Implementation the key to Ganga cleaning

Ganga in the true sense is the epitome of Indian civilisation, even as it shows how corruption, bureaucratic lethargy, technological…

Implementation the key to Ganga cleaning

(Photo: Getty Images)

Ganga in the true sense is the epitome of Indian civilisation, even as it shows how corruption, bureaucratic lethargy, technological elitism, and populist rhetoric are overshadowing the true development-environment cause in modern India.

The 2,525 km long River Ganga with a basin area of about 1,080,000 sq. km is the largest river basin of India. It covers more than 26 per cent of her geographical area and supports over 40 per cent of its population.

Ganga, the cradle of Indian civilization, is under severe threat and symbolises the poverty of governance of the modern Indian State. Despite its immense national importance and social reverence, river Ganga has been deteriorating since the mid-19th century when large-scale water abstractions through canal systems began.


But her degradation became multi-faceted and accelerated in recent decades, with rapid population growth, change in agricultural practices, industrialisation, urbanisation and the rapid change of land use of the Ganga Basin. The three major sources of pollution – industry, agriculture and domestic – are concentrated along the rivers. Industries and cities have historically been located along rivers, which thus become a convenient place to discharge waste. Agricultural activities are concentrated along the fertile Ganga river basin.

In the post-Green Revolution period, chemical fertilizers and pesticides used in agriculture easily found their way into the river. These joined runoffs from dumping grounds of solid waste, open defecation, dumping of unburnt/half burnt corpses and animal carcasses, dhobi ghats, cattle wallowing, mass bathing, floral offerings etc. as part of non-measurable, non-point sources of pollution.

All of these are so common along the river from Haridwar to Sagar Island that tackling these are the most challenging aspect of cleaning the Ganga. Non-point pollution sources are of greater importance than point source pollution but unfortunately in India attempts to keep the river clean through ineffective conventional water pollution control methods is more common.

Because mitigation of point source pollution is relatively easier, the non-point sources of pollution have largely been missed out. Considering the rising menace of pollution, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched by the Government of India in 1985 and in 1986 the Government constituted the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) as a planning, financing, monitoring and coordinating authority for strengthening the collective efforts of the Central and State Government. In 1993, GAP II was initiated.

The Plan was renamed the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) in 1995 and was broad-based to tackle pollution levels in other identified polluted stretches of major rivers. In 2008 the Ganga was declared as India’s National River. In 2011, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was formed as the implementation wing of NGRBA.

By 2014, the Government record showed that 99 per cent of GAP-I and over 85 per cent of GAP-II schemes had been completed. In October 2014, the Supreme Court in M C Mehta vs Union of India and Others on Ganga pollution observed mismanagement of funds.

In spite of intervention and sustained efforts made by the Court over the past 30 years no fruitful result has been achieved except the shutting down of some polluting units. The main reason is that statutory authorities including the CPCB and the State PCBs have done practically nothing to effectuate those orders or to take independent steps to prevent pollution.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General is a clear indictment of the statutory authorities and those at the helm of affairs. The impact of non-point source of pollution in Ganga was acknowledged since GAP-I as early as 1985. Unfortunately several reports on fund utilisation under GAPI & II show nothing on account of non-point source pollution. Already the government has spent approximately Rs.4,000 crore on Ganga rejuvenation and cleaning since 1985.

Since Ganga touches the lives of millions of people, politics and propaganda in the name of cleaning the Ganga never deter government from spending money on more planning and programmes without meaningful tangible results. A consortium of seven IITs has been given the responsibility to prepare Ganga River Basin Environment Management Plan (GRBEMP) by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Until 2015, around 50 documents had been prepared by eminent experts from different fields for the strategy, information, methodology, analysis and suggestions and recommendations of GRBEMP.

In May 2015 the Union Cabinet, chaired by the Prime Minister, approved the flagship ‘Namami Gange’ Programme to clean and protect the river in a comprehensive manner with budget outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore till 2020, with 100 per cent Central funding of various projects. In July 2016 the programme was launched with much fanfare.

But in August 2016, the Green Tribunal came down heavily on the Ministries of Environment and Forests, Water Resources, CPCB and other authorities for not taking a clear stand with regard to the cleaning of Ganga.

In October 2016, the Green Tribunal expressed concern over the fact that there was severe lack of basic information such as the number of drains falling in the Ganga on a certain stretch. It also observed, “Ill-planning, unscientific approach and lack of future estimation has led to chaos in which Ganga today is”. The tribunal had earlier rapped the Uttar Pradesh government for wasting crores of rupees of public money on Ganga rejuvenation. Despite this huge expense, Central and all state machineries have miserably failed to control even pointsource pollution, leave aside nonpoint source pollution in last 30 years. Ganga today is more polluted than at the first initiation of GAP I thirty years ago; in most of the pollution parameters it is way above permissible limits.

Fecal coliform counts are 100 to 1000 times more than acceptable levels near major cities like Kanpur and Kolkata. In the last three decades, climate change has caused shrinking of Himalayan glaciers and changes in rainfall pattern.

Added to the abstraction of flows of Ganga and its tributaries with dams, barrages, canals and alarmingly high volume of pollution, these pose an ever increasing threat to the river. Throughout history, and particularly in modern India, society's relationship to the Ganga is structured around sectoral and territorial relationships.

Traditionally it was managed from an agricultural perspective. Industrial and urban policies were framed from a water consumption perspective and the energy policy was established from the perspective of the production of hydropower. The protection of river ecosystems is now part and parcel of environmental policies. Agriculture, power, eco-system protection, industry and municipal laws are multiplied and there is a whole range of sectors that use Ganga water. The concerns of these sectors are fragmented, increasingly compartmentalised and at the end we lose the vision of managing the vast integrated river basin.

The territorial issues from panchayat, municipality, district, state and are like inter-sectoral issues. It is important to find a transversal vision of Ganga water that transcends the different sectors and territories. Despite spending vast sums of tax payers’ money, integrated river basin management has not been achieved. In the last 30 years of top-down Central planning, two important components were missing – stakeholder involvement and participation and institutional level intent.

The main challenges are not the availability of funds or suitable technology but a proper implementation and management mechanism.

(The writer is Director, PAN Network Private Limited.)