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Ganga Fiasco: The Indian Dream Of Clean Ganga Remains Gloomy


A video went viral on the social networking sites in last April across the world. It asked the devotees to refrain from using the water of Ganga for religious or other purposes while citing its poor quality. The senior functionaries of Ganga Mahasabha tore into the Government, dubbing the much-vaunted Namami Ganga as a colossal fiasco. The refrain that runs is that huge amount of funds are being siphoned away in the name of cleansing the sacred river and they are going down the drain with Ganga remaining as polluted as ever.

The Ganges, or Ganga , originate in the Himalayas, is sacred river in India and worshipped as a goddess. It accounts for 47 percent of India’s irrigated land and feeds 500 million citizens. Despite its importance, it is one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the world. Rapid population growth, urbanisation, and industrial development have raised the levels of domestic as well as industrial pollutants in Ganga waters. The largest river in India, Ganges has been extremely polluted by human waste and industrial contamination making it the 5th most polluted river in the world. The drop in water levels can have macabre consequences – in 2015, the river had revealed its worst secret, when more than 100 decomposed bodies had come up to the surface in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao.

For a large population of Indians, the Ganga is the source of economic as well as spiritual sustenance. The fact is that immersing a dead person’s ashes in the Ganga is integral to the Hinduism. Faith and money often come together to ensure that not just ashes, but bodies too are immersed in the river. Cremations along the rivers and immersion of mortal remains in the Ganga have religious connotations. But this is a major cause of river pollution.

The sacred river of India has been a victim of pollution since 1900s i.e. before independence but the concern of the river pollution has come into light in the 1970s. The more populated towns in north Indian belt are along the river, and the holy river their domestic and industrial waste . For north India, Ganga is at the heart of its cultural and economic landscape. The 2,525 km long Ganga flows through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal before reaching the Bay of Bengal. Along with its tributaries, it covers 11 states that are home to 600 million people and serves water to 40% of India’s population.

The river-water is clean till it reaches Haridwar in Uttarakhand. After Haridwar in the downstream an estimate of six hundred kilometers of Ganga had already been stated ecologically dead zone. As per the survey in 2006, water borne and gastrointestinal disease due to polluted water have been estimated to be 66%. Evidence by UEPPCB reports, Ganga is excessively polluted and a Coliform bacterium is at 5,500- highly unsafe and unfit for agricultural usage or water intake.

Another major problem is that the flow of the river is reduced to a trickle as it meanders over the plains. Less water means the concentration of pollutants immediately becomes higher. According to a report in The Wire, 80 percent of Ganga’s water is diverted at Haridwar and Narora for irrigation. Thus, while on one hand water flow diminishes, pollutants are added to the river.

The pollution associated with cultural and religious festivities becomes a grave threat to the river. The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board estimated that the Maha Kumbh Mela in 2013 — where 120 million people participated — saw 70% increase in the organic pollution level in the river. As the Ardh Kumbh is scheduled the river can expect more pollutants in the name of religion. The river is currently struggling to cope with the sewage waste and industrial effluents dumped into it. Given its religious and industrial importance, any further deterioration would have significant ramifications. Governments, over the years, have not been able to come up with a robust solution for treating the effluents discharged into the river.

According to July 2013 estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), fecal coliform levels, biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, and a range of carcinogenic chemicals remain well-above acceptable drinking and bathing quality levels in all stretches of the river after it descends from the mountains.

And there have been many well-funded programs to combat pollution. In 1985, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched to fund the establishment of sewage treatment plants and other large-scale pollution mitigation technologies. The plan was ultimately extended to other rivers through the National River Conservation Programme (NRCP).

The programme tries to deal with the problem of river pollution in a holistic way. It is led by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), an institution which has financial and administrative powers as per the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 20In 1985, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched to fund the establishment of sewage treatment plants and other large-scale pollution mitigation technologies.

The crisis of the Ganga has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, Prime Minister Modi campaigned from the city of Varanasi and made the effort to clean the Ganga a key focus of his electoral promises.

The NDA government under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi launched Namami Gange, a National Mission for Clean Ganga, in 2015. A sum of Rs 20,000 crore has been allocated for the project. The programme works with a dual integrated approach to reduce pollution and conserve and rejuvenate the river. Once in office, he immediately launched the Namami Gange Programme, an integrated conservation mission with the huge amount of money to accomplish the objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of the Ganga. In 2011, World Bank approved a sanction of $1 billion to NRGBA. Since 2009, the Supreme Court of India had taken an initiative on the shutting down and relocation of many industrial plants along Ganga.

Namami Ganga Programme is an initiative started on 10th July,2014 with a fund allocation of Rs 2,037 crore. 48 industrial plants around Ganga had been shut down as part of the initiative. (Massive four fold increase in the funding as compared to the allocation of funds in the past 30 years for the Ganga project) NDA Government has set up a separate ministry for the cleaning of Ganga under the Central Government for the first time. The project covers eight states and seeks to fully connect all 1,632 Gram Panchayats along the Ganga to a sanitation system by 2022.

According to a new report from the CAG, this new push to clean the Ganga is not delivering results. The audit team sampled 87 projects (73 ongoing, 13 completed, and one abandoned). These projects included the 11 institutional, five afforestation, and one biodiversity. 50 projects were sanctioned after April 1, 2014. Ganga’s freshwater ecosystem has also been severely affected by industrial discharge.

But the CAG report has revealed that during 2016-17, the level of pollutants in the river across Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal was six to 334 times higher than the prescribed levels. Strict monitoring and action is required from NGT against the polluting industries found non-compliant with prescribed effluent discharge standards.

Introducing new statutes on making the polluter pay or treating the polluted water before it enters the system would prove to be an effective solution.

In December 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found that the allotted funds had not been utilised. A report tabled in the Parliament said: “Funds amounting to Rs 2,133.76 crore, Rs 422.13 crore and Rs 59.28 crore were lying unutilised with the National Mission for Clean Ganga, various state programme management groups and executing agencies/central public sector undertakings (as on 31 March, 2017).”

While presenting the Union budget 2018, Finance minister Arun Jaitely had said, “A total of 187 projects have been sanctioned under the Namami Ganga programme for infrastructure development, river surface cleaning, rural sanitation and other interventions at a cost of Rs 16,713 crore. 47 projects have been completed and remaining projects are at various stages of execution.” Whereas, the latest National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) report updated on December 2017 reveals that only 18 projects have been completed in the last four years, of which none are focussed on the key areas of rural sanitation, industrial effluent monitoring, afforestation or biodiversity conservation.

None of these efforts has been particularly effective. Each round of evaluations is similar to the new CAG report in which a standard list of issues emerges: delays in reviewing projects, poor inter-agency cooperation, funding imbalances across sites, and an inability to keep pace with growing pollution loads. As a result, none of these policies has had any discernible impact on water quality. The only pockets of success in this era, paradoxically, come from judicial rulings from the Supreme Court of India that actually hit specific firms.

There are around 800 industries near Ganga, like tanneries, distilleries, sugar mills, paper and pulp, cement plants and dyeing factories, which pollute the river. The NMCG has the power to enforce polluting industries to either close or follow SOPs of pollution free waste. The government has asked these industries to set up common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) and get new technologies to ensure zero liquid discharge into the river. And there have been many well-funded programs to combat pollution.

According to Shareen Joshi, Assistant Professor at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, none of these efforts has been particularly effective. Each round of evaluations is similar to the new CAG report in which a standard list of issues emerges: delays in reviewing projects, poor inter-agency cooperation, funding imbalances across sites, and an inability to keep pace with growing pollution loads. As a result, none of these policies has had any discernible impact on water quality. The only pockets of success in this era, paradoxically, come from judicial rulings from the Supreme Court of India that actually hit specific firms.

The Ganges has been listed in top ten most polluted rivers in the world for few decades. The river Ganga is filled with solid waste, clothes, polythene and all kinds of religious offerings. These float on its surface making the river dirty. The easiest solution is to remove them. For abatement of industrial pollutants, a survey of all 1,109 grossly polluting industries (GPIs) has been conducted. Out of 1,109 GPIs, 333 were closed down and closure notices were sent to non-complying GPIs. For this, machines called trash skimmers have been deployed. Eleven trash skimmers have been deployed at Haridwar, Garh Mukteshwar, Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad, Patna, Sahibganj, Nabadwip, Kolkata, Delhi, Mathura and Vrindavan to clean the surface of the river.

The government is also taking corporate groups’ help as part of their corporate social responsibility. Environmentalists have been raising the issue of corruption in the government departments and polluting industries. Even if government statistics, then there are 1,109 polluting industries and action was taken against only 333. Why? Did the rest of the industries accept all the rules of the government? And who is investigating this? Corruption between the enforcement agency and polluting industries has resulted in pollution.

To address this issue, six public outreach programmes have been organised in the five Ganga basin states from time to time – Swachh Pakhwada, Ganga Swachhta Sankalp Divas, Ganga Nirikshan Yatra, Ganga Dussehra, Ganga Vriksharopan Saptah and Swachhta Hi Sewa campaign. Namami Gange is initiating public awareness programmes to ensure that people actively participate in these events and do their bit to save rivers. The awareness campaigns not only aim at societal changes but also talk about efforts required at an individual level, making it a two-pronged approach of tackling individual beliefs and societal norms.

Where do India’s water policies go wrong? The answer to this question is unlikely to be found in the details of individual cases. Instead, it makes sense to look closely at the political, economic, and social contexts in which the policies are made.

In India’s electoral democracy, there is little space for environmental policy. Pollution has rarely been an electoral issue. Employment, economic growth, and poverty alleviation are more urgent. Elected leaders have few incentives to take on either the big polluters (which include the government’s own companies and power stations) or the small-scale firms in industrial clusters that serve as vote-banks.

President of Ganga Mahasabha Purushottam Sharma Gandhiwadi said, whatever the present Government has done so far is not yet visible on the surface. He further said that a staggering Rs 20,000 crore has been pumped into the execution of Namami Gange so far. However, things are as gloomy as ever. The officials are demanding more and the ministers are fawning on them, he added.

Namami Gange lays much emphasis on pollution abatement through improvement of sewage infrastructure. A majority of sanctioned and completed projects therefore are sewage treatment plants (STPs). Until December 2017, Namami Gange had created only 228.13 million litres per day of the 2,278.08 mld sewage treatment capacity it aimed for. However, the National Mission for Clean Ganga executive director Rozy Agarwal rebutted the charge of nothing being done. This is not true. Works are going on in full swing. The tendering process for tackling the drains issue has started, he added.

In 1995, a common treatment plant had been established in the Ganga to treat the chromium and toxins released in Ganga by the leather industries in Kanpur. However, the chromium level in Ganga has not decreased and is 70 times more than the suggested maximum level. The National Cancer Registry Program under the ICMR,2012 reported that “those living along its banks in UP, Bihar and West are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the country. There are more than 1,600 villages that lie directly on the banks of Ganga. Open defecation is one of the most common problems in these areas.

And untreated sewage goes directly into the river. For rural sanitation, around 4,464 villages on the banks of Ganga have been declared open defecation free (ODF). The project has helped in constructing 12,74,421 individual household toilets thereby paving way for cleaner and healthier river banks and riverbeds.

Rejuvenation of Ganga has been highly anticipated and serves as a necessity. Many initiatives have been taken up since the past 30-40 years but not much progress has been seen. However, Namami Ganga has been the biggest initiative so far and the money allocated is a major sum of Rs 2,037 crores. As per the current scenario,only an amount of Rs 1,09,106 has been used for cleaning river Ganga from the funds present in CGF. NMCG has approved five projects worth 295.01 crores until now.

Out of five, three projects on sewage management have been stated. Sewage management in West Bangal – Allocation of Rs 278.06crores. Sewage management in Uttarakhand-An estimate of Rs 4.68 crore. Ghat management, Varanasi – An estimate of Rs11.73 crore with an initiative to make bolder pitching and stone steps of the stairs to improve lives in Ghat.

The above sited information is evident as initiatives taken up by Government in the past four years of establishing Namami Gange.

However; there have been perspectives of no change seen in Ganga, Ganga is still polluted. A demand for CBI enquiry has been put forth by a noted environmentalist into the expenditure of Rs 7000 crores both by the Centre and the State in the cleaning of the Haridwar-Unnao stretch (500 km). As per NGT, the Government agencies are wasting public money without any effective pollution control taking place.

The revelations of RTI filed by a student state that Rs 84 crore had been cut off from the initial allocation of Rs 2,037 crore in 2014-15. The Government has only spent an amount of Rs 326 crore of the totals um of Rs 2,037 crore. 1700 crore has still not been used for the necessary purpose. These are the statistical data and how far all the revelations are true is indefinite. Wha’The Flip hopes to witness positive change within the stated time frame by NMCG.

The clean Ganga mission faces a barrage of problems. The Government and people must share responsibility to fix them. Real solutions require shared responsibility between the state and the people. It is time to prioritise citizen engagement. There are similar efforts to build sewage treatment plants (STPs), even though vast segments of the population along the Ganga does not yet have access to sanitation. There is also a need for more education and awareness on the health effects of pollution, as well as the causes of pollution.

However, piecemeal efforts on big STP projects would not lead to any significant impact. A plan to clean Ganga needs to shift focus from such centralised large capital expenditure projects, to a decentralised process that undertakes cleaning-up from upstream to downwards, progressing through each watershed before entering the major trunk channel. Creating a comprehensive and robust real-time map of pollutants and their respective sources would help in effective monitoring of the problem. As 12 major tributaries source the Ganga, its rejuvenation would not be possible without clear rejuvenation strategies for each of its tributaries.

The current push for sanitation will definitely help, but so will other efforts that catch agricultural and industrial waste before they run into the river. It is definitely time to take a comprehensive look at the interconnection between policies such as subsidies, electricity consumption, power use patterns, industrial development, and urbanisation plans. Administration is well aware of the limited capacity of the sewage treatment plants which have been installed.

Neither the STPs are working as they should nor are attempts being made to close the outlets of adjoining buildings dumping sewerage into Ganga. The administration continues to pay lip service without doing anything tangible on the ground. The people residing in the neighbourhood of the holy river echoed the same while citing the failure of the sewage pumping station installed at Vishnu Ghat. They say that a part of the sewage water remains un-pumped and is still flowing right into the river.

All of this takes creativity, innovation, discipline, transparency and strong leadership. The clean up of the Thames in London and the Rhine flowing through Europe suggest this is possible. The Ganga’s waters will ultimately depend on the actions of millions of Indians who depend on it for nutrition, electricity, and spiritual fulfilment, Joshi said.
With a budget outlay of ₹20,000 crore to be executed over five years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project — Namami Gange — launched in 2014, must therefore learn from the past mistakes. However, history serves up a warning. Despite the completion of two Ganga action plans and generous fund flows – ₹900 crore spent over the last 15 years — the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in 2017 had observed that, “not a single drop of the Ganga has been cleaned so far.”

Environmentalists are asking for a legal framework to protect the Ganga and restore its ecosystem. Experts advocate a stricter law to stop pollution in the river.It is time to move beyond mere allocation of money and do serious implementation on the ground. Else, as the Supreme Court has once remarked the government, “it seems Ganga will not be cleaned even after 200 years.

*Bhavya Shree is young Journalist from Guwahati, India)

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