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Don’t just clean the Ganga, save it

LiveMint logoLiveMint 09-06-2014 Livemint

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. A ready example of this is the manner in which India has gone about cleaning its biggest river, the Ganga, over the past 28 years. What started out as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), a focused programme to arrest the falling quality of Ganga water in 1986, is now an example of how to kill a river. Pick any list of the world’s dirtiest rivers and chances are both the Ganga and Yamuna, its main tributary, will be among the condemned.

On the face of it though, it is a surprising result. GAP and its later avatars received adequate money—reportedly, a sum of `20,000 crore has already been spent. They also received political patronage from the highest offices of the land—starting with Rajiv Gandhi’s involvement in setting up the GAP to Manmohan Singh’s push in 2008 that declared the Ganga the national river. What went wrong? It was the misdiagnoses of the real ailment.

For nearly three decades successive governments have been focusing on the symptom rather than the disease, the symptom being the growing pollution of the river. However, the real problem has been the declining flow of water downstream and steady destruction of the ecosystem that nourishes the river but this has rarely found any attention.

That is not to say that the GAP could cure at least the symptom. Far from it. Stuck in the typical bureaucratic quagmire, the implementation of GAP, which was expanded to include the Ganga’s tributaries as well in 1993, has been neither adequate nor successful. As a result, a city such as Varanasi only has the capacity to treat one-third of the total sewage it dumps into the Ganga. To make it worse, the efficacy of the installed sewage treatment plants has been hampered by lack of electricity and accountability. The responsibility to make things work at the ground level is spread over seven to nine departments at the state level including tourism, water resources, urban development, irrigation, the pollution control board and industries—the list goes on. If one wanted to fix responsibility for a lackadaisical approach, it would be near impossible. It is another matter that rarely, if at all, were such questions asked. The story is repeated, with minor changes, in every big polluting city along the Ganga—such as Kanpur, which drains the most deadly pollutants known to man in less than modest quantities.

While on the one hand, the absolute amount of untreated sewage and industrial contaminants drained into the Ganga has risen, on the other, the actual flow of water in the river has come down. This has compounded the problem to a scale where merely cleaning will not suffice.

The time has come for India to distinguish between pollution abatement and rejuvenating the river. Controlling pollution is a small part of the whole problem. What is urgently needed is a holistic approach to revive the Ganga. This will require catchment restoration and enrichment to ensure ecological flows and make the river perennial.

It is here that the new government seems to be unclear about the task ahead.

Reclaiming the Ganga’s glorious past will not be possible without the active collaboration of the four key states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal) through which it flows. What makes this task more difficult is the fact that none of these states has a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Going by the statements of Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav, who reportedly said that he’d like to see how much the Ganga can be cleaned in the next five years, convincing other stakeholders will not be easy.

But to begin with, the BJP-led government at the centre must understand the real issue at hand. Exhortations about building waterways are like putting the cart before the horse. The Ganga needs to be revived in full. Nor should the so-called success of the Sabarmati riverfront in Gujarat be held up as a model for the Ganga. By most accounts, the brief stretch of the Sabarmati which is being lauded is preceded by a dry patch upstream, and a very dirty river downstream, not to mention the fact that the water in the Sabarmati is not its own—an element which will surely not work in the Ganga’s case.

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