Ganga cleaning project in tatters

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) recently directed the Centre not to "spend a single penny more" on cleaning up operations of the Ganga between Haridwar and Unnao till their next order. 

What irked the tribunal was although a staggering Rs 20,000 crore has been spent so far by the government, the project is going nowhere. Amusingly, as the court pointed out, the administrators and officials involved in the project know nothing about the problem. There couldn’t have been a more scathing criticism than this.

As the bench – comprising three judges and two experts- was hearing the matter, they were exasperated when officials of various departments gave repetitive and erroneous data related to various queries. It was on a petition by environmental activist and lawyer M C Mehta that the real picture of Ganga cleaning has now come to light. 

While officials engaged in the clean-up project claimed that there were just 764 industries in the stretch from Haridwar to Unnao which are polluting the river, Mehta  produced a list of around 1,50,000 industries which are dumping their waste into the river. 

There is no denying that ill-planning and unscientific approach by the authorities has led to the present chaotic condition of the Ganga. With the stricture coming from the apex court, the project in all likelihood has come to a standstill for the time being, but prudence says it’s better to hang around for the apex court’s final verdict than mindlessly draining away the money. 

In the 1990s when the Narmada Bachao Andolan was at its peak, people were agitating against the Tehri dam project. The Tehri protestors were raising one slogan: ‘Let the Ganga flow constant, let it remain clean’. The Viswa Hindu Parishad and the BJP had taken this slogan to the villages alongside the watercourse. 

Cut to Uma Bharati. Before she became a minister in Narendra Modi’s cabinet, she was against big dams on the Ganga and had advocated for their ban. Once she took charge of the water source ministry, her, indeed the Modi government’s, first priority has been   Ganga cleaning and the project is appropriately named Namami Gange.

But, bizarrely, Uma Bharati is no more opposing large dams on the river. To say it differently, Bharati wants to limit the Namami Gange project simply to cleaning-up. Even that is not happening as found out by the Green Tribunal. As if that wasn’t enough, the NGT slam-med the Uttar Pradesh government over the issue of shifting of tanneries located on the banks to some other place to stop discharge of effluents. 

Shifting industries

The court observed:  “it (the UP government) can’t behave like a king. You are a democratic government in a federal structure. You are not a king that you have taken a decision and nobody can question it.” 

The NGT’s view is that if the state government was ready to give land and provide infrastructure to tannery clusters, there should be no problem in shifting them. All this will mean that the Ganga cleaning is in tatters and the project is just not happening.

The Ganga Act basically aims at fining those who are causing pollution. There are other objective too: beautification of the ghats, cleaning on all sides, plantation, sewerage treatment and so on. 

According to reports, the cleanup will be taken up in Uttarkasi, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Srinagar, Kedarnath, Rudra-prayag and Badrinath. But, there is no plan to stave off the numerous barrages which are obstructing the free flow of the Ganga. Uma Bharati’s agenda is clearly just cleaning the river, not making  it perpetual.

What is more intriguing is, the government’s clean Ganga project has taken several other forms and shapes. The different plans are: develop inland waterways, sale of Ganga water and river linking. Just as commercialisation of water is extensive all over the world, it won’t be surprising if  in the coming days Ganga water will come as a big source of  revenue  for the governments.

But some larger questions will  still remain: one, will the 40% of India’s population which inhabits the Ganga ever get clean water free of cost? Two, once the Ganga Act comes into force, will the dirt become things of the past? 

As things stand at present, the government is cosy in its approach and unless some seriousness is shown, Namami Gange will remain yet another pet project sans reality. According to Haoliang Xu, director for UN Development Programme (UNDP) for Asia Pacific, Cleaning of River Ganga is a “monumental task” and requires efforts by the whole society.”

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