Indian Efforts to Clean Up River Ganga

The government of India holds it as one of its priorities to clean up the sacred River Ganga. But before we move on to discuss the efforts that have been made in that direction so far, it is only proper that we know why at all it is so important to embark on this undertaking. It is not for nothing that thousands of crores are spared for this project.

As we know, Ganga is one of the biggest rivers in the world, with a length of about 8047 Km. Emerging from the Himalayas, it winds its course through Bangladesh and India and ends up in the Bay of Bengal. Its fertile planes have been a cradle of Gangetic civilization that was born around 1500 BC, that is, during the Vedic period.

The River Ganga is called ‘Mother’ by the devout Hindu and it is intricately woven with Indian civilization, Hindu mythology and means of livelihood. She is described as one of the two wives of Shiva in Skanda Purana. In pictorial presentations of Shiva, we see her ensuing from his matted hair. There is a prevalent belief among the Hindu that taking a dip in River Ganga will free them from their sins. The point is, it is considered to be sacred to the people of India.

Looking at Ganga from a matter-of-fact perspective, it is not difficult to find out what the river actually is when all mythical and religious associations are removed from it. It is simply one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This explains why the prime minister of Mauritius did not take a dip in the river during his 2013 trip to India.

Of course, it matters little who takes a dip in it and who doesn’t. This ritualistic practice is only meant to preserve the Hindu religious values and tradition. There are equally important issues which are at stake and which need to be addressed urgently.

Most importantly, this river holds tremendous water resources that have the capacity to support 29 cities, 70 towns and countless villages that are established along its entire length. Its surface water resource approximates around 525 billion cubic meters. That’s huge, indeed!

But the human settlements that it is supposed to support, it severely threatens not to. This is because every day about 1.3 billion litres of sewage water is dumped in its flow. As a result, when the water near Varanasi was tested, the bacteria that were found in it were those that are found in feces, and their count in the water turned out to be 10000% higher than it should be!

Let alone draining sewage in the river, it is also subject to the dumping of many different types of toxic and non-biodegradable pollutants from factories, plastic, animal carcasses, ashes of cremated bodies – the bodies which are very often not completely cremated, etc.

The pollution has resulted in depletion of oxygen levels to such an extent that its ecosystem is now in shambles. The shying away of the fishing communities is just one of the signs of it. The pollutants in the river are deteriorating even the quality of the ground water. That’s a real bad news. This is because 80% of the population of India depends upon ground water!

What’s more, cleaning contaminated groundwater is even more difficult than cleaning a river. It is difficult because the ground water is deep down below the surface of the ground and it circulates through aquifers. When the groundwater is polluted, the pollutants adhere to the aquifers. Therefore, the task of cleaning it up may take ages to complete.

As we made reference to the ecosystem, very recently the Wildlife Institute of India in Uttarakhand made a startling revelation about 21 river species that raise the concern regarding their conservation. Please note that this bit of information was given in context of the damage that is caused by plastic waste. As it is, in different areas the nature of danger considerably varies. The problem of synthetic fishing gears being cast into the rivers is witnessed nearer the place where the river meets the sea.

The quality of water that has gone down also poses a serious threat to the health of the population that is living on its banks. According to one statistics, about 80% of diseases and third of the deaths in India are because of poor water quality.

The whole situation has come to a head forcing the government of India to take firm action about it. It has responded quite positively to the challenge that the polluted Ganga has posed before it. The main body that is shouldering this responsibility is the Ministry of Jal Shakti that has Departments of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation. It endeavors to do whatever is needful for the river through the registered society under Act 1860 named National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG). It was established on 12th August 2011 and intended as an implementation arm of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).

For whatever reasons NGRBA had to make space for National Ganga Council. However, some of the policies which were intended to be implemented under its dispensation still remained relevant for the subsequent policy-and-implementation related mechanism that was put in place. These policies included

  • Tripartite Memorandum of Agreement
  • Independent Appraisal of Details Project Reports
  • City Level Monitoring Committees
  • Dolphin Conservation
  • Public Outreach and Awareness
  • Involvement of youth
  • Water quality monitoring
  • Ganga River Basin Management Plan

The government attempts to deal with the entire issue on both the national, state and district levels. The plan is to bring all parties involved in this task on one platform in order to innovate and facilitate the entire project.

When we say all parties, these involve many – both government and non-government. For instance, there is the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) that has the authority to direct states to take the required actions in this regard. As part of its commitment, in the February of 2020 it directed the Utter Pradesh Government to take action against industries which are not complying with the rules and regulations that demand that they first treat their waste before releasing it into the river.

The instance of non-government participation involves the IITs of Kanpur, Delhi, Madras, Bombay, Kharagpur, Guwahati and Roorkee who put their heads together in order to prepare a River Basin Management Plan. It is designed specifically to answer the challenge of restoring the Gangetic ecosystem and the usage of the water of the river basin. The four parameters that are laid down for assessing the health of the river include

  • Aviral Dhara
  • Nirmal Dhara
  • Geologic Entity &
  • Ecological Entity

It should be viewed as the commitment of the Indian Government that it does not dither at taking external assistance for the purpose. This external assistance is largely financial, given by such diverse sources as the World Bank and Japan International Cooperation Agency. A part of this fund is used by the Indian Government for the purpose of establishing an infrastructure required for the project.

The local bodies working on the district, rural and urban levels are essential from the point of view of public participation in the program by making available to it the points of contact with the authorities, and of information sharing. Also, significant in this regard is the opportunity made available to people to get involved as volunteers in this undertaking. The ways in which people can participate in it are

  • Ganga Mitra
  • Pravasi Ganga Prahari
  • Ganga Vichar Manch
  • Ganga Parhari &
  • Ganga Amantran

Now, having learned about the religious, hydrological, occupational, ecological, etc significance of the River Ganga, the level of its pollution, implications of its pollution, governmental interference through planned policy, implementation framework, so on and so forth, the question that remains now is how far these efforts from the Government of India have succeeded in fulfilling their purpose.

In this regard, Mr. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra’s comments are quite down-to-earth. He is the Director General of the National Mission for Clean Ganga and knows more about the situation and the response to it. He, in one of his interviews, stated clearly not to expect miracle that would show Ganga neat and clean in a short period of time. He said that it was a long term process before we see the results of the program. In other words, it would still take quite some time before we see Ganga regaining her image of coming out of Shiva’s matted hair.

The plan may sound awesome, and media may sound positive and optimistic about its implementation and outcome, but appearances and optimism can never take the place of reality. The fact is that there are too many challenges before this noble mission. A report of CPCB stated that the water quality of 5 major rivers of India deteriorated during the lockdown period due to release of sewage water into the river on the one hand and no fresh water income from upstream on the other. This is tantamount to saying that the violation of the purity of Ganga continues still. The system that is in place is perfect. There is no doubt about it. The question is what goes wrong and where?

Further Reading: National Mission for Clean Ganga (nmcg.nic.in)