Few will take very seriously the undertaking given by the government in the Supreme Court that River Ganga will be pure and free of pollution by 2020. Similar commitments were made to the public 25 years ago when, in 1985, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) to clean this most treasured of the sub-continent’s rivers was launched. Even after spending several thousand crores of rupees on the project, the Ganga is today more polluted than ever before — a truth recently conceded by the knowledgeable Union minister for environment and forests in Parliament. Ironically, this is the state of affairs even though the Central Ganga Authority, rechristened as National Ganga River Basin Authority, came into existence years ago under the chairmanship of the prime minister to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan. The declaration of Ganga as a National River in 2008 seems to have made little difference. The river’s water, in many stretches, is unfit even for bathing and agricultural use, leave alone drinking, though millions of people still drink it, regarding it Holy. Not only has the content of pathogenic bacteria, notably Coliform (rod-shaped bacteria normally found in the colons of humans and animals) risen to menacing levels in the river, but the amount of biochemical oxygen has also dropped drastically, rendering it incapable of supporting any aquatic life. As a result, several stretches of the river are now bereft of fisheries resources. Rather than giving life, the Ganga seems to be taking it!
A true miracle is needed to make Ganga water drinkable in the next ten years. Little wonder that the amicus curiae of the public interest litigation in the apex court was quick to express his misgivings about the government’s ability to fulfil its time-bound pledge to restore Ganga’s pristine glory. Indeed, it cannot be denied that the task of tidying up the 2,525-km long river spanning nine states is far from easy. But it is not insurmountable either. The root cause of the river’s woes is that, even while being sacred for the believers, it serves virtually as a drain for carrying away sewage and other municipal wastes from nearly 30 Class-I cities, 25 Class-II cities and scores of small towns, besides thousands of villages, situated on its banks. Worse still, industrial wastes, agricultural and chemical residues, carcasses of thousands of animals and half-cremated human bodies are routinely disposed of in the river. Moreover, the discards of religious rituals and thousands of idols of gods also find their way into the river regularly. Unless the Ganga’s many devotees themselves address these issues, and adequate public mobilisation to clean the river is not forthcoming, there is little governments can do. “Clean Ganga” cannot be a bureaucratic top-down government administered programme alone. It also has to be a bottom-up people’s programme. A purely technological and technocratic approach, using a billion dollars of World Bank money and expertise from the Indian Institutes of Technology is not going to work on its own. There has to be a coming together of administrative, technological, scientific, socio-religious, cultural and popular interventions — all working in tandem with the singular aim of reclaiming a lost river — for the Ganga to be cleansed of our sins!