Rejuvenating Ganga: engage stakeholders

Draining one-fourth of India’s territory and flowing for a length of 2,510 km from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga is one of the rivers given the living status with the Union government being its designated guardian.

The Ganga is distinctly identifiable with India’s historical and religio-cultural heritage having been the cradle of successive civilisations from the ancient Mauryan kingdom to the medieval empires of the Mughals. The Ganga delta is also home to one of the most fertile and densely populated regions in the world. Yet, years of human existence have left the river blemished with human waste, industrial effluents and other pollutants wearing away its natural flow and pristine quality.

Geographers believe that a healthy river must be able to flow and flood freely. In fact, the effects of flooding are more devastating for the people who inhabit areas around a floodplain when barriers are erected to a river’s natural movement.

In 2011, the government established the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) to implement policies to arrest environmental degradation of the Ganga river basin. This arm was transferred to the National Council for Rejuvenation, Protection and Management of River Ganga in 2016.

Authorities have adopted a five-tier structure at the national, state and district levels to take measures to prevent, control and abate environmental pollution of the river and ensure continuous and adequate flow of water. The Ganga Action Plan, being implanted in phases, has the objective of bringing river water quality to bathing class standards by reducing bio-chemical oxygen demand, dissolved oxygen demand and coliform concentrations.

The method employed to achieve this was by preventing pollutants from reaching the river through their sources, which included underground water. This also meant extending the action plan to tributaries and distributaries of the Ganga, including the other major parallel stream, the Yamuna.

Other dimensions of the rejuvenation effort include conservation of the related biosphere, which feeds off and enriches the river ecosystem while contributing to natural methods of water quality maintenance.

A recent study by the IIHMR University in Sahibganj district of Jharkhand that covers 78 villages in six blocks reviews the success of the Ganga Rejuvenation Project with regard to its ability to check man-made factors in degradation of the river.

It was observed that most of the population was poor and uneducated. At least 25% of the respondents met their household water needs from uncovered wells while only 18% treated the water before consumption. About 39% were used to defecating in the open. Washing water containers and covering utensils filled with water were also short of ubiquitous practices. Water borne diseases were common.

All villages were in areas immediately adjoining the Ganga. Flooding partially or fully affected 11.5% of the villages causing communities to shift periodically to areas with higher elevation. It was observed that open defecation, cremation of dead bodies and disposal of solid and liquid waste were the primary causal factors of pollution in the Ganga. Religion, caste, fuel used, light sources and household incomes were found to have statistical correlation to the likelihood of the family owning a toilet. Hindus were most likely to dispose waste water to the ‘holy’ river.

The following were the major conclusions drawn by the study:

• Collaboration with community-based organisations: sanitation challenges need to be linked to livelihoods of local communities by the adoption of low-cost technologies and local resources. Communication efforts can be bolstered by Panchayati Raj, rural development institutions, local NGOs and voluntary bodies.

• Behavioural change: lessons on awareness, education and self-worth for all stakeholders must be part of strategies for Ganga Rejuvenation project.

• Handholding, technological and supervisory support: composting facilities and techniques, biogas use, village-level cremations, separate bathing ghats, community toilets, soak pits for sewage and drainage, community ponds etc enables transformation of pollutants before they reach the river.

• Framework for dialogue and applied research agenda: awareness of cleanliness in rivers and their importance in the ecological cycle should be made known to people as well as policymakers, industrial bodies, local authorities and voluntary organisations. More research should be conducted by the UNDP and local academic organisations to implement action plans based on ground realities.

Rivers like the Ganga form the lifeline of entire sub-cultures and sub-communities. No effort must be spared to bring back this mighty river to its once glorious status.

(The writer is professor and Dean Incharge, School of Rural Management, IIHMR University, Jaipur)

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