Sunday’s meeting in Delhi of Ganga activists from different parts of the country underscored the overriding importance of the nation’s lifeline, that now contends with endemic neglect and pollution. This intrinsically is the cruel irony of the river, almost uniformly neglected by the states that it meanders through. Ergo, the exceptionally robust pitch for placing the National River Ganga (Regulation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2019 in the public domain ~ before it is tabled in Parliament ~ deserves urgently to be followed through.

The name of the legislation would suggest that it is suitably comprehensive, if executed in the right earnest. The collective effort must of necessity match the legislative signal of intent. Hence the stout appeal to the government not to construct new dams on the river, to abandon projects that are yet to be commissioned, and adopt the standards set by the IIT Consortium Report on the Ganga. The charter of demands has drawn a sharp distinction between this report and that advanced by the Central Water Commission, clearly preferring the IIT’s recommendations.

It is rather surprising that while the Bill is scheduled to be passed in the winter session of Parliament, the people ~ indeed the primary users and beneficiaries ~ are generally clueless about the provisions. As regards new dams, it is a damned-if-you do, damned-if-you don’t situation. A dam runs the risk of a burst if the stored water is not released when the need arises. Equally, such release can flood the neighbouring areas. It will be a matter of common knowledge and a topic of discourse only if and when the Bill gets featured in the public domain.

Not that the Centre has not taken initiatives to set things right, but such exercises have by and large been ineffectual. It bears recall that in 2015, the Centre had launched the Rs 20,000-crore Namami Gange Programme ~ the maximum outlay yet ~ with a target to clean the river by 2019, a timeframe that was extended to 2020. Besides, seven IITs were asked to furnish a report on the “best strategies to clean the river”.

As it turns out, the upshot of Sunday’s meeting is that the “Ganga is dying by the hour due to the filth and garbage that are junked into the river”, and not merely alongside the ghats of Varanasi. In Kolkata, for instance, the water is severely polluted during immersion of images. Central to the problem is the lack of political will and integrity. The cocktail of environmental degradation, religious sentiment, and people’s indifference have well and truly ruined the river.

While the Bill envisages arrests and fines for those who flout the norms of cleanliness, less easily grasped is the proposed involvement of the Ministry of Shipping. It is hard not to wonder if the unstated objective is to use the Ganga exclusively for maritime trade. The Government of India needs to be more explicit.