Let The Ganga Flow
To millions of people the Ganga is sustainer of life through multitude of canal system. Hundreds of the villages and even the big cities depend for their drinking water on this river. It is believed, a fact which has also been observed, that the water of the Ganga never decays even for months and years when water of other rivers and agencies begins to develop bacteria and fungi within a couple of days
River Ganga (Ganges) has been held in high esteem since time immemorial and Hindus from all over the world cherish the idea of a holy dip in the river under the faith that by doing so they will get rid of their sins of life. More than 400 million people live along the Ganga river. An estimated 2,000,000 persons ritually bathe daily in the river. Historically also, the Ganga is the most important river of the country and beyond doubt is closely connected with the history of civilization as can be noticed from the location of the ancient cities of Hardwar, Prayag, Kashi and Patliputra on its banks. To millions of people it is sustainer of life through multitude of canal system. Hundreds of the villages and even the big cities depend for their drinking water on this river. It is believed, a fact which has also been observed, that the water of the Ganga never decays even for months and years when water of other rivers and agencies begins to develop bacteria and fungi within a couple of days. This self-purification characteristic of the Ganga is the key to the holiness and sanctity of its water. The combination of bacteriophages and large populations of people bathing in the river have apparently produced a self-purification effect, in which water-borne bacteria such as dysentery and cholera are killed off, preventing large-scale epidemics. The river also has an unusual ability to retain dissolved oxygen.
Today, one third of the country’s urban population lives in the towns of the Ganga basin. Out of the 2,300 towns in the country, 692 are located in this basin, and of these, 100 are located along the river bank itself. The belief the Ganga river is “holy” has not, however, prevented over-use, abuse and pollution of the river. All the towns along its length contribute to the pollution load. It has been assessed that more than 80 per cent of the total pollution load (in terms of organic pollution expressed as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD)) arises from domestic sources, i.e. from the settlements along the river course. Due to over-abstraction of water for irrigation in the upper regions of the river, the dry weather flow has been reduced to a trickle. Rampant deforestation in the last few decades, resulting in topsoil erosion in the catchment area, has increased silt deposits which, in turn, raise the river bed and lead to devastating floods in the rainy season and stagnant flow in the dry season. Along the main river course there are 25 towns with a population of more than 100,000 each and about another 23 towns with population above 50,000 each. In addition there are 50 smaller towns with populations above 20,000 each. There are also about 100 identified major industries located directly on the river, of which 68 are considered to be grossly polluting.
In assigning the clean-up of the great Ganges/’Ganga’ river as one of Narendra Modi’s top priorities of his election agenda, there is effectively a clear political rather than a scientific tag attached to a much needed rehabilitation of this 1,568 mile-long river. The Centre wants to develop the river as a tourism destination, as a means of transport, fisheries hub and for power generation. And Narendra Modi, within a fortnight of taking over as Prime Minister, has set the ball rolling to change the polluted river into a world-class tourism and infrastructure hub.
The Ganga is the lifeline for a huge chunk of population, starting from its point of origination in Gangotri, Uttarakhand to West Bengal wherein it empties in the Bay of Bengal. During this journey of around 2,500 kilometers, industrial waste, sewerage, human and cattle carcases and a lot of other untreated waste and chemicals are dumped into the river.
During his election campaign, Modi had promised to take measures to clean up the river. The quick movement on the issue indicates the seriousness that the government is attaching to the issue. The first step on the river’s clean-up and development came recently when an inter-ministerial group chaired by transport minister Nitin Gadkari met. The meeting was attended by Union minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation Uma Bharti, environment & forest minister Prakash Javadekar and tourism minister Shripad Yasso Naik. Besides, the department dealing with river conservation is also expected to move soon to Uma Bharti’s ministry for better coordination.
The panel formed an inter-ministerial committee of secretaries. In a month, this committee will submit a report offering a comprehensive road map for the government to move ahead on the matter. Following the report, a cabinet note will be prepared to get the project off the ground, said Gadkari.
“We have decided to meet from time to time to take forward this issue, which is a top priority for the government and a subject included in our party-manifesto,” said water resources minister Uma Bharti.
The learnings from the cleaning of the Ganga will then be extended for the development of other rivers, said Bharti.
Detailing how the river will be used for transport, Gadkari emphasised that the river will be widened by 45 metres and deeper by 3 meters in the first phase to ferry passengers and goods between Varanasi and Hoogly. Eleven terminals are also proposed to be constructed along the Ganga’s banks. Environment ministry, on the other hand, will work on solutions to make the river pristine by taking various measures at Kanpur and other places.
As per a parliamentary committee report in 2012 (starting from the eight five-year plan onwards), Rs 39,225.95 crore have been allotted for the Ganga Action Plan-II to clean the river under various schemes, but pollution in the river continues to increase.
In his reply to a question on when the government proposes to formulate an action plan for cleaning the Ganga and Yamuna, Minister of State for Water Resources, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, said that it is expected to be drawn up by December of this year following consultations with stakeholders. Since the inception of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), 76 schemes at a total cost of Rs 5,004.19 crore have been sanctioned in 48 towns in the states through which the Ganga passes. “Against this, Rs 1,229.87 crore have been released by the Centre, including the matching share of the states so far, and a total expenditure of Rs 838.76 crore have been incurred till March 2014 for implementation of the projects,” Gangwar said. A Memorandum of Agreement for 10 years was signed in 2010 by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and a consortium of seven IITs for preparation of a comprehensive Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP). The National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, BHU, and various universities and research institutes are also involved in the GRBMP.
Amidst all this Supreme Court criticized the government for not moving rapidly to clean up the Ganga, despite promises in the BJP’s manifesto, and instead focusing on low-priority areas .
“Where is the urgency in dealing with this matter? The people are waiting. Your election manifesto said that it (cleaning up of the Ganga) would be done on a war footing. Where is the urgency? No one is showing any urgency,” a three-judge bench, led by Justice TS Thakur, said. He was addressing his comments to Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar during a hearing on a PIL filed by green activist MC Mehta way back in 1985. Kumar said that the government was ready with plans to address the problem, but did not reveal the specifics.
In his maiden budget speech the Finanace Minister Arun Jaitley proposed to set up an integrated Ganaga Conservation Mission called Namami Gange. An amount of 2,037 crore has been set aside for the mission in the current budget. The mission is being launched because a substantial amount of money has been spent in the conservation and improvement of the river Ganga but the efforts have not yielded desired results because of the lack of concerted effort by all the stakeholders. To harness the enthusiasm of the NRI community to contribute towards the conservation of the river Ganga, an NRI fund for Ganga will be set up which will finance special projects. The Finance Minister also set aside a sum of Rs. 100 crore for ghat development and beautification of river front at Kedarnath, Haridwar, Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad and Patna in the current financial year since these are places of rich historical heritage.
However, this is not a new idea. Let’s give some credit to where it is due; it was after all an initiative called the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan in April 1986 to clean the Ganga. This Action Plan was well intentioned but didn’t yield the spectacular results that had been intended and expected. Sewage treatment plants can treat the water for pollution but financially it is a very costly effort, as the scale of this initiative is unimaginable, which means that it takes years if not decades. All water treatment options depends on the types of finances available (reverse osmosis, sedimentation using anaerobic treatment, use of turtles and ducks, planting neem trees etc). There were various efforts such as releasing soft-shelled snapper turtles to clean it. Apparently, much of the turtles had been fished out and eaten by the populace. One has to also take into account that 25 cities were covered (including Kanpur and Varanasi) that had been chosen in Phase 1 (this ended in 1995), at a cost of approximately 700 crore rupees according to the Independent Broadcasting Source Associates [I BSA]. The Phased II extended the Ganga Action Plan to an additional 59 cities and major towns along the river. The effort is ongoing.
People may be critical of such efforts but a river needs to come back to its normal levels without the heavy sedimentation of various pollutants (like hexavalent chromium, mercury, etc). A comparative effort of the Baltic Sea research and that of the Three Gorges Dam and pollution in China would reveal the various enormous man-made efforts to cleanse rivers and in other places even to replenish the depleted aquifers over a number of years.
The Gandhi administration had intended to treat pollution before it was discharged into the Ganga river This would be achieved basically through sewage treatment plants. Political initiatives apart, the cleanliness ritual is primordial in Hindu philosophy, and Hindu culture. Therefore, casting what remains of the rest of the funeral ashes, tannery chemicals, and pollutants is not going to help re-cycle an overcharged polluted river overnight into pristinely clear waters. Making the Ganga water potable is a supreme challenge for the time being, but it is not an impossible one. However, there is a giant step to do so. For a start, making use of government crematoriums ought to reduce the pollution level of the river and make it financially affordable for the poorer segments of the Indian population. Carcasses of partially burned corpses, birds and other domestic animals that float on the Ganga river do not augur well for pollution abatement. Having a ‘Swachha Ganga’ means that a much-needed rehabilitation is called for solid waste management, public health, sanitation, and recycling, have building awareness is necessary. Blame and advice are free and whatever the shade of political support, the river Ganga still needs support from every one, therefore it is in the international and Indian national interests to have it ecologically friendly. Upstream there is even greater pollution in Nepal so it ought to be not only a national effort but international, intra-state and inter-state efforts. Therefore, it stands to reason that a much wider societal effort is needed.
“It is my dream to restore sacred Ganga’s glory and utilise this ancient river’s full potential by using it as a waterway from Gangotri to Kanpur and Kanpur to Patna to transport cargo and man. We held a meeting with key officials of the ministry to chart out ways for transforming this ancient river into a mode for cargo and public transport. We will assess the possibilities of dredging and other measures. Cleanliness of Ganga has been in our manifesto. There will be no hanky-panky business here. There will be full transparency, full accountability and e-governance, and there would be no favouritism and nepotism. Time- bound, transparent work to fulfill the expectations of the people is our hope. Our will power is strong and we all want to work for the Ganges dedicatedly because our commitment towards this work is not just as a development project, but our beliefs and reverence are attached with this work. Barrages- cum-bridges are proposed to be constructed at every 100 km on the river and the ministry has sent the proposal to World Bank for develo-pment of Allahabad-Haldia corridor.”
“We will make cleaning up Ganga a people’s movement, in keeping with the vision of the prime minister. We are seeking the help of everybody. We are looking for a huge mass movement. MPs and MLAs who come from seats falling along Ganga will also be part of this manthan. Narendra Modi is the MP from Benares. So obviously he is a prominent part of this exercise. We will be using various technologies for rejuvenation of river Ganga. We will be utilising the services of IIT experts and explore all possible options. The Modi government is concentrating on how fast we can usher in development without any flaw… We are executing things at a fast phase. The Ganga rejuvenation project would be completed within the shortest period. My ministry would take up the task of cleaning up others rivers too, such as Yamuna and the same parameters will apply for cleaning and purifying the rivers, but this will not be possible without a jan andolan. The concept of interlinking of rivers has been halted. The earlier government did nothing… Therefore, it has not progressed further in the last 10 years. There was no activity… We would use modern technology for the purpose. We will not flout any environmental rules in anyway. We have decided that we will create a website as part of Ganga clean-up to get suggestions from various stakeholders and soon, suggestions will be uploaded. We will discuss the suggestions and move towards a conclusion.”
VARANASI: A REALITY CHECK FOR MODI
Ma Ganga aur Benares se mera rishta purana hai (My link with Mother Ganga and Benares is old), Narendra Modi proclaimed to Varanasi from his lofty vantage points in India’s holiest city.
That’s, perhaps, understandable. Anyone visiting this ancient centre of Hindu culture and one of the world’s oldest living cities cannot but be taken aback by the sights and smells of Benares as the residents prefer to call it. Officially, it is Varanasi and Constituency no. 77 in the 16th Lok Sabha elections, the arena of a grand contest where the country’s most formidable political leader, the BJP’s Modi, took on 41 other contenders. It is here that the BJP leader had staked his prestige and power, pushing aside the party’s sitting MP, Murali Manohar Joshi, in a strategy that was aimed to consolidate the Hindu vote.
Modi and the BJP have come up with an inspired line to woo the Benarasis. At the spectacular road show that the party organised for the leader’s nomination, Modi had said: “After coming here, I felt neither BJP has sent me nor I have come here on my own. I am here because Mother Ganga has called me. I am like a small boy coming to the mother’s lap.”
But Varanasi calls everyone, the living, the dying and the dead. The view on Varanasi’s Assi ghat is very soothing. The Ganga flows peacefully, its currents carrying meditative boats that are etched against the setting sun. But this is transient happiness. If people look to the other side, the Varanasi of dilapidated buildings and garbage mounds assaults one’s senses all over again.
One can get up as early as 5 am hoping to commune quietly with the legendary river. But it’s always a hope belied. Even at that hour, the living and the dead are fighting for space in India’s holiest river, fouling it in indescribable ways. At Manikarnika ghat where much of the cremations take place the fires never go out, day or night. Logs, segregated for quality, are stacked in grim piles, while forlorn relatives make their way through dense heaps of rotting flowers and food.
Modi’s solution for this problem is to create state-of-the-art tourist and infrastructure facilities for Varanasi which he plans to make a world heritage site. In a blog written just before he filed his nomination, the three-time Gujarat chief minister harked back to the model he knows best: the Sabarmati waterfront project for which water is drawn from another river, the Narmada.
“When I took over as CM in 2001, the condition of Sabarmati was similar. Switch to 2014 and things are very different! We have brought water from the Narmada and now water flows through the Sabarmati. A world-class Sabarmati river front was created, which has emerged as a popular recreation and cultural spot in Ahmedabad… this is what we intend to replicate in Varanasi.Once we are able to give the required impetus to tourism, it will not only bring more tourists but also enhance the livelihood of the poorest of the poor. More tourists mean more income for those associated with temples, those who are living on the ghats, those who ride the ferries on the Ganga…the entire town and surrounding areas will receive a much needed facelift.” However, how he will deal with the daily reality of Benares is not very clear.
Cruising along a five-km arc of the Ganga with its cheek-by- jowl bathing and cremation ghats, temples and fortresses, one sees giant sewage pipes spewing slimy green filth into the Ganga not far from where people were soaping themselves vigorously or praying immersed in the waters, their rapt faces turned towards the rising sun. Faith trumps everything in Benares, even the sludge and the stench. Around 32,000 bodies are cremated on the ghats, resulting in 300 tonnes of ash. Worse, 200 tonnes of half-burnt human flesh pollutes the river. Besides, over 3,000 bodies were found floating in the river in a recent survey. Then there is the sewerage. The current estimate is that 300-350 million litres of sewage is dumped daily into the river. The problem is the city’s sewage treatment plants can treat only 100 million litres and even that in haphazard way since they use obsolete technology. From the pilgrims, to the boatmen and to the dhobis who occupy a sprawling section of the ghats, it makes no difference.
By Nilabh Krishna