Despite promises and allocations the Ganga flows polluted and fettered

  • Ganga is a lifeline for nearly half of India’s population but is damned by huge pollution load so much so that its water is unfit for drinking and bathing at most of the places.
  • Last week noted IIT professor turned environmentalist, GD Agrawal passed away in Haridwar after being on fast for 111 days while fighting against dams on Ganga and for ensuring its environmental flow. Another seer, Gopaldas, who is on fast for similar issues for 115 days, is now taking the cause forward.
  • Environmentalists criticise the NDA government for failing to save Agrawal and for not achieving anything substantial on river cleaning since coming to power.

Four and a half years ago when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power, several environmentalists felt a little reassured that Ganga river will no longer be ignored considering that Prime Minister Narendra Modi famously claimed it as his mother. But now their dream is shattered. Issues such as pollution in Ganga and the preservation of an uninterrupted ecological flow remains as they were in 2014.

On October 11, environmentalist G.D. Agrawal, popularly known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, died after his fast of 111 days demanding a ‘nirmal and aviral’ (clean and free-flowing) Ganga. This was not the first time that former IIT professor, who was also the first member secretary of India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), had sat on fast. The 86-year-old environmentalist started his fast on June 22, 2018 and was taken to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, where he died.

Previously, he had been on fast in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 demanding steps for clean Ganga. It was his fasts during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime that had led to scrapping of hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand, declaration of a 125-kilometre long stretch of Bhagirathi river from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as eco-sensitive zone and even forced the government to convene a meeting of a defunct National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).

Mallika Bhanot, who works with the Uttarakhand-based Ganga Ahvaan, an NGO working for protection of the river Ganga, remembers that initially hopes were high with the Modi government due to the love he proclaimed for the holy river and the subsequent renaming of the nodal ministry as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

“But it was probably all optics. Ganga has seen no change and instead the government has planned large projects on the river,” said Bhanot.

86-year-old Professor G.D. Agrawal died after a 111-day fast. Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

Even as people are mourning the death of Swami Sanand whose fast could not give the desired result for Ganga this time, another determined activist, 39-year-old Sant Gopaldas, is taking his legacy forward. Gopaldas is on fast since June 24 at Rishikesh and now shifted to the same venue, Matra Sadan, where Agrawal was fasting demanding focused efforts for a clean Ganga.

The poor condition of the River

After originating in the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, Ganga travels for 2,525 km passing through states such as Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal before its outfall into the Bay of Bengal. The importance of Ganga can be gauged from the fact that the basin formed by Ganga and its tributaries in India supports about 43 percent of its population (nearly 450 million people) and also supports many wild animals, fishes and birds.

It has a huge cultural significance for Indians too as River Ganga is considered holy by millions across the country and in Hinduism, it is believed that bathing in Ganga rids one from all sins.

But a huge pressure of dams, pollution from industries, solid waste dumped into the river and untreated sewage falling into the river has taken a serious toll on the river’s health. According to the central government, it is estimated that in the year 2011, the amount of wastewater discharged into the river Ganga by 36 class-1 and 14 class-2 towns situated along the mainstream of river Ganga, was 2,723 million litres per day (mld). Of that, the capacity to treat it was limited to only 1209 mld.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data, Ganga’s water is unfit for drinking and bathing in the majority of its course from Uttarakhand to West Bengal.

River Ganga is country’s lifeline and supports almost half of India’s population. Photo by AKS.9955/Wikimedia Commons.

The data is displayed on the CPCB’s website after the National Green Tribunal in August directed it to show a map on its website where the Ganga water was good for bathing and drinking. It had also asked for installation of electronic display boards at a gap of every 100 km to indicate whether the water was fit or not for bathing and drinking.

Indian Forest Service officer turned environmentalist Manoj Misra, who has been working for the welfare of rivers, said, “Pollution is definitely an issue but more than it is aviralta (flow) that is more important.”

“If we allow the rivers to let themselves be they have all the capacity to take care of the pollution load. But we have looked at our rivers from a blinkered Western vision where pollution was the problem and not flow. In India, the problem is flow,” said Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

Attempts to clean Ganga

In 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru in his book ‘Discovery of India’, wrote that, “The Ganga above all, is the river of India which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganga from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture …”

Some 40 years later, in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan to clean the river. Since then numerous schemes and plans have been formed and implemented but Ganga is yet to get clean. Billions of rupees flowed down the drain but it has not helped.

In an order aimed at cleaning of the Ganga river, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in July 2017, had noted that even after spending over Rs 73.04 billion (Rs 7,304.64 crore ) till March 2017 the status of the Ganga has not improved in terms of quality or otherwise and it continues to be a serious environmental issue.

In June 2014, soon after coming to power, the NDA Government launched the Namami Gange programme at a cost of Rs 200 billion (Rs 20,000 crore) over five years. But over four years Ganga cleaning saw no improvement and instead saw huge waterways projects being planned on the river.

The present Namami Gange programme involves series of works like creating sewage treatment plants, ghat redevelopment, riverfront development, river surface cleaning, Ganga pollution monitoring, assessment of wildlife, afforesation and others. The programme led to no improvement in the quality of the water but with India’s elections few scheduled in 2019 there has been a scramble to take some steps as face-saving measures.

At most of the places Ganga’s water is unfit for drinking or bathing. Photo by Arnav Bishnoi/Wikimedia Commons.

Is the government’s e-flow notification for Ganga a step in the right direction?

Last week’s notification declaring e-flow for Ganga and announcement of soon sending the draft Ganga Act to the Union Cabinet for approval by India’s water resources minister was one such step. Ensuring e-flow was one of the key demands of Agrawal as well.   

According to the government’s statement on notification, “the compliance of minimum environmental flow is applicable to all existing, under-construction and future projects.”

“The existing projects which currently do not meet the norms will have to ensure that the desired environmental flow norms are complied with within a period of three years. The mini and micro-projects which do not alter the flow characteristics of the river or stream significantly are exempted from these environmental flows,” the statement said.

However, the NDA government’s e-flow notification has come under serious attack from both technical experts and environmentalist alike.

“The e-flow notification is like the government is mocking us and saying whatever issue you have with hydropower projects you can keep them in your pocket. It is giving the hydropower project three more years to ensure e-flow. It doesn’t even seem scientific and it is like whatever government deems fit. We are going to build more hydropower projects even when they are causing so much disruption of the river and harming the environment,” said Bhanot.

“The notification of e-flow in Ganga river is a welcome step. It shows that the government recognises it’s importance. But the methodology used for deciding the e-flow is different from what was suggested in the report of the IIT consortium. It doesn’t seem to be done on any scientific basis and seems to be done on an ad-hoc basis,” said Indian Institute of Technology-Kanpur Professor Vinod Tare.

He was part of the three-member panel formed by the government in 2015 to analyse reports submitted by an IIT consortium for Ganga basin management and come out with e-flow recommendations.  

A proper environmental flow in Ganga river has been one of the major demands of environmentalists. Photo by ThePiyushVerma/Wikimedia Commons.

“G.D. Agrawal, who was involved in designing of Tehri dam, gave his life for ensuring e-flow of Ganga. The government had a very good chance to with e-flow notification. It could have been a very good beginning but the government notification is like a post-dated cheque. There is no sincerity. Rather than giving a time of three years to hydroelectric projects to comply with e-flow norms they should have been asked to do it immediately,” said Manoj Misra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

“The solution to Ganga’s problems is not money. The money spent on the GAP and Yamuna action plan showed that … and Namami Ganga will prove the same,” he added.

“The e-flow notification is nothing but eyewash,” said Magsaysay award winner Rajinder Singh, who is also known as Waterman of India. “There is not even one thing that is favour of river Ganga’s e-flow. It follows no system or principles.”

Will Ganga be on the centre stage in 2019 elections?

Ganga was one of the hot issues during 2014 elections and with nothing much achieved till now in terms of cleaning, it is expected to a hot topic during the upcoming 2019 elections as well.

For instance, a glimpse of it was seen after G.D. Agrawal’s death when Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeted about Agrawal’s death as well as about Gopaldas, who is also on fast.

Gandhi, in his tweet, said mother Ganga’s true son, G.D. Agrawal, is no more. “To save Ganga is to save the country. We will never forget him. We will take his fight forward,” Gandhi wrote.  

It was followed by another tweet a couple of days later wherein he expressed concern about the falling health of Gopaldas. “The falling health of Gopaldas is a matter of concern for the nation. To stop mining in Ganga, he is on fast since June 24. Saint Gopaldas is the voice of Swami Sanand (G.D. Agrawal) amidst us,” said Gandhi.

Waterman Rajinder Singh remembered that in 2008 when they protested for ensuring protection to Bhagirathi river, the then UPA government heard their demands and responded.

Activists are against dams as they feel it hinders Ganga’s flow. Photo by Yogendra Singh Negi/Wikimedia Commons.

A senior official of the water resources ministry, while wishing anonymity, said the government has realised the anger of people on the issue.

“There is a clear realisation in government that people at large are not happy with progress on cleaning of Ganga. Thus the effort in the next few months is to take steps that can be shown to the public as a face-saver. The e-flow notification and draft Ganga Act are steps in that direction only,” said the official.

The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), which is the nodal authority for cleaning the river Ganga, did not respond to queries sent by Mongabay-India. 


Banner Image: The Ganga river in Haridwar. Photo by Dublinsantosh/Wikimedia Commons.

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