Five months ago Narendra Modi swore to clean up the Ganga – India’s most sacred river – during his election campaign for prime minister. In fact, he chose Varanasi as his parliamentary seat, the holy city in India where the river Ganga is worshipped by millions of people. And now the Modi-led government is finalising a plan to restore what has become one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
The government has submitted a blueprint to India’s Supreme Court outlining its plan to clean up the river within 18 years. “Short, medium and long term measures are being taken to clean the Ganga. Within three years, we will put in place a proper mechanism in place for the river,” Uma Bharti, Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, told the media.
This announcement comes shortly after the Supreme Court criticised the government for not being proactive on the issue, saying it would take 200 years to clean up the river at the current pace.
But the outline of the strategy has left environmentalists unimpressed. While Modi has consistently pledged to rejuvenate ‘mother’ Ganga, his government’s plans for the river lack any new or innovative ideas. The plan fails to list concrete steps to restore the flow of the river – essential for washing away pollutants. Instead, it relies on spending more money on new sewage treatment plants, the backbone of the earlier Ganga Action Plan, which ended in complete failure.
The plan’s short term measures include: upgrading existing sewage treatment plants; improving sanitation in towns along the Ganga; conservation of dolphins, turtles and gharials (though it doesn’t specify how); and afforestation along certain sections of the Ganga.
Under the medium-term plan, Rs 51,000 crores (US$ 8.3 billion) will be invested in sewerage infrastructure in 118 towns and open defecation will be banned in villages and small towns along the river banks. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) will also enforce a zero liquid discharge policy for heavily polluting industries located in the Ganga Basin.
In its affidavit, the government has also promised to tackle pollution in Kanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh infamous for its polluting leather industry, which discharges toxic waste straight into the river. But again, it fails to mention how this will be done.
Rakesh Jaiswal, who heads the Kanpur-based NGO Eco Friends and has been crusading for the Ganga for decades, is not impressed: “I think they are asking for the moon. Achieving zero discharge from the polluting industries will be next to impossible. They can still manage to do it for the big and medium industries but what about thousands of small-scale industries in the informal sector that are operating on the banks?”
The Ganga, which originates from the Gomukh glacier in the Himalayas, is the second most polluted river in the world after Indonesia’s Citarum river. Nearly 85% of the pollution in the river comes from sewage, while nearly 500 million litres of untreated industrial waste is dumped into the river every day. In the 1980s the government launched the first Ganga Action Plan (GAP) – the most ambitious initiative ever taken to clean up a river in the world – but this failed miserably to check sewage pollution.
“Despite the Ganga Action Plan, the situation has in fact worsened,” Jaiswal added. “It has been a total failure. In 1986, there were 170 tanneries on the banks of Ganga but now there are 400 and they discharge toxic wastewater directly in the river. What little gets treated doesn’t even conform to the standards set by the CPCB.”
The problem is that most of the sewage treatment plants installed along the river under the GAP are not linked to the drainage system and as a result the wastewater gets dumped into the river unchecked.
In 2013 the Central Pollution Control Board inspected 51 of the 64 existing sewage treatment plants along the Ganga and found that less than 60% of the installed capacity was being used and 30% of the plants were not even functioning.
Resorting river flow
In the light of this, environmentalists say that the Modi government’s new plan is unlikely to rejuvenate the Ganga “It is old wine in a new bottle with the same focus on sewerage treatment plants,” said Manoj Mishra, an environmentalist and convener of Delhi’s Yamuna JiyeAbhiyaan, an NGO working to restore the Yamuna. “My point is that sewage treatment is part of urban management. How can they mix it with river conservation?” she added.
“There is no space for restoring catchment areas of the river. No one is talking about the tributaries, no one is talking about the biodiversity or the aquatic systems,” added Mishra.
Bharat Jhunjhunwala, a water activist based in Uttarakhand agreed. “They are still talking about funding for more sewage treatment plants. It is a disastrous policy” he said. “The government should put a system in place to involve private players to treat the sewage and the government should purchase that treated water which can be used for irrigation.”
If recycled water is used for agriculture, he explained, it will reduce the amount of water being diverted from the river. At least 30-35% of the total volume of the waters of the Ganga is needed to maintain a minimum flow, according to the interim report of the consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology responsible for drawing up the new action plan.
“But today the Ganga hardly has any water in it,” said Jaiswal. “Over 90% of water is diverted for agriculture before the river reaches Kanpur. The plan merely plays lip service to maintaining water flow but no one is talking about how they are going to do it. Unless the river has adequate water, it can’t be cleaned,”
The long-term plan for the rejuvenation of the Ganga will be based on the Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP), currently being prepared by a consortium of seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). The final report is expected to come out in December 2014.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) doesn’t think the consortium will deliver a holistic report. “IITs are good with technology, but they don’t have any expertise in governance. The river needs good governance. Setting up more sewerage treatment plants is not going to help. They need to go back and see why the existing plants have failed in the first place. Who is responsible for that?”
The Modi-led government – which has already set aside over Rs 2,037 crores (US$338 million) to restore the Ganga – has now opened the Clean Ganga Fund for voluntary contributions from Indian citizens and Indians living abroad.
But at the same time, the government has announced an inland waterway project called “Jal Marg Vikas”, which will allow 1,500 tonne vessels to navigate a 1,620-kilometre stretch of the Ganga. Environmentalists have raised their concerns, arguing the project will require massive amounts of dredging, which will threaten fish and other aquatic biodiversity.