There’s no real intent to save the Ganga

Himanshu Thakkar | Updated on: Nov 18, 2018
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The PM welcoming Pepsico’s consignment on the Ganga is symbolic of the Centre’s wrong -headed approach

As far as the Ganga is concerned, the Modi government has not been short on symbolism, funds, infrastructure, promises and periodic announcements. But does ‘Namami Gange’ suggest a positive intent to achieve nirmal (clean) Ganga, if not aviral (incessantly flowing) Ganga?

The government is, in fact, doing a lot that adversely affects the river. These include the continued onslaught of hydropower projects, inter-linking of rivers, waterways, dredging, river front development, Char Dham Highway, and even Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Unsustainable sand mining, encroachments into the river and extraction of groundwater and other resources at increasing rates continues.

Callous approach

It can be no one’s case that development activities should not be taken up in the Ganga basin. But one would have expected an honest attempt to assess the impact of these interventions on the river. The government has consistently avoided even an assessment of impacts as far as possible, and where inevitable, it has been done in a perfunctory, if not disingenuous way. This has resulted in further deterioration of the Ganga.

When this writer recently asked one of the Executive Directors of the National Mission Clean Ganga on a TV show whether they even have successful pilot, he said that Sabarmati was their successful rejuvenation model. This shows the bankruptcy of understanding. Sabarmati is actually an example of channelisation of a river, with no success even at sewage treatment, leave aside rejuvenation. When the same person was asked if the river even has a defined space, he shockingly said, banks of the river define the space of the river. There is of course no legal definition or mapping of banks of a river in India.

That the Ganga is deteriorating is also the view of the reports and statements of the official agencies like the CAG, Parliamentary Committee on Ministry of Water Resources, the World Bank, the Central Pollution Control Board, National Green Tribunal and even allies like Nitish Kumar and the late GD Agarwal. Agarwal, known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, died on October 11, after 112 days of fast at Matri Sadan in Haridwar. The Prime Minister did not respond to his demands.

On October 10, a day before Agarwal breathed his last, Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari issued a notification on environment flows (e-flows) for the Ganga. It was so fallacious that Agarwal rejected it. After concerted campaigns and awareness initiatives, governments accept that a river must have a minimum e-flow. E-flows have been part of the official discourse for over a decade. However, this notification ignores such advances.

In fact, the joint report of the Ministries of Environment and Forests and Water Resources in 2015 provides a scientific methodology on how to assess the e-flows in any river. The October 10 notification mandates minimal flows three years from now, to be ensured by project owners and Central Water Commission, both plagued by conflict of interest.

Agarwal’s demands included passage of a Ganga Protection Bill. However, the draft Bill proposed by the government was not acceptable to him for a number of reasons. For example, it does not explicitly list the adverse impacts of various interventions like dams, hydropower projects and waterways on the river, nor does it involve oversight by an independent set of Ganga devotees.

There is much that the government could have done to rejuvenate the Ganga. Besides learning from the failures of the last three decades, it could have come out with credible road map, set up pilots, ensured that existing sewage and industrial effluent treatment plants worked as per design, set up decentralised STPs and opted for eco-friendly treatment options (like the one INTACH has set up on Assi Ganga river in Varanasi and proved its efficacy). These steps would facilitate reuse of treated waste water.

The government could have taken steps to reduce sugarcane cultivation, gone for water-saving and yield-enhancing SRI, a method applicable for crops other than rice, and acknowledged that groundwater is India’s water lifeline. All these efforts could have also helped improve the state of flow in the river. It could have set up an independent committee to assess the continued usefulness of Farakka barrage, as Nitish Kumar has demanded.

Most importantly, it could have made river governance democratic, with clearly defined norms of transparency, participation and accountability. We have seen none of these. On the contrary, we see the Prime Minister welcoming in Varanasi, Pepsico’s consignment on the Ganga. The symbolism is shocking.

The writer is with South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People

Published on November 18, 2018

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