In 2014, when Narendra Modi was in Varanasi to file his nomination papers for the Lok Sabha Election, he said with his usual characteristic flamboyance, “I have not come here on my own. I have been invited by mother Ganga.” He promised that the river Ganga would be cleaned up within the next five years.
Cut to 2018. Environmentalist G.D. Agrawal fasted and fasted, seeking Prime Minister Modi’s intervention in “saving Gangaji”. He wrote to the prime minister thrice but failed to elicit a response. The 86-year-old died on October 11. He had gone without food for 111 days. In his last letter to the prime minister, Agrawal wrote: “I have no qualms about giving up my life because the issue of Gangaji is very significant to me and is of utmost priority. I was a Professor at an IIT and was member of the Central Pollution Control Board as well as that of Governmental organizations related to Gangaji. It is on the basis of my experiences gained over all these years of being part of these institutions, I can state that in the previous four years of your Government, there is not even a single action that can be said to be a fruitful one in the direction of saving Gangaji.” G.D Agrawal had taught and mentored noted environmentalists, such as late Anil Agarwal, who founded the Centre for Science and Environment.
Importance of River Ganga
There is enough evidence in history to prove that all civilizations were born close to and sustained by perennial water sources like rivers. River Ganga supplies water to the agrarian northern belt of the country. Stretching for more than 2,500 kilometers between India and Bangladesh, it serves almost 47 per cent of India’s irrigated land, which in turn feeds more than 400 million in India and another 100 million in the rest of the subcontinent. Ironically, half of India’s poor also live in the five states – Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal – along the Ganga. The Ganga Basin is the most populous river basin in the world spanning 11 Indian states and three other countries: China, Nepal and Bangladesh. Hence, it has huge social-economic significance for the subcontinent. Hindus revere River Ganga as a goddess.
Ganga’s unabated pollution
Due to rapid population growth, urbanization and industrial development, Ganga is, sadly, one of the most polluted rivers in the world. According to the July 2013 estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), faecal coliform levels, biological oxygen demand, chemical oxygen demand, and a range of carcinogenic chemicals remain well above the acceptable drinking and bathing quality levels in all stretches of the river once it descends from the mountains.
Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party to victory in the 2014 elections and became prime minister. After assuming office, Modi immediately launched the Namami Gange programme, an integrated conservation mission with a budget of Rs 20,000 crore, to accomplish the objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of the Ganga. The project covers eight states and seeks to fully connect all the 1,632 gram panchayats along the Ganga to a sanitation system by 2022. It seemed that the government was giving this programme high priority. The project involved cleaning the ghats, ridding the river of biological contaminants, improving rural sanitation, and promoting afforestation in the river basin. The aforesaid works were to be undertaken in the states which lie along the length of the river – Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal.
Four years on
In 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) published a report titled “Performance Audit of the Rejuvenation of River Ganga”. The report said that the faecal coliform levels across the length of the river were between 6 to 334 times more than the prescribed levels. This was alarming news and forced the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to prompt the government to issue a health warning on “Ganga Jal” .
According to the report, only 35 of the 86 proposed sewage treatment plants (STPs) had been completed. This was the reason faecal coliform levels in the water continued to be high. The CAG provided the faecal coliform levels in Varanasi; near Assi Ghat, the faecal coliform level upstream was found to be 3000 MPN (most probable number)/100 ml whereas downstream it shot up to 46167 MPN/100ml.
The report, which was tabled in the Parliament, noted that the awarding of contract for the building of sewage treatment plants of 1,397 mld (million litres a day) capability was to be achieved by September 2016 but as of August 2017, it was still to be achieved.
The report also revealed deficiencies in the financial management, planning, implementation and monitoring: huge delays in approval of projects; huge unspent balances; and failure to achieve the target of 100 per cent “open-defecation free” villages in the river basin.
Financial audit – March 2018
A financial audit of the Namami Gange programme in March this year pointed out the casual manner of its execution:
An amount of Rs 20,601 crore had been sanctioned under the programme for 193 projects. Only 20 per cent of this amount, that is Rs 4,254 crore, was actually spent. A mere 24 out of the 64 entry-level schemes had been implemented.
The audit also highlights the fact that only 1,114.75 km of sewers had been laid out against a target of 4,031.41 km. What this means is that a huge volume of untreated sewage, chemical effluents, dead bodies and excreta continue to flow unheeded into the river.
In May 2014, there were 31 STPs that could handle 485 mld each. In May 2018, 94 STP projects of 1,928 mld capacity were still construction – another indication that the Namami Gange programme has remained a non-starter.
RTIs filed for information about Namami Gange
The Ganga Rejuvenation Ministry, in its reply to India Today’s RTI application, has said that it has observed 58 per cent increase in contamination from faecal coliform in the stretch of the Ganga near Varanasi over the 2014-17 period.
Contamination from coliform: Water with more than 2,500 coliform microorganisms in 100 millilitres is considered unsafe for bathing. Alarmingly, the “Ganga jal” samples collected from Varanasi’s Malviya Bridge showed contamination almost 20 times higher. Faecal coliform bacteria shows sewage contamination and possible presence of other pathogens.
Huge numbers of drains: “There are five priority drains that dump more than one million litres of sewage per day into River Ganga in Varanasi,” said the ministry in its RTI reply, with the help of data from the Central Pollution Control Board.
Oxygen levels in water: Dead aquatic life is another eyesore along the banks of the ancient city. The possible cause for this could be the depletion of oxygen. A visible evidence of this trend emerged in the ministry’s reply that admitted that dissolved oxygen at Assi Ghat has dropped from 8.6 milligram per litre in 2014 to 7.5 milligram in 2017; and this borders on the recommended minimum limits of 5 mg/l. This area, however, reportedly saw no change in bacterial contamination that stayed at 2,200 per 100 ml for the 2014-17 period.
An India Today subsidiary, Dailyo.in, filed another RTI with the National Mission for the Clean Ganga. The questions focused on the new projects started to clean the river, the money allocated for such projects, their proposed completion dates and the likely impact.
Money allocated: The government said, “total amount of Rs 20,000 crore has been allocated for this project, to be spent over the next five years [till 2020]”. It further said: “… till date, under Namami Gange programme, a total of 221 projects have been approved for different activities like treatment of municipal sewage, river surface cleaning, treatment of industrial effluent, etc at the total cost of around Rs 22,238 crores, in which around 58 projects are completed.” This shows that an additional Rs 2,238 crore has been allocated, with a year and a half to go. The government admits that so far, only 26 per cent of the sanctioned projects have been completed.
Sewage treatment plants: Regarding questions about the STP, the RTI response says: “Till date, a total 105 sewerage and STP projects have been sanctioned, which will prevent 3293.68 mld of untreated sewage discharging directly into the river. Total of 26 projects have been completed so far.”
Completed projects: Only about 25 per cent of the sanctioned projects have been completed so far. The government further says that “the projects taken up so far will take care of all the interventions required in respect of sewage treatment requirement till year 2035 on the main stem of the river Ganga.”
Case of Varanasi
According to news reports, the beautification of Assi Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat has been completed. However, just below these ghats, streams of sewage can be seen ending up in the river. An estimated 33,000 human bodies are being cremated every year at these ghats using approximately 16000 tonnes of wood, resulting in 800-900 tonnes of ash being immersed into the river annually. Even partially burnt bodies are being unconcernedly dumped in the river at the Harishchandra and Manikarnika ghats every day. Varanasi has only one crematorium and that too is functional only occasionally.
The construction of dams on the upper reaches of Ganga’s tributaries like Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi have resulted in a reduction in the flow of the river. This has far-reaching effect in the downstream cities. Furthermore, water from the Ganga is diverted towards Delhi at Haridwar and exploitation of groundwater in the river basin for irrigation by building lift canals, continues unabated.
New draft Bill provides for draconian measures
The government seems to have failed on all fronts with respect to the Ganga-cleaning project. Now, with the election year approaching, it has drafted a new Bill. This government probably intends to give the citizens new fodder to chew and try and erase their memories of failed projects and unfulfilled promises.
As far as the Bill is concerned, it includes punitive measures, for actions like obstructing the flow to commercial fishing as cognizable offences that may attract a jail term of up to three years and a fine of Rs 5 lakh.
There is a provision of Ganga Protection Corps (GPC) in the Bill and its personnel are given the power to arrest those who pollute the river. It treats various actions from obstructing the flow to commercial fishing as cognizable offences that may attract a jail term of 3 years and a fine of upto 5 lakhs.
Cognizable offences in the draft Bill include construction activities causing obstruction in the river, withdrawal of groundwater for industrial or commercial consumption from the river and its tributaries; commercial fishing or aquaculture in the river and its tributaries; and discharging untreated or treated sewage into the river.
The draft Bill envisages the GPC as an armed force “constituted and maintained” by the union government. “If any person of GPC has reason to believe that any person has committed an act of misconduct that is punishable under this Act, he may take such person in custody to the nearest police station.”
The GPC will work according to the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Home Ministry will provide the personnel for the GPC and the National Ganga Rejuvenation Authority will deploy them.
Apart from the creation of GPC that it provides for, this draft Bill is similar to the Environment Protection Act 1986. The draft Bill says that commercial fishing in the Ganga and any of its tributaries will be punishable with the imprisonment for two years or a fine of Rs 2 lakh or both.
Similarly, the construction of permanent structures for residential or commercial purposes in the active flood plain area of the Ganga will be punishable with a two-year jail term or fine of up to Rs 50 lakh or both. The draft Bill makes it clear that no person or municipal authority will set up or take any steps to set up an industrial or residential or commercial premises or structure which may result in discharge of sewage into the Ganga, otherwise he may face a five-year prison term or a fine of Rs 50,000 per day until such a setup ceases operation or both.
The government thus appears to be resorting to penal provisions. However, this goes against the very theme of the Namami Gange programme, which in the beginning determined that the success of the project is dependent on the support of the people whose activities impact the Ganga. But the Bill deems illegal a host of activities that impact the Ganga. This reflects the myopic view of the government. Moreover, the Ganga portrayed inviolable in this manner could give Hindutva lynch mobs another reason – apart from the cow – to wreak havoc with the blessings of those in power.
This hasty decision to introduce a Bill with punitive provisions reflects the sheer desperation of the government to divert the attention of the citizens from its failure to implement the Namami Gange programme. The promise made by the Union Water Resources Minister to clean up 80 per cent of the river by May 2019 now appears hollow – like so many other promises the government has made.
Copy-editing: Pranamika Verma/Anil
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