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Ganga clean-up mark-III

Not for the first time is the polluted holy river the focus of attention

Not for the first time is the polluted holy river the focus of attention.

The prime minister has certainly given the cleaning of the Ganga a huge new momentum. This can only be welcomed but like most of his initiatives, he is repackaging, rebranding and marketing with his unique flair what has been already ongoing for quite some time.

In his inaugural address to the nation on 6 January 1985 as an elected prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi announced a national programme to clean the Ganga. He then launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) from Varanasi in July 1986. Over the next two decades, GAP went through two phases on which some Rs.950 crore were spent. Without GAP-I and II, the Ganga’s pollution would have been significantly worse. In some places actually, water quality measured in terms of dissolved oxygen levels did show an improvement, although fecal coliform levels continued to exceed acceptable limits.

Manmohan Singh was the second prime minister to turn his personal attention to the cleaning of the Ganga. In February 2009, he got the Ganga declared as our national river and established the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) under his chairmanship and comprising of the chief ministers of the five main basin states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal as well as eminent professionals and activists. In 2010, Mission Clean Ganga was started with the objective of ensuring that no untreated municipal sewage and industrial effluents would be discharged into the Ganga. In May 2011, the World Bank approved a grant-cum-loan package of $1 billion for the mission.

There is a general impression that if we control the discharge of industrial pollutants, the Ganga would become clean very soon. There are 764 industrial units that have been identified along the main stretch of the river and their compliance with effluent standards should be vigourously enforced for which adequate powers are available to the central and state governments. The Kannauj to Varanasi stretch that extends to over 730km suffers the most from industrial pollution. But that alone will not solve the problem in any meaningful manner.

This is because almost three-fourth of the pollution load comes from the inflow of untreated municipal sewage into the river. It is this that needs to be tackled on a gigantic scale. Recognising this fact, the NGRBA sanctioned some Rs.6,400 crore worth of sewer network construction and sewage control and treatment projects, of which Rs.2,700 crore was for Uttar Pradesh, Rs.1,400 crore for Bihar and Rs.1,200 crore for West Bengal. Earlier, in GAP-I and II, while the Centre would fund the capital costs of sewage treatment plants, the states and municipalities were to bear the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs, which was one reason why these plants soon fell into disuse. The NGRBA took a bold decision that 70% of the O&M costs too would be funded by the central government. In another innovation, the capacities of the sewage treatment plants were designed keeping in mind the expected population in the year 2025. Many other steps were taken between 2010 and 2013. The NGRBA declared the endangered Gangetic dolphin as the national aquatic mammal in order to heighten the interest of the younger generation particularly in keeping the river clean. In addition, the NGRBA declared that Mission Clean Ganga means not just cleaning the river of pollutants but also means ensuring a minimum continuous flow of water at all times. This latter aspect has assumed greater importance in the background of a large number of hydel projects envisaged in Uttarakhand. The 100km long Gaumukh to Uttarkashi stretch was notified as a regulated eco-sensitive zone over the strenuous objections of the entire political class of Uttarakhand. The NGRBA also gave the go-ahead for about 250 water quality monitoring stations along the main 2,500 km length of the river. Finally, perhaps for the very first time, all seven IITs (as of then) were brought together by the NGRBA as a consortium with an anchor in IIT-Kanpur, and given the task of preparing a comprehensive river basin management plan. Over 60 reports have been prepared and submitted to the central government along with a draft legislation called the National River Ganga Basin Management Bill, 2013 to ensure that the recommendations are implemented. These are now awaiting further action.

The unique place of the river Ganga in the shaping of our pluralistic cultural ethos was captured most beautifully by Jawaharlal Nehru in his last Will and Testament drawn up a decade before he passed away. This is what he had written: “The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing and ever the same Ganga..... Smiling and dancing in the morning sunlight, and dark and gloomy and full of mystery as the evening shadows fall; a narrow, slow and graceful stream in winter, and a vast roaring thing during the monsoon, broad-bosomed almost as the sea, and with something of the sea’s power to destroy, the Ganga has been to me a symbol and a memory of the past of India, running into the present, and flowing on to the great ocean of the future”.

It is that spirit that should guide Mission Clean Ganga or Namami Ganga as it is now called. Partisan ideologies with a polarizing political agenda should have no place in this national endeavour. The prime minister should build on what has been accomplished and what has already been initiated so far. He can claim all the credit he wants thereafter.

( This article was originally published in Mint, and can be accessed here .)

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