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Cleaning the Ganga: an unholy mess

The first national dialogue on the Ganga, which provides water to 40% of India’s 1.2 billion people, highlighted the complexities involved in cleaning one of the world's most toxic rivers

Ganga Manthan, India’s first summit on the revered national river, saw multiple stakeholders, including religious leaders, technical experts and environmentalists, help draw a roadmap to clean one of the most toxic waterways in the world. However, the July 7 event also fore-grounded the complexities and politics involved in cleaning the fabled river whose pollution has long vexed environmentalists.

Tackling pollution along the 2,510-kilometre river, worshipped by a large section of Hindus, has been a priority for India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi. One of the first things Modi – a member of parliament from the famous city of Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga – did after assuming office was to carve a separate department for Ganga rejuvenation under Water Resources minister Uma Bharti.

The central government also announced the setting up of a committee of secretaries to cobble together a blueprint to tackle pollution in the river. The committee, which has members from the ministries of shipping, environment and tourism, will also look into the development of inland waterways and tourism along the banks.

Environmentalists, including priests and seers, have often expressed anguish at pollution in the Ganga whose basin makes up almost 47% of India’s irrigated fertile land. One seer – Haridwar-based Swami Nigamanand – even went on a hunger strike in 2011 until he died, over governmental apathy at the deteriorating condition of the river. Agitated over the river’s soaring levels of pollution, the clergy have also led protests at the Mahakumbh, a Hindu religious event held on the banks of the Ganga every 12 years and considered to be the largest congregation on Earth.

At Ganga Manthan, environmentalists were irked by Uma Bharti’s espousal of  “new technology” to allow dams and minimum ecological flow to co-exist. According to a section of ecologists, this volte face by the minister, once a vocal opponent of dams, signals a new era of commercialisation of the river.

According to leading Ganga activists, big dams are destroying the very character of the river. “It’s just not possible to ensure uninterrupted flow in any river if dams are being built on it. Why doesn’t the government tap eco-friendly initiatives like wind turbines and solar energy for power generation rather than ruin rivers?” asks Priya Tandon, a volunteer with Swechha, a youth-focused NGO engaged in environmental issues.

Uma Bharti has decided to make the Hindu clergy stakeholders in the river-cleaning exercise. Religious reverence for rivers is intuitive for most Hindus. Experts believe that factoring in religion into the environmental movement in India, where Hindus form the majority, can help catalyse change.

Expectedly, politics was also a part of the narrative at Ganga Manthan. Bharti used the forum to lash out at former environment minister Jairam Ramesh for his earlier remarks that the ruling political dispensation is trying to make Ganga cleaning effort a “Hindutva project”. She iterated that the Congress should spare the river from communal politics.

Ramesh had accused the ruling right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party of attempting to polarise politics through the river. “Don’t look at it as a Hindutva project. This is not a Hindutva project. This is a national project. Don’t try to polarise politics through Ganga cleaning,” Ramesh had said.

Be that as it may, ecologists warn that political one-upmanship should not undermine the urgency to clean the Ganga, which is dying due to filth, untreated sewage and industrial run-off. The river provides water to about 40% of India’s 1.2 billion people across 11 states. Along its course are situated some of the world’s oldest inhabited cities like Varanasi and Patna.

According to studies carried out by the Uttarakhand Environment Conservation and Pollution Control Board, Ganga water near the northern holy city of Haridwar has coliform bacteria (indicator of sanitary quality of water) at 5,500 parts per million level, 100 times more than the permissible limit.

Half-burned or unburned human dead bodies as well as animal carcasses are thrown unconscionably into the river. Harmful pesticides and fertilisers in agriculture run-offs further worsen the levels of pollution. The river’s water, long unfit for drinking, is no longer considered safe even for irrigation, say experts.

A survey in 2012 by the Central Pollution Control Board, the country’s official pollution monitoring agency, revealed that sewage accounts for 85% of the pollutants that enter the river, with 2,723 million litres of untreated sewage being dumped into it every day. A daily dose of roughly 500 million litres of industrial waste makes the cocktail deadlier still.

According to Swami Ramkrishna Vaswani of Save Ganga Movement, the Ganga has turned into “a sewer” overloaded with chemical pollutants from industries and pesticide residues. “Its water is severely contaminated, particularly around the places of human inhabitation,” says the seer.

Untreated sewage entering the river Ganga (Image by Daniel Bachhuber)
Untreated sewage entering the river Ganga (Image by Daniel Bachhuber)

In 1986, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) to clean the river. Under this plan, sewage treatment plants were set up, raw sewage was cut off and diverted, electric and wood crematoria were set up and low-cost sanitation facilities were provided.

In 1993, the second phase of GAP was extended to include the river’s three major tributaries – Yamuna, Damodar and Mahanadi. However, despite approximately $20 million being spent on the GAP to February 2014, there are no tangible results to show for it. Small wonder, critics have dubbed GAP as “all plan, no action”.

GAP 2, which also houses the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), was constituted under former prime minister Manmohan Singh. The authority had met only three times since 2009 and three of its members, including Magsaysay award winner Rajendra Singh, quit citing the prime minister’s complete lack of interest.

I.D. Shukla of the National Academy of Sciences says that the paucity of a vigorous law or punitive measures to check pollution in the river has stymied all plans to clean it. “Floating of corpses and carcasses in the river as well as unchecked use of soap while bathing in the river, junking of flowers, plastic bottles and polythene bags carry on unchecked at all points along the river. This has brought the country’s national river to such a sorry pass.”

The situation is so bad, he adds, that the river’s once rich aquatic life – fishes, crocodiles and dolphins – have almost disappeared. “The time for buck passing is over. Now is the time for the new government to take action,” says the ecologist.