“Mujhe Ma Ganga ne bulaya hai (Mother Ganga has summoned me)” was a slogan that worked magic for the would-be prime minister Narendra Modi in Varanasi. A promise that Modi made during his election campaign in the city was cleaning of the Ganga, that finds mention in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) manifesto under the ‘cultural heritage’ head. A separate river ministry is also being mooted to indicate the focus that the new government might put on the matter.
In fact, the Ganga Action Plan — a Rs 462-crore project — has been on since 1986, but still the flow and the depth of the river has gone down drastically, leading to a bigger mess, said Sushmita Sengupta, deputy programme manager, Water Programme Unit at the Centre for Science and Environment.
The Ganga Action Plan was launched by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in Varanasi, assuring the people of a clean Ganga which stretches 2,500 km. The plan was later extended to other major rivers, including the Yamuna, under the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP).
The steps that were taken in the programme included interception and diversion of raw sewage, setting up of sewage treatment plants, creation of low-cost sanitation facilities, setting up of electric/improved wood crematoria and river-front development.
Outgoing Union Environment Minister Veerappa Moily had in February 2014 said in a reply in Parliament that the government has so far spent Rs 939 crore under the Ganga Action Plan towards 524 schemes.
One of the initial tasks in hand for the Modi government should be to restore the ecological flow of the Ganga, environmentalists say. “There are 115 small rivers that connect with the Ganga basin. We rejuvenated seven small rivers in the comparatively drier parts of Rajasthan. The government should focus on restoring the ecological flow of the remaining 108,” said Rajendra Singh, better known as the ‘waterman of India' for his efforts in water harvesting and management in Rajasthan.
No new dams should be constructed on the Ganga basin, Singh said. "68 dams are proposed to be built on Ganga. However, it doesn't mean that you deconstruct the old dams. The ecological flow has to be restored," Singh said.
Singh was also a former member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NRBA), a body constituted in February 2009 and headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for reducing pollution and conservation of Ganga. However, he had resigned along with two other members claiming the organisation had become a “toothless body” with no accountability.
The authority was formed after protests by activists against the failure of GAP (Phase 1). However, NGRBA also came under severe criticism as only three meetings have been held so far. “Rejuvenating a river is no rocket science, but the government has failed miserably in the past due to its lack of commitment towards the river,” said Singh.
Under NGRBA, 56 schemes in 44 towns have been covered and Rs 3,031 crore sanctioned. The government has spent Rs 785 crore till September 2013 on project implementation, according to the environment ministry.
Experts argue that despite many initiatives, nothing has improved on the ground. “The biochemical oxygen demand (total oxygen by bacteria to decompose organic matter) is very high if you go to Haridwar, Kanpur and Kannauj,” said Sengupta. The faecal coliform (a kind of bacteria that comes out from raw sewage) is above the acceptable level. This is because there is no adequate flow to dilute the contaminant, and there is an increase in untreated sewage released by industries, Sengupta explained.
While the plan of action may be the same as before, the implementation is the key. For instance, one must deal with encroachment along the river bed. “Constructing sewage treatment plants alone won't help,” said Brij Gopal, former environment science professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Gopal said public participation was another key element that has to be brought in by the new government.
Though the Sabarmati in Gujarat is often offered as an ideal example of how a river can be cleaned, experts said the Ganga cannot be equated with the Sabarmati, which is just 300-km long. “The Ganga is a socio-cultural river. Millions come to offer prayers on its banks; there has to be a different approach,” said Singh.
Some environmentalists slammed the Sabarmati model of cleaning the river. “Riverfront development is not the right approach for the Ganga. Releasing Narmada water into Sabarmati can never be a long-term solution,” said an environmentalist who did not wish to be named.
* Ganga cleaning has been a poll plank for almost three decades
* Ganga Action Plan has been in place since 1986
* Ganga stretches across 2,500 km while the Sabarmati is 300-km long
* Govt has so far incurred Rs 939 crore under the Ganga Action Plan