There has been no lack of symbolism, funds, infrastructure, technology, promises, big statements and periodic announcements for Ganga by the Modi government. In fact, grand statements started even before the 2014 Parliamentary elections. But how do we gauge if there was an intention to rejuvenate the Ganga? May be if we could see a credible road map, a clear sense of purpose. If we could see signs of attempt to understand what the “development” plans are doing to the river. If we had a clear definition of what constitutes Ganga and what are the time bound goals of Nirmal and Aviral Ganga. Does the Namami Gange, the central program of Modi government on Ganga since May 2014 clear any of the tests? Even towards achieving Nirmal (clean) Ganga, if not Aviral (incessantly flowing) Ganga? Unfortunately, there is none.
As INDIA RIVERS WEEK 2018 gets underway in Delhi during Nov 24-26, 2018 with theme “Can India Rejuvenate Ganga“, let us try and see the state of Ganga and Namami Gange in the context of what is happening on this front in recent years.
On the other hand, the government is doing a lot that adversely affects the river. These includes continued onslaught of Hydropower projects, more dams, Inter-linking of Rivers (e.g. Ken Betwa link that will not only facilitate export of water from Bundelkhand, but entail cutting down of – hold your breath – 46 lakh trees, Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken River), Waterways, dredging, river front development, Char Dham Highway, even Swachchh Bharat Abhiyaan, continued unsustainable sand mining, encroachments into river and extraction of groundwater and other resources at increasing rates. It can be no one’s case that no development activities should be taken up in the Ganga basin. But one would have expected at least an honest attempt to assess the impacts of these interventions on the river. But consistent effort of the government has been to avoid even assessment of impacts as far as possible, and where inevitable, its done through most dishonest efforts. All this has resulted in worsening state of Ganga and spectacular failure of Namami Gange[i].
Modi replaced Uma Bharti with Nitin Gadkari in September 2017, possibly signaling that a ‘go-getter’ minister would achieve better results. And Gadkari is good at contracts management, but that is clearly not good enough to achieve a rejuvenated river. Gadkari’s statements on the Ganga have only shown his shifting, vague and slippery goalposts. He started by saying he would achieve an 80 per cent clean Ganga by March 2019 and 90 per cent by December 2019. The latest version says his ministry will try to achieve a 70 per cent clean Ganga by March 2019, not bothering to clarify what parameters, at which location and what baseline will be used to measure this percentage impact. The objective is clearly impossible, considering the trajectory and current state of the river. Perhaps he meant that he would award all the contracts and spend most of the money allocated for the World Bank-supported Ganga Cleaning Project by March 2019. But awarding contracts or even disbursement of all the money under the project cannot be equated with achieving a clean Ganga.
Modi’s Namami Gange follows the same pattern: more funds, more infrastructure and some technology that the failed Ganga Action Plan had been following since the 1980s. There is no attempt to ensure that the infrastructure that is set up performs and delivers. There is absolutely no effort to achieve Aviral Ganga (incessant flow in the river), one of the declared key objectives of Namami Gange. As the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has repeatedly said, without achieving Aviral Ganga, it’s not possible to have a Nirmal (clean) Ganga.
The situation is so pathetic that when I recently asked one of the Executive Directors of the National Mission Clean Ganga on a TV show[ii] if they even have successful pilot, he said Sabarmati is their successful rejuvenation model. It shows complete bankruptcy of understanding a river, since Sabarmati is actually an example of channelization of a river, with no success even at sewage treatment, leave aside question of rejuvenation of a river. When the same person was asked if the river even has defined space, he shockingly said, banks of the river define the space of the river! There is of course no legal definition or mapping of banks of a river in India.
That the state of the Ganga is deteriorating is also the view of the reports and statements of the official agencies like the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, Parliamentary Committee on Ministry of Water Resources, the World Bank, the Central Pollution Control Board, Judiciary, National Green Tribunal, Down to Earth[iii] and even allies like Nitish Kumar and late GD Agarwal. Prof Agarwal, now known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, died after 112 days of fast at Matri Sadan in Haridwar, some one who was an NDA ally and generations of his family were RSS supporters.
Agarwal’s demands-listed in a letter to Modi-were clear: stop all ongoing and planned hydropower projects in the upper Ganga basin, stop sand and boulder mining from the upper Ganga, particularly close to Haridwar, pass a Ganga Protection Bill draft that a committee of Ganga committed people had put together and not the govt draft and create a council of Ganga-devoted persons whose consent would be required before taking up any work affecting the river.
Modi, who tweeted in support of Agarwal’s fast in 2012, had no time to respond to any of the letters Agarwal wrote to him since February 2018, when he declared his fast unto death. The PM may have been rattled by the very first letter in which Agarwal said that if he died, he would pray to Mother Ganga that Modi should be held responsible. This time, Modi got time to tweet about Agarwal, only after Agarwal’s death. Many would see this as hypocrisy towards Agarwal and towards the Ganga.
Union Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari announced on Oct 10, 2018[iv], a day before Prof Agarwal breathed his last, about notification on environment flows for Ganga, which is such an unscientific, internally inconsistent, non-serious, dishonest, dealing with only a small part of the river and retrograde step that Prof Agarwal promptly rejected it. There has been talk of environment flows at official level for over a decade. This notification ignores all the various advances achieved in this period. In fact, the joint report[v] between Union Ministries of Environment & Forests on the one hand and Union Water Resources Ministry on the other in 2015 made significant progress in giving a scientific methodology how to assess the environment flow in any river starting from setting objectives. The Oct 10, 2018 notification ignores that methodology and requires the minimalist thumb rule flows, without any assessment and that too three years from now and that too be ensured by the project owners and Central Water Commission, both plagued by conflict of interest. CWC, like Gadkari has been of the consistent view that water flowing to the sea is a waste! Its essentially a lobby for big dams, and thus stands disqualified for ensuring compliance of e-flows.
Prof Agarwal’s demands included passage of a Ganga Protection Bill. A Ganga bill is expected to be introduced in the winter session of Parliament during Dec 2018-Jan 2019[vi], but that bill was rejected by Proj Agarwal. The draft bill proposed by the government[vii] was not acceptable to Prof Agarwal[viii] for a number of reasons. For example, the government draft did not explicitly list the adverse impacts of various interventions like dams, hydropower projects, waterways etc. on the river, nor did it involve oversight by independent set of Ganga devotees whose consent was required before undertaking any intervention that affected the river adversely.
There is a lot that the government could have done if it had honest intentions of improving the state of Ganga River. Besides learning from why past three decades of efforts did not improve the state of the river, it could have come out with credible road map, it could have set up pilots, ensured that existing Sewage and industrial effluent treatment plants worked as per design, set up decentralised STPs and gone for eco friendly treatment options (like the one INTACH set up on Assi Ganga river in Varanasi and proved its efficacy) which would help achieve treatment and also facilitate reuse of treated waste water, it could have made efforts to reduce sugarcane cultivation, gone for water saving and yield enhancing System of Rice Intensification, a method that is also applicable for crops other than rice, acknowledged that groundwater is India’s water lifeline and made sustaining groundwater lifeline the focus of water sector policies and efforts. All these efforts could have also helped improve the state of flow in the river. It could have setup an independent committee to assess the continued usefulness of Farakka barrage as Nitish Kumar, NDA ally, has been demanding. Most importantly, it could have made the river governance democratic with clearly defined norms of transparency, participation and accountability. Unfortunately, we have seen none of these.
On the contrary, we are greeted with the Prime Minister, no less, welcoming in Varanasi, the Pepsi consignment on Ganga. It is shocking symbolism on so many counts.
May be this song should have played in the background during the function where Modi welcomed Pepsico cargo on Ganga at Varanasi: Hum Bewafaa hargiz na the, par hum wafa kar na sake… Tumne Jo Dekha Suna Sach Tha Magar…
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
NOTE: 1. An edited version of some parts of this was published in The Hindu Business Line on Nov 18, 2018, see: https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/theres-no-real-intent-to-save-the-ganga/article25531945.ece
- An edited version of some parts of this was published in India Today on Oct 29, 2018, see: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/up-front/story/20181029-a-river-betrayed-1371127-2018-10-19
[i] For detailed articles, also see: https://sandrp.in/2018/09/04/what-ails-ganga-why-namami-gange-is-spectacular-failure/ and https://sandrp.in/2018/09/05/is-there-hope-from-national-mission-for-clean-ganga-listen-to-official-agencies/
[viii] Some differences are listed here: https://sandrp.in/2018/10/29/drp-news-bulletin-29-october-2018-better-paddy-options-exist-for-punjab/