A concerted political effort to clean up the Ganga can yield major political dividends.

For crores of devotees congregating for the Mahakumbh, the 1985 movie Ram Teri Ganga Maili signifies but an understatement of what really is a sordid state of the hallowed river. Most rivers in the country today are just fetid sewers. The Ganga is shallower and dirtier now than three decades ago, when a concerted clean-Ganga campaign was begun, entailing a public expenditure of over Rs 1,000 crore.

Way back in 1979, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked, “Can we not clean the Ganga?” She had a comprehensive survey conducted by what is now the Central Pollution Control Board. The project received further impetus when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi set up Central Ganga Authority in February 1985. Launching the Ganga Action Plan at Varanasi on June 14, 1986, he made an unequivocal commitment, “government will definitely see to it that the dirty water is not thrown in...”

PLAN AFTER PLAN

During a visit to BHU Varanasi in March 2008, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised Government would accelerate the pace of cleaning the Ganga. Five long years have elapsed; typically, the promise remains unfulfilled. As an exercise in tokenism, Ganga has been declared a ‘national river’. The National Ganga River Basin Authority was constituted on September 23, 2009, bringing curtains down on earlier two tranches of Ganga Action Plan.

Although a sum of Rs 7,000 crore was approved in April 2011 for clean-Ganga project, including a share of Rs 1,900 crore by the State governments of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, the investment requirement for the mission is now pegged at Rs 15,000 crore. No credible attempt has been made to unravel why the earlier river cleaning schemes in 1974, 1985, 1993 or 1996 failed.

BUREAUCRACY’S WAYS

What does this sad commentary signify? The malady is well known; ever-fattening bureaucracy doesn’t deliver; no heads roll at time-overruns and cost-overruns; main issues get lost in specious technicalities and ingenious subterfuges. Plans remain mired in ineffectual implementation, and lack of coordination between the Centre and the States, as much as among diverse implementing agencies.

Myriad reports abound, of unauthorised use and diversion of funds; several sewage treatment plants (STPs) lying dormant because of poor maintenance and management; sewer networks connected to STPs lying incomplete; less than half of the grossly polluting industrial units having installed effluent treatment plants; and one-fifth of them remaining idle.

STAGGERING FILTH

For the millions on its banks, the river is a watering hole, a bathroom, a septic tank, a laundromat, a cleansing pool, and a garbage dump. A large number of devotees who throng the river ghats and banks daily as well as on special occasions themselves contribute to the pollution. Rampant use of fertilisers and pesticides, compound the problem.

At Varanasi alone, some 40,000 cremations take place annually, in addition to thousands of dead bodies thrown into the river, besides carcasses of dead animals. Some 75 per cent of pollution in the Ganga emanates from municipal sewage from 29 classes I cities, 23 class II cities and 48 towns in addition to thousands of villages located along its banks.

The stretch between Kannauj and Varanasi, where hundreds of factories and tanneries discharge toxic wastes into the river without treatment, poses a problem.

TOWARDS SOLUTIONS

Common effluent treatment plants, if commissioned for clusters of small scale industrial units, e.g., tanneries, textile units, chemical units, dyes and dye intermediate manufacturers and hotels, and slums shifted from river banks and major drains, would indeed help.

Riverine ecosystems need a minimum flow for their survival. Damming the river or diverting its water through canals retard its flow and add to the pollution crisis. Unrestricted withdrawal of Ganga waters through hydel projects, irrigation projects, and industrial activities needs to be controlled.

The Alaknanda basin plans pose a threat to all the five Prayags; the Vishnuprayag, for example, is already a victim of the 400 MW eponymous project.

It is feared that scores of hydropower projects planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi river systems in Uttarakhand would seriously affect the unique Himalayan ecology and the Ganga flow.

Strangely, the mainstream national political parties have been purblind to the political dividend to be had from an effective clean-up programme. If any party were to adopt clean-Ganga as a firm commitment with a credible roadmap, its victory at the hustings will be assured.

Examples of major rivers like the Potomac, Thames, Seine, Rhine, Danube, and St. Lawrence show how riverfront development can be a catalyst for tourism, sports, cruises, and entertainment. India Inc. can perhaps launch ingenuous schemes around important locations, including the development and management of ghats, and eco-friendly entertainment and tourism.

An STP can function as a resource-recycling unit, producing energy, manure, poultry feed and fish. Improved physico-chemical quality of the river can also enable increased yields for farmers and fishermen.

A task force can come up under the aegis of a Ratan Tata or a Narayana Murthy, assisted by a CEO like E. Sreedharan. The Prime Minister should provide the requisite direction at least once in a quarter.

As late as the 1950s, the Thames flowing through London was an open sewer; called “The Great Stink”, it forced the House of Commons to abandon its sittings in 1858 to escape its malodorous presence. Yet, by mid-1970s, the river was restored to its pristine glory, after the clean-up campaign that began in 1964.

(This article was published on February 13, 2013)
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