By adding "Ganga rejuvenation" to the nomenclature of the water resources ministry and putting it under the charge of activist-turned-minister Uma Bharti, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has displayed a sense of commitment to fulfilling the promise he made during his pre-poll and post-victory rallies. With this, the inertia in implementing the grandiose Ganga Action Plan may end. However, the task remains too formidable to tackle unless the present strategy is suitably modified and the co-operation of riparian states is ensured. The failure of past tactics is clear from the fact that, despite splurging over Rs 20,000 crore on the Ganga Action Plan, the water of the country's longest river is dirtier today than it was before the launch of this plan in 1986. This can be attributed partly to a worrying disregard for the critical issue of maintaining adequate river flow, which has been severely curtailed owing to the construction of barrages and diversion of water through canals. Much of the Ganga's indigenous water has been diverted into western and eastern Ganga canals from Bhimgoda barrage near Haridwar and a large part of the remainder into lower Ganga canal from Narora. Most of the downstream stretch now carries water drawn from its tributaries, besides wastewater from cities. Little wonder, then, that a study by the River Ecosystem Environment Management and Training Centre at the Banaras Hindu University found in 2010 that hardly one per cent of the original water of the Ganga reaches Varanasi.
Regrettably, the quality of the Ganga's water at most places downstream of Uttarakhand is unfit even for irrigation or bathing, let alone drinking. The count of harmful organisms, including hazardous faecal bacteria, at many locations is more than 100 times the limit set by the government. The water's biochemical oxygen content, which is vital for the survival of aquatic wildlife, has dipped drastically. Consequently, some of the unique native species of the Ganga, such as the river dolphin, the river turtle and the gharial, have been pushed to the verge of extinction. The most serious cause of this is the presence of urban wastewater and untreated discharge from hundreds of chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, tanneries, etc.
The key to cleansing the Ganga, therefore, lies not so much in cosmetic treatments - for example, developing its riverfront at important ghats on the lines of the Sabarmati riverfront in Gujarat - as in taking concrete measures to avert further degradation of water and push cleaner water into the river. This would require either the reduction of water diversion or the augmentation of the river's flow by bringing in water from other sources. In other words, some canals must go dry to fulfil Mr Modi's promise. There are real trade-offs to be made, and the government must not shy away from them. Moreover, discharge of untreated effluents or wastewater into the river should be ruthlessly curbed. Apart from that, the encroachment of riverbed should be stopped. This may call for enacting legislation to create a river regulation zone similar to the one for coastal regulation zones. All these actions will have major socio-religious and economic consequences. Mr Modi has taken on a challenge that will severely test his government's management skills.