Ganga · Ministry of Water Resources


(Above: River Ganga at Rishikesh Photo with thanks from Ramesh Rawat, India Travelz)

– Guest Blog by: Manoj Misra (  Author is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

A ‘road map’ might be an inappropriate term for a ‘river’ rejuvenation plan. Thus I am using the term, a ‘river map’.

It is well known that despite the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) being in place since the year 1985 and the Supreme Court adjudicating public interest litigation on it since 1993 the river has become increasingly sick with some stretches notably in Kanpur deserving a biologically ‘dead’ status. So it came as a huge sign of hope when the Prime Minister Modi took upon Ganga rejuvenation as a personal mission and appointed Sushri Uma Bharti, a well known Ganga devotee and activist as the Union Minister of the renamed Ministry of Water resources, River development and Ganga rejuvenation. Soon the Finance Minister in the new government allocated financial resources to the tune of Rs 2037 Crores in the name of Nemami Gange (devotional bow to river Ganga) a flagship scheme of the new government, which is aimed at the rejuvenation of river Ganga.

Yet in recent days the Supreme Court time and again has chided the state on the lack of a sound action plan for its avowed objective of a rejuvenated river Ganga. So much so that it once, in an obvious exasperation on the state’s ‘business as usual’ approach to the issue, commented that “it might well be another 200 years before Ganga is actually rejuvenated”? Clearly notwithstanding its firm intent, the state continues to struggle with defining a ‘road (river) map’ that could while convincing the highest court in the land of its utility, set a clear and effective action plan on the ground for a rejuvenated Maa (mother) Ganga?


Let us try and see what does Ganga really require for its rejuvenation?

Term ‘rejuvenation’, which includes restoration, is a return of any living entity from what it is today to an agreed state of previous health and wellness. To unravel that we might first need to understand ‘what is’ and ‘where is’ river Ganga?

Most planners tend to view Ganga as a 2500 km long river from Gaumukh to Ganga Sagar, passing through the cities of Uttarkashi, Devprayag, Rishikesh and Hardwar in the state of Uttarakhand; Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh; Patna in the state of Bihar and Kolkata in the state of West Bengal before merging with the sea in the Bay of Bengal.

Herein, we understand lay the first fundamental planning mistake. For if Ganga were a simple linear entity as planners hold, then King Bhagirath would have unnecessarily carried out tapasya (penance) placating Lord Shiva to hold Ganga in his jata (matted locks) as she descended with massive force from the Brahm Lok (abode of the gods) with a presumed potential to wreck absolute havoc on the mrityu lok (earth) unless its speed had been broken. This mythical tale translates itself into an earthly reality whereby Ganga actually resides in each and every spring, in every water fall and in every stream that together form the vast network of its tributaries spread over its vast basin. So Ganga rejuvenation plan to make sense and desired impact must encompass actions to revive and restore all these numerous streams and tributaries.

The water fall is as much the Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
The water fall is as much the Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)
Small rivulets are as much Ganga (Photo by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan)

Thus any rejuvenation plan that fails to look at and factor in the Ganga’s larger reality is destined to fail, a la all the previous Ganga Action Plans. All put together Ganga is no less than 25,000 km in length,   with a basin spread of some 1,086,000 sq km. (see map) These include areas in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, UP, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal within and China, Nepal and Bangladesh outside of India. With such a huge basin, the rejuvenational challenge might appear daunting, leading to an alluring thought that let us first try and rejuvenate the 2500 km of the main stem of the river and then may be tackle the rest. This we believe to be a fatal approach akin to fire fighting, without getting to the root cause, with the most immediate organ of a cancer afflicted human resulting ultimately organ by organ in the latter’s demise. Let us not forget that a healthy river system is like a multi-strand chain which is ‘as strong as its weakest link’. Hence as long as even one tributary remains sick, there can be no respite or rejuvenation of Maa Ganga!

Ganga river basin (Source:
Ganga river basin (Source:

In other words there is no single river Ganga. It is actually ‘Ganga Rivers’ spread all over its basin and carrying names like the Yamuna; Ramganga; Gomti; Mahakali (Ghaghara); Son; Gandak, Koshi etc with each in turn having their own network of rivers and their rejuvenational requirements, since over time majority of them have as well gone ‘sick’.


Some might ask, but then what could be done with tributaries lying or originating in Nepal, Bangladesh or in China? A lot actually, beginning with not promoting or supporting river ‘inhibiting’ projects there and then taking lead in a common futures dialogue (an International Ganga Rivers Commission) program on Ganga as the Ganga rivers are in need of rejuvenation there as well.

Dwelling more on what are the river ‘inhibiting’ projects we are led to what constitutes a river’s integrity?

A ‘healthy’ river must ‘run’ freely and must ‘flood’ freely. (Floods in Indian rivers are natural monsoonal occurrence which could become devastating when obstructed).

That is its longitudinal and lateral connectivities must not be allowed to be compromised through manmade structures like dams, barrages and embankments. Such connectivities are essential for a river system to fulfill its ecological roles of transport of water, sediment and energy from source to the sea; recharge of ground water; provision of habitat to aquatic and riparian biota and completion of the water cycle.

In other words, a healthy river is essentially an ‘aviral’ (unbroken in its various dimensions) river. Thus the key challenge and objective of any Ganga rejuvenation plan has to be first and foremost its restoration back to a truly ‘aviral’ state.


Accordingly the following five steps are suggested as the ‘river map’ to a rejuvenated river Ganga.

Step 1 – Establish local level Ganga rejuvenation governance systems to ensure participatory bottom up planning and action plan execution. Support this with the establishment of a Ganga Rivers governance research centre.

Step 2 – Prioritise tributaries (Ganga Rivers) for restorative actions on the basis of their current level of threats and develop restorative action plans utilizing the governance systems as mentioned in step 1.

Step 3 – Establish through a participatory process a desired state of the rejuvenated Ganga; devise a national Ganga rivers policy and a Ganga rejuvenation law.  Initiate dialogue with the Ganga nations for an International Ganga rivers Commission.

Step 4 – Review through independent experts, all past, present and planned river ‘inhibiting’ projects on the Ganga Rivers and then either re-design them to become river friendly or decommission / drop them. There should be a moratorium placed on any new structure (barrage, HEP, embankment) on Ganga Rivers till such time that all local level options of water harvesting and energy production (including solar and wind) have been exhausted with a policy that river waters and HEPs shall be the last resort for meeting such needs.

Step 5 – Set a time bound plan of action for ensuring aviral and wholesome Ganga ‘rivers’, with plans for ensuring their flows (water, sediment and energy) as well as the restoration of their catchment, flood plains and the associated biodiversity (aquatic, riparian and terrestrial).

The steps as suggested above are not sequential in nature and many could progress concurrently.  

To a query “what then about the hydropower and water supply for fulfilling various human needs”, the response is twofold.

Firstly, this is the Ganga rejuvenation plan based on what Ganga Rivers need for the restoration of their health. Secondly, hydro-power generation and water diversion cannot be in excess of the thresholds as defined by the rejuvenational requirements of the healthy Ganga Rivers.

A rejuvenated Ganga has to be seen as a ‘provider within strict limits’ (as enunciated by the Prime Minister Modi on the banks of Maa Ganga in Varanasi, when he defined what a Maa (mother) is) and not what we in our flawed wisdom might wish to harness from her, with little concern for her deteriorating health and in disregard to the principle of inter-generational equity.


The Indian state under the Ganga Action Plan had been investing time, money and efforts to restore the river Ganga through creation of pollution abatement infrastructure like the Sewage treatment plants (STPs) and the Effluent treatment plants (ETPs) in various cities and industries on the river in the name of ‘river cleaning’ with little ameliorative impact on the health of the river. In our understanding despite the poor maintenance being the cause of the failure of the created infrastructure, this approach to river restoration is fundamentally misplaced and hence wrong.

We believe that our rivers require restoration (based on the steps suggested before) of their ecological integrity in terms of their freedom to ‘flow’ and ‘flood’. Once thus freed, they possess all the power of self cleansing, subject to the observance of the fundamental principle of no mixing of ‘sewer’ with ‘river’.  Here by ‘sewer’ we mean all kinds of grey water produced both by the cities and the industries.

Thus there is no mention of any river ‘cleaning’ or creation of STPs / ETPs as part of the suggested Ganga rejuvenation plan. The installation of such infrastructure is we believe to be an essential element of the process of urbanization and industrialization whereby the grey water from the cities and industries is converted into utilizable water for recycle and reuse to meet the non potable water needs both of the cities and the industries. But to do so in the name of river cleaning is in our understanding an ostrich like approach which takes away the attention and resource allocation from the real needs of river restoration based on the sound principles of river science.

Prime Minister Modi’s another oft quoted aphorism of “Zero defect and zero effect/ impact” should be made applicable not just to good manufacturing practices but also to good urban management practices with mandatory zero impact on any river that happens to pass by. AMEN!

Manoj Misra (



    The rejuvenation of the Ganga River is a serious concern currently of Government and society alike, in India. Many initiatives have been taken in the past, at great cost, without much effect. There needs to be a radical reform in the approach and strategy to address this task.

    In our opinion, the one critical shortcoming or lacunae in all the initiatives so far has been the neglect or refusal to see the Ganga River ‘AS A WHOLE’.

     The physical river is not seen as a whole; administrative boundaries become more prominent in planning.

     The physical river is not perceived in integration with the land mass- the watershed- to which it owes its water and into which it drains.

     All categories of land are not seen integrally with the river- the slopes, the valleys, the plains, the plateaus, ravines.

     All types of vegetation on land mass is not seen integrally with the river- the forest, the pastures, crop lands, barren lands, orchards, mangroves.

     All types of water bodies are not seen integrally with the river- streams, lakes, ponds, underground aquifers, springs.

    This dis-integration is a legacy of the ‘Divide and Rule ‘ policy of our British colonizers which encompassed not only social, economic and political dimensions of our society, but most importantly the environmental.

    Evidence of a superior approach can be derived from our antiquity. In the Mauryan period (321 BC to 185 BC), ancient systems of water management saw the most comprehensive development. An examination of an ancient text–Sage Kashyapa’s treatise on agriculture- reveals five principles of water resources development that obtained in traditional Indian society.

    These are:

    • That water resources development must begin at the origin ( Udhgamsthana) of a river. Temples were always constructed at the origins, which were thereby protected; upper catchments were developed first by diverting and guiding streams and rivulets.
    • The second principle prescribes the least interference in natural flows, be they water, air or blood ( Nyunatam Gati –avarodh). This principle is based on the appreciation of maintaining the hydrological cycle.
    • The third principle related to the Golden Mean or Suvarna Madhya. The scales, sizes and shapes and designs of water structures were determined by the existing needs of users and their economic, organizational and societal competence. As a result, “appropriateness” rather than “maximum” was the norm applied in determining quantities of water to be impounded, to balance with needs and competence of users.
    • The fourth principle emphasized the inter-dependence between all natural resources – land-water-forest-fauna. In accordance with this principle, sacred groves were established at the origins, confluences and middle regimes of rivers. Tanks and bunds were interspersed with sacred groves and agricultural lands, thus dispersing the utilization of water.
    • The fifth principle is that of participation and self-determination (Sahabagh, Swabhava and Sanskara). The planning process was made transparent and open. Different roles were assumed by the different segments of society. The King was responsible for commissioning and financing the development of water systems, as well as fixing and collecting water rates The sages and priests were responsible for conceptualization and supervisory advice. The peasants’ role was the physical construction of systems and decision making on responsibilities and benefits; maintenance and operation was also a village responsibility.

    Identify 10 major challenges/ issues facing the Ganga that need improvement

    1. Restoring and protecting First order / second order streams of Ganga and tributaries in Himalayas [India and Nepal]- they are becoming seasonal, drying up in summer, and flooding in rainy season, due to lack of appropriate [species, canopy thickness]forest cover. Restoring appropriate forest cover, constructing check dams, contour trenches at origin of rivers is a major challenge.

    2. Preventing diversion of rivers through tunnels, and discharge of huge volume of water in continuous flow at end of tunnels back into river — both are creating great damage- diversion is killing river and biotic resources, and huge discharge is damaging river beds and biological resources. Tunnelling is creating landslides into river beds and increasing sediment levels.

    3. Inappropriate Reservoirs design – they are preventing adequate flows in river, and also transforming the biological profiles of rivers which maintain their health.

    4. Preventing inappropriate construction near/on/at river beds in both hills and plains.

    5. Preventing Pollution from household sewage, tourism related garbage, livelihood related and industrial pollutants from origin of river and tributaries right down to delta.

    6. Preventing Improper cremation practices at specific locations leading to unburnt bodies disposal into Ganga.

    7. Identifying and mapping all flora and fauna/wildlife that are part of the Ganga and all its tributaries, assessing their health, threats and preparing and implementing plans to restore them.

    8. Identifying and mapping all livelihoods related to Ganga and tributaries and all related stakeholders , assessing their problems and needs and addressing them through policy and law.

    9. Finding an appropriate eco-friendly solution to floods in UP/Bihar [learn from the pre-British past ] and forever put a complete stop to flood related migration.

    10. Addressing the problems of Ganga Delta.

    11. Appropriate and adequate Institutional Framework for Ganga Rejuvenation- Mandate a Ganga Samiti for every single first order / second order / third order / fourth order /fifth order/ sixth order …. Stream, river from origin to delta to plan and implemented a concerted action plan for Ganga.

    12. Preparing an Economic Blueprint for Ganga that is sustainable and democratic reflecting a convergence of centralized and decentralized instruments.

    13. Addressing international issues and concerns on Ganga waters – make Nepal a Partner.

    Development Centre for Alternative Policies
    New Delhi


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