Millennium Post

Between river and religion

Millions of devotees throng the Ganges for holy dips and worship every year leaving behind massive loads of pollutants. Religious fervour and sentiments crush their thinking. One billion litres of raw, untreated municipal sewage are dumped daily. Industrial effluents, human corpses, cattle and animal carcasses, unwanted or illegitimate babies float or flow or are released into the river.

Thousands of bodies are cremated on its banks every year, with hopes that their souls will attain moksha. We all are aware that filthy flows the Ganga- from Gangotri in Uttarakhand to Diamond Harbour in south Bengal, cutting through five states. We have been hearing for nearly four decades and witnessing, too, the never-ending cleaning saga of this mighty river and at the same time polluting its waters more. We tolerate it and sully the image of the revered Ganga maiyya.

But the Supreme Court could not and finally vent its anger at the government early this month for its lackadaisical approach to cleansing its waters; it asked for a roadmap. Scurrying, the government presented a blueprint outlining short, medium and long term measures, to be implemented in 18 years! These actions would entail a whopping Rs 51,000 crore investment to restore the river’s pristine glory. More than 420 million people rely on the river for food, water, bathing and agriculture.

Pollution is at such a high level that toxins, chemicals and other dangerous bacteria found in the river are nearly 3,000 times over the limit suggested by the World Health Organisation as ‘safe’. For more than three decades successive governments have ‘expressed concern’ but failed to come to grips with the problems- technical and man-made.

The first attempt at decontamination was initiated in January 1986 by Rajiv Gandhi who launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) that aimed at halting discharge of untreated wastewater into the river by 2020. The initiative saw introduction of waste water treatment in certain areas, but it failed to halt raw waste disposal into the river. Critics cited inadequate financing and poor management as reasons.

The previous government reviewed the GAP and announced the ‘Mission Clean Ganga’, a Rs 15,000 crore project, in December 2009, that aimed at ensuring that by 2020 no municipal sewage and industrial waste would be released, without treatment, into the river.

The government also established the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) to ensure decline in pollution and conservation, by adopting a river basin approach for comprehensive planning and management. In 2011, the World Bank pledged one billion dollars as loan to fund the first major new effort in more than 20 years to purify the river. It was part of the NGRBA.

The present government has set up an Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission called ‘Namami Gange’ — since it observed that ‘measures taken so far are inadequate’ and a national effort is required to mobilise resources. Initially, Rs 2,037 crore has been allocated in the 2014-2015 budget. Cleaning the river is Modi government’s dream project. But, the scheme seems to offer nothing new and has almost the same agenda as the previous schemes.

This mid-week, the Union Cabinet, chaired by Modi, gave its approval to establish a Clean Ganga Fund (CGF) which will accept voluntary contributions from residents, NRIs and persons of Indian Origin (PIOs).  Namami Gange is one among the fund’s broad activities.

But, during these three decades the river has only become a dirty sewer. Hence, the apex court has demanded a report; it wants to monitor the progress and milestones to be fixed. It scorned the ‘bureaucratic’ approach in the action plan saying it would not help accomplish the PM’s dream project. ‘Will it be cleaned in this century or not?’

Even accepting that the three-stage project is rolled out immediately it is targeted to be completed by 2032. By then, the country may have witnessed changes in governments, whose perceptions and outlook may change. Modi would have celebrated his 82nd birthday.

Ganga rejuvenation may go down in the annals of world history as the longest scheme ever to have been implemented — in about 50 years, including the bygone 30 years. The Taj Mahal, epitome of love, was built in 22 years. One can argue that the eternal city of Rome evolved over centuries and was not built in a day. Dams and nuclear plants have been realised in 10 to 20 years and metro trains are up and running in four years. But, if the Ganga is purified, it would be revolution unparalleled.

The river is revered for its social, cultural, religious and economic values. How is the government going to take into account the concerns of different stakeholder groups on its conservation? Can it create this marvel? Can it deploy sentinels along the 5,000 km Ganga bank (both sides included), day and night to ensure it is not polluted?

Highly improbable, it appears. People alone can — only if they bury sentiments, obey laws and act rationally.  That is easier said done! We are Indians.

The author is an independent journalist
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