Indian vendors prepare to move from the banks of the Ganga river as the water level of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers rises due to heavy rainfall, in Allahabad. AFP

The Ganges remains one of the most polluted rivers in the world, despite being a key lifeline for half a billion people in the South Asian subcontinent.

In India, pollution in the river and problems with year-around flow have persisted despite decades of government initiatives. In 2014, the newly elected government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a massive 200 billion rupee (US$2.9 billion) Namami Gange Program for “integrated conservation” of the river, also known as Ganga, with two main objectives: cleaning the river and ensuring year-around flow. Four years down the road, however, there has been little success in rejuvenating the ailing river.

In a report submitted to the Lok Sabha (lower house of India’s Parliament) in May 2016, a parliamentary estimates committee (2016-17) for the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation said “indiscriminate anthropogenic interventions like construction of HPPs [hydropower plants] in the seismically active and fragile Himalayas, diversion of 80-90% of water, discharge of extremely hazardous effluents by 144 drains, and dumping of solid waste [have] converted the Ganga into one of the 10 most polluted rivers of the world.”

“The Public Accounts Committee (2014-15) in their 8th Report on Water Pollution had expressed distress that the Ganga has become one of the five most polluted rivers in the world, despite launching of the ‘Ganga Action Plan’ and the ‘Mission Clean Ganga’ (2009) by the National Ganga River Basin Authority,” the report noted.

In its comprehensive performance audit of the Namami Gange Program in 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found serious deficiencies and shortfalls in almost every aspect of the program. The audit also revealed that the program had no long-term roadmap.

“National Mission for Clean Ganga could not finalize the long-term action plans even … more than six and half years [after] signing of agreement with the consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology. As a result, National Mission for Clean Ganga does not have a river-basin management plan even after a lapse of more than eight years of National Ganga River Basin Authority notification,” it noted.

“During 2016-17, total coliform levels in all the cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal [were] very high, ranging between six [and] 3,343 times higher than the prescribed levels. Specific parameters for water-quality monitoring of the river Ganga have not been prescribed by National Mission for Clean Ganga,” the Comptroller and Auditor General found.

Last September, federal cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari was given additional charge of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, despite it being in conflict with the other portfolios he held, such as Waterways. In May, Gadkari said in a press conference that by March 2019, 70-80% of Ganga would be cleaned and that by December 2019, Ganga would be 100% clean.

However, on the ground, there was no immediate sign of improvement in state of River Ganga. None of the actions of the National Mission for Clean Ganga were either a break from the past or signified major change. In fact, at no stage was there even an honest attempt to review past actions to learn what works and what does not.

Gadkari has made a series of such statements with shifting, illusory and non-specific goalposts on River Ganga. So by this statement the minister possibly meant that 70-80% of the budgeted amount for the program would be spent by March 2019 and 100% by December 2019. And this will obviously not help improve the state of Ganga, since this is exactly what has been done since 1985, without any improvement in state of the river, now for 33 years.

One reason behind the minister making such a promise could be the ongoing National Ganga River Basin Project that is funded by the World Bank. In its latest “Implementation Status and Results Report” for the project, released in May, the World Bank declared that progress toward achievement of project objectives and overall implementation remained “moderately unsatisfactory.” This was the Bank’s 15th report on the project.

More alarming, the report declared that the project’s overall risk rating was “substantial,” a level up from the previous assessment that indicated “moderate” risk. The risk it was measuring was “institutional capacity for implementation and sustainability” and “environment and social” aspects. The World Bank was highly concerned about the disbursement of project funds, seven years since the project’s approval, which stood at just 13.15% of the projected disbursement of $1 billion, and just 0.3% ($2 million) of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development component worth $801 million.

No points for guessing, Gadkari’s deadline for 100% expenditure coincided with the World Bank Project closing date of December 2019. The World Bank has always been “flexible” to the needs of governments, so the review also mentioned, “Government of India and the World Bank are discussing various options for restructuring the project.”

The way forward

All the on-ground evidence and independent assessments make clear that the current National Mission for Clean Ganga program is not likely to improve the state of River Ganga.

While there is no doubt that funds, infrastructure, technology, laws and institutions are necessary, it is also important to see that repeating past actions is not going to help. The first step should be to assess the project’s journey so far and learn the reasons behind its failure. Second, there is a need to make the governance of everything related to River Ganga more democratic, transparent, accountable and participatory. No attention is being paid to governance at present and there is no democracy in the governance.

The process needs to look at all options, including nature-based sewage-treatment options, decentralized sewage-treatment plants, and seeing rain as the key focus of water-resources development and management. India also urgently needs a national urban water policy considering the increasing footprint of urban areas on Ganga and other rivers.

It’s not just the Comptroller and Auditor General, the World Bank or parliamentary committees that have questioned the way governments are tackling the Ganga issue. Even state governments such as Bihar’s, the High Courts, the Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal have been critical of Ganga cleaning efforts.

Even an ally of the government and someone who calls himself a brother to the prime minister, Prof G D Agarwal, now known as Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand, has been on a fast unto death since June 22 for the cause of Ganga. But the government has no time for him or, by implication, River Ganga.

This is the second article in our two-part series on “What ails the Ganga.” In the first part we explained how the Modi government had failed to clean the Ganges despite spending billions and setting up several initiatives for the same.

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Himanshu Thakkar

Himanshu Thakkar is a coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

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