Why 2 Years of Ganga Rejuvenation Has Been Little More Than Noise?

Manoj Misra | Courtesy SANDRP

Two years is not a lot of time. Yet it is good enough to know if the right path has been taken or not?

Prime Minister Modi during his campaign and immediately on taking charge of the new government in May, 2014 raised huge expectations with his proactive call to rejuvenate river Ganga. Seemingly like a personal mission, he put Ms Uma Bharti, a well known Ganga Bhakta in charge of the renamed Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR,RD&GR).

A well attended Ganga Manthan held in the month of July 2014, openly discussed ways and means to go about the task. ‘Namami Gange’ was soon declared as new government’s flagship Program. Was there now a government that not only meant business but also knew how to go about it?

Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic

Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic

More than a year down the road and after the Supreme Court had wondered “if Ganga would be cleaned even in 200 years”, my query at a World Bank convened review meet to the then official heading Namami Gange program on how was Namami Gange (NG) different from the ‘failed’ Ganga Action Plans (GAP) elicited a muted and defensive response. Reason was simple. Business as usual had taken over the minds of all concerned.

Dredging operations along the Ganga Photo: (c)Sunil Choudhary/VBREC

Dredging operations along the Ganga Photo: (c)Sunil Choudhary/VBREC

Alas, now as the ‘new’ government completes its two years in office, task of Ganga rejuvenation like many other promises appear to be getting lost, to quote Tagore, “into the dreary desert sand of dead habit”?

A limited understanding that Ganga is a mere 2500 km long river with a serious pollution problem is actually the real problem. This is how GAP looked at it and despite it spent three decades, huge sums of money and efforts, it failed miserably. And this is how NG is now looking at, and is making desperate efforts to spend more money to, god forbid, fail miserably yet again and unwittingly uphold the Supreme Court’s worst fears?

Let us be clear that while dealing with a compromised & complex ecosystem like a river on which so many millions depend, borrowed solutions would never work. In 1984 at the start of the Ganga Action Plan, we emphasized finances, infrastructure and technology, to the complete exclusion of democratic and accountable governance. By now our understanding about the governance, institutions and legal system should have improved along with our scientific and technical knowledge about river Ganga and also our plan execution. So the same business as usual approach cannot be accepted now after more than 30 years of repeated failures of GAP to rejuvenate the river or more than 40 years of failure of water pollution control mechanism.

Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: Author

Dry Ganga downstream Upper Ganga, Bhimgouda Barrage in Haridwar Photo: By Parineeta Dandekar

UPA II’s efforts: Pursuing a poorly hidden political agenda in an election year, the then UPA government gave river Ganga in November 2008 an unprecedented status of a National River and created a PM chaired National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). Following electoral victory it mandated in July 2010 a consortium (IITC) of 7 IITs to devise a comprehensive Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP). The World Bank chipped in with a funding support of USD 1 Billion.

After working for 5 long years, the IITC in June 2015 submitted its report dealing with subjects like aviral dhara (continuous flow), nirmal dhara (unpolluted flow), ecological restoration, geological safeguarding etc. A national mission for clean Ganga (NMCG) had been set up as an apex body to implement the Nemami Gange Program. Unfortunately, even IITC failed to address the governance issue, understandably so since governance is not an area of their expertise.

If the new dispensation at the NMCG, had bothered to carefully and honestly listen at Ganga Manthan, had learnt lessons from past experiences and perused the contents of the IITC plan, it could have got enough clues to frame Namami Gange (NG) in a mould much different from the previous GAP.

Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

This is because the main goal of GRBMP is not just a ‘clean’ Ganga but a ‘wholesome’ Ganga, a term that while including cleanliness, targets activities much beyond that with an understanding that Ganga is not a single body of flowing water but a basin of numerous tributaries fulfilling multifarious functions and roles.

Another key factor that GRBMP emphasizes but GAP had totally ignored was the ground and surface water relationship, which following increasing Ganga flow interruptions, more and more water diversion and abstraction and unrestrained ground water withdrawal has played havoc with the life essential base (lean period) flow, commonly called ‘environmental’ flow, in the river. This year the river dried up to such an unprecedented extent that at places people were walking across the river, navigation had to be stopped, thermal power projects could not get their water supply and people do not remember this happening to Ganga in living memory.

The GRBMP clearly states that “if the basin is degrading due to unrestrained anthropogenic activities (not limited just to pollution), then we must curtail or regulate such activities as well as introduce specific measures for environmental restoration and strengthening of the basin”.

It means that if there is a dam or a barrage that is compromising badly the river Ganga’s integrity as a system then it shall be reassessed and fixed. If there is an industrial activity that is polluting beyond repair then it shall be stopped.

Spread over some 8.6 lakh sq km, rejuvenating Ganga may appear daunting, but a systematic, participatory and transparent governance approach with a well defined time frame could be the key to success.

Ganga has at least 14 sub basins (Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Yamuna, Ramganga, Ghaghra, Gandak, Son, Kosi, Mayurakshi, Damodar, Ken, Betwa, Sindh, &Chambal). Clearly, there cannot be a rejuvenated Ganga unless its building blocks (sub basins) are rejuvenated.

The Government has already allocated Rs 20,000 crores towards Ganga rejuvenation. There can be a Sub Basin Rejuvenation contest (on the line of smart city concept for example) and funding support be prioritized for best rejuvenational plans prompting other sub basins to learn from positive experiences. This could help create a Ganga buzz all over its basin and the nation would easily understand, acknowledge and participate in the rejuvenation of an Alaknanda, Ghaghra, Damodar or Chambal as being integral to a rejuvenated Ganga.AMEN.

ManojMisra ([email protected]) is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.