Indian men search for coins and gold in the polluted waters of the Ganga river at Sangam after the Kumbh Mela festival, in Allahabad. Photo: AFP

Stretching for more than 2,500 kilometers between India and Bangladesh, the River Ganges supports the sustenance of more than half a billion people in the subcontinent.

Half of India’s poor live in the five states  – Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal – along the main stem of the river, also known as Ganga. In all, the Ganga basin – the most populous river basin in the world – spans 11 Indian states and three other countries: China, Nepal and Bangladesh.

But despite its widely acknowledged importance, the Ganges is one the world’s most polluted rivers. In India, pollution in Ganga persists despite it being considered a sacred river.

A laundry list of issues have prevented the conservation of Ganga and contributed to its pollution. These include urban and industrial pollution, catchment degradation, floodplain encroachment, unsustainable sand mining, dams, diversions and hydropower projects, biodiversity loss, deforestation, loss of local water bodies, unsustainable groundwater extraction, failure of pollution-control mechanisms, poor governance and climate change.

These issues don’t just harm the main stem of River Ganga, but also extend to most of its tributaries. They also hamper the creation of embankments, and flood and silt management.

Even if it’s attractive to look at and treat the water-pollution problem in isolation, it is necessary to acknowledge that all of the problems plaguing Ganga are interrelated – the river cannot be cleaned without ensuring year-around flow.

There is also a need to rectify the general mindset toward water resources. Rivers are mostly seen as water channels that can be endlessly dammed and exploited in the name of development. As a result, a flowing river is seen as a wasteful luxury, and this leads to the creation of new threats, like waterways, dredging, river-linking plans and riverfront developments. Often, such projects are pushed without even an assessment of their impact on the river and its health.

Rigmarole with no results

In 1974, India’s Parliament paved the way to addressing the problem of water pollution through institutional and legal infrastructure, with the passage of the Water Pollution Act. It mandated the setting up of federal and state pollution control boards for water bodies, but it did not lead to any improvement.

Then, in 1986, the prime minister at that time, Rajiv Gandhi, launched the Ganga Action Plan, specifically to tackle pollution of the Ganges, largely caused by sewage and industrial effluents. This plan had several phases and was extended to other rivers as well, but wasn’t very effective.

More than two decades later, in November 2008, fresh efforts began to tackle the worsening pollution in Ganga. The river was declared India’s National River, after a meeting called by then-prime minister Manmohan Singh, and three months later, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was set up under provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA) of 1986. The implementation arm of the NGRBA was only set up in August 2011, however.

Meanwhile, in May 2011, even the World Bank approved US$1 billion in credit to support the Indian government’s Clean Ganga mission.

In June 2014, the newly elected government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi renamed the Ministry of Water Resources as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. All the work related to Ganga and its tributaries was transferred from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the new ministry and its charge was given to Uma Bharti, a BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) leader believed to be committed to the cause of Ganga.

In its first budget, the government launched the Namami Gange Program – an “Integrated Conservation Mission” with a budget outlay of 200 billion rupees ($2.9 billion) “to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of National River Ganga.”

“The vision for Ganga rejuvenation constitutes restoring the wholesomeness of the river defined in terms of ensuring Aviral Dhara [continuous flow], Nirmal Dhara [unpolluted flow], and geologic and ecological integrity,” water resources minister Uma Bharti said.

According to the program’s official website, its main components are sewage-treatment infrastructure, riverfront development, river-surface cleaning, biodiversity, afforestation, public awareness, industrial-pollution monitoring, and Ganga Gram, a project for “sanitation-based integrated development of all 4,470 villages along the River Ganga.” Notably, it did not mention the objectives of continuous-flow, ecological integrity or geological integrity, as mentioned by Bharti.

Despite this, between August 2014 and January 2015, the Supreme Court reprimanded the BJP government twice for the slow pace of its work. “Do you want to complete this task [cleaning of River Ganga] in this term of the government or not?” Supreme Court Justice T S Thakur said in January 2015, while hearing a 30-year-old Public Interest Litigation to rid the river of pollution.

A month later, a High Level Task Force was constituted, chaired by the cabinet secretary, to facilitate interaction among departments and state governments and to ensure effective coordination and implementation of the Namami Gange Program. The task force had three meetings that year, on February 13, May 5 and July 3.

In 2016, the government also constituted an Empowered Task Force, chaired by the minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, which included secretaries of concerned ministries, chief secretaries of states and the chief executive of the government’s policy think-tank Niti Aayog.

In September 2016, the government further set up a National Ganga Council (NGC). A press release announcing the council’s constitution said, “Although the NMCG [National Mission for Clean Ganga] has been functional as a registered society since 2012, its role has been largely limited to fund the projects to implementing organizations. It neither had the mandate to take cognizance of various threats to River Ganga nor the powers to issue directions to the concerned authorities/ polluters.

“While the organization has been made responsible as custodian of River Ganga in both [the] public eye as well as various courts, the mission is grossly ill-equipped to handle such expectations.… It is expected that the move [to constitute the NGC] will ensure effective abatement of pollution and rejuvenation of River Ganga; maintain ecological flows in the river; impose restrictions on polluting industries; and carry out inspections to ensure compliance. In addition, it is proposed to maintain and disseminate data and carry out research on the condition of the river.”

Almost two years later, however, there is no evidence that any of these objectives have been fulfilled. Besides, the National Ganga Council, headed by Prime Minister Modi, has not had a single meeting since its constitution.

Last September, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation was taken away from Uma Bharti and handed as an additional portfolio to Nitin Gadkari, who was already in charge of other ministries, including Waterways, which was clearly in conflict with Ganga rejuvenation.

This is the first of two-part series on “What ails the Ganga.” In Part 2 we will take a look at what official agencies say about the progress of these initiatives.

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Himanshu Thakkar

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

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