 crore ($3.1 billion) was allocated as the project outlay for the next five years.

The next year, Modi auctioned off a bespoke suit with his name emblazoned in golden lining for Rs. 4.31 crore ($677,446) – with the money due for the Namami Gange Mission. It was a symbolic gesture demonstrating that Modi felt personally involved in the project.

In November 2015, Uma Bharti said the Ganges would be among the cleanest rivers “in the world” by October 2018. On mounting criticisms that little had been done to show progress, she used the analogy of a sprinter taking a pause before a big race.

By February 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had to pull up all the agencies involved. “Not a drop of the Ganga has been cleaned so far,” said a bench of the NGT, chaired by Justice Swatanter Kumar. It admonished them, saying:

Had you (authorities) done your job properly, you would not be standing here (before the court)… You have done nothing. It is waste of public money.

On June 4, 2017, Uma Bharti announced that the goalpost had shifted – it would now take ten years to ‘completely clean’ the Ganges. It’s the long-awaited answer to a question that the NGT had asked at the very start of the project in 2014 – “Will the Ganga be cleaned this century?”

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Image: Varun Ramesh

That the project is in doldrums is not new. Attempts to clean the Ganges have a history of failure, from the very first Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985, launched under the Rajiv Gandhi administration. GAP-I was followed by GAP-II in 1991. But the deadlines for both were missed by a decade. To make matters worse, the government decided that not only the Ganges but every river in India had to be cleaned – prompting the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) in 1995.

Adding more institutions has not resulted in a cleaner river. But that seems to be the only mantra for successive administrations since 1985 – with abysmal results. The Namami Gange Mission spent a great deal of time reallocating resources from old departments to the new ones – but has not yet delivered.

There is a clear lack of awareness of ground realities around the Ganges. As the Hindustan Times noted, the government figure for polluting industries in 2017 was 764 – the same number given in 1985. The problem, perhaps, stems from the very approach to cleaning the river.

Uma Bharti has cited the cleanup of the river Rhine and the river Thames as inspiration for cleaning the Ganges. But, while the European model of ecological restoration has lessons for India, it is not scaleable to Indian conditions.

For one, the Ganges is a far bigger river – stretching 2525 kilometres through five states and two countries. The population living in its basin numbered 448.3 million as per the 2001 Census. Since then, the urban population has risen by a third. Every day, 8250 million litres of wastewater is drained into the river and its tributaries. Of this, only 3500 litres are treated before being returned to the water. But even if you treated all of it, the water wouldn’t be safe to bathe in.

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Image: Varun Ramesh

Almost all segments of the society pollute the Ganges. From those who bathe and defecate in the river to those who dump dead bodies at Varanasi, to the leather industries in Kanpur and the slew of small to large-scale industries that dot its 2525 kilometre length. Over the years, its flow has been severely hampered. Without a strong flow of water, pollutants are not washed away. While money is needed to upgrade existing water treatment facilities and set up new ones, the Ganges, as Sunita Narain writes, needs water, not money.

Solutions for cleaning it have come from a wide spectrum – from independent tribunals to environmentalists to Indian citizens voicing their opinions on a governmental feedback platform. Finding an effective solution will be an exercise in bureaucracy, budgeting, federal-state relations and ecology.

India is not alone in attempting to restore the environment. Prominent ant-biologist E.O. Wilson had dubbed the 21st century as the era of ecological restoration. A relatively new field, ecological restoration has had mixed results worldwide – but it is largely a step forward. Many European cities have managed to restore their rivers, in some cases turning biologically-dead rivers into thriving ones. China too has ambitious plans to clean the Yellow River, but to little effect.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to cleaning the Ganges is looking good while doing it. The NGT has been shutting down polluting industries with an iron hand, but for the government, this costs them political mileage. In particular, the Kanpur leather industry – largely Muslim – becomes a difficult sector to regulate. Demonetisation has already cost thousands of jobs. Any further crackdown would be seen as a communal move by a divisive government.

But there is no pointed solution to cleaning the Ganges. The half a billion people who reside around its banks and tributaries are all culpable in its destruction.

If India manages to clean the Ganges, it will be in spite of its institutions, economy and track record. But the project will remain among the most ambitious in the world. The need is for ambition to match execution.

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