Will Ganga get its life back?

River Ganga is now a ‘national’ river. The Prime minister of India announced this on November 4, 2008 after a meeting, with the ministers for water resources, environment and forests and urban development, to discuss how to bring the river back to life. Though a very important step, it is too early to predict what this ‘national status’ would actually mean to India’s most revered river and its people.

What gives us hope is the fact that government has accepted that all is not well with the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) - a dedicated programme launched in 1985 to restore the river back to bathing water quality. This certainly is winning half the battle.  Press communiqué from the Prime Ministers Office (PMO) reads: “there is a need to replace the current piecemeal efforts taken up in a fragmented manner in select cities with an integrated approach that sees the river as an ecological entity and addresses issues of quantity in terms of water flows along with issues of quality.”

Under GAP so far Rs 1,400 crore have been spent in creating sewage conveyance and treatment facilities, crematoria etc on the Ganga and its tributaries. But the fact is that the river still remains polluted and GAP is still chasing the target—with over 45 per cent sewage generated in the basin undergoes no treatment. As a result the pollution levels have only increased - the coliform levels (count of pathogenic micro-organisms) in the river at all places (except Rishikesh upstream) make the river unfit human interaction forget consumption. Challenges are many:

We must understand that the constant meddling with the river hydrology have made things worse. Today, flows have reduced and the rivers crave for water. From hydel projects to drinking water schemes our planners have started mindlessly mining the precious waters of the river Ganga. All this is done without any assessment of the impacts on the river, its flow, its ecosystem and the livelihood of the people who are dependant on it. Bad planning based on bad data made things worse. The 10,000 megawatt capacity hydel projects in Uttaranchal, in different stages of construction, in the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi (after confluence they become the Ganga) is just a case in point.

Reduced flow in the river has left the stretch downstream struggling to assimilate the waste (lack of dilution). Today there is absolutely no authentic data on water use and waste generation by two powerful (financially and politically) water user groups - urban (in comparison to rural) and industry (in comparison to agriculture). Therefore our planners still struggle to cope up with urban sewage and industrial waste.  Need a progressive mechanism to sensitivise and incentivise or dis-incentivise cities and its people as well as industries to optimize its water usage and generate less of pollution. These challenges have made re-engineering of our approach towards the river inevitable. The call for rethink by the PM should give us hope.

Things shouldn’t end with the formation of the proposed Ganga River Basin Authority comprising the chief ministers of basin states and the ministers of water resources, environment and forest and the urban development. This authority, which is incharge of planning, implementing and monitoring of various programmes for the Ganga, shall emphasise the need to involve the communities and the need to reconnect the communities to the river. The success of the programme to bring the river back to life will lie in involving communities right from planning to monitoring. No planning and pollution control will work if key stakeholders - the community and the people - are excluded.

We need to wait and watch how the Ganga clean up mission becomes a people’s campaign. Certainly, challenge is to restore Ganga's lost beauty, pride and holiness.

The Centre for Science and Environment’s river pollution team has put together a fact sheet on various facets of Ganga, its pollution and the Ganga Action Plan.