‘Operation Ganga’ to Top Modi’s List of Priorities

Everyone is waiting to see if India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi lives up to promises of cleaning the sacred Ganga River.

ganga-river-modi

Credit: Mint

On May 26, Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi was sworn in and after Bhartiya Janata Party’s phenomenal win at India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections, and equally spectacular things are being expected from Modi. Considering not many have ever won an election in this overwhelming manner and so decisively even amidst extreme opposition, the rare is now a given.

When he announced, “Ma Ganga aur Benaras se mera rishta purana hai,” particularly when viewed against the backdrop of the Dasaswamedh Arti he held, the most secular liberal of critics chose to see it as indications of the new premier’s Hindu leanings. But, in that, they miss the point.

Cleaning up the Ganga will be Modi’s toughest endeavor whose success is synonymous with fetching a radical change in the entire nation’s image in the global arena. And, when that happens, Modi will have successfully quashed all doubts of the “anti-environment” tag that opponents in Gujarat charged him with.

After contesting and winning the Lok Sabha polls by a huge margin in Varanasi, the first thing the people of the world’s most ancient city, or for that matter, most in the nation will be expecting Mr. Modi to do is fulfill his pledge to clean the holy Ganga river. During the Lok Sabha campaign, he assured the people of Varanasi that he would clean up the Ganga.

A report released recently by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) stated that

“The Ganga is the largest and the most important river of India. The 2,525 kilometer long river carries off the drainage of a vast basin area 8,61,404 kilometer covering 26.2 percent area of India’s total geographical area. The watershed of the river Ganga spreads over ten States of India, namely Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Discharge of untreated sewage from urban centres is a major cause of river water quality degradation. The total waste water generated by the 299 Class I cities is 16,662 Mld approximately 81 percent of the water supplied. The state of Maharashtra alone contributes about 23 percent, while Ganga river basin contributes about 31 percent of the waste generated. Only 74 percent of the total wastewater generated is collected. Out of 299 Class I cities 160 cities have sewerage coverage for more than 75 percent of the population and 92 cities have between 50 and 75 percent of population coverage. On the whole 70 percent of the population of class I cities are provided with sewerage facility. The type of sewerage system is either open or closed or piped.”

For years, the degrading state of the Ganga River has been a matter of concern and shame for the nation. Various efforts have been made by the government and projects undertaken to clean up the river, but to no avail.

According to a 2012 Central Pollution Control Board report, around Rs 20,000 crore has been spent by the government on various clean-up projects conducted to clean Ganga. But, over the years, these projects have had little to no effect. The Ganga is still among the filthier rivers in the country.

Plans to clean up the 2,500 km holy river date back around 25 years back when the first Ganga Action Plan was announced in 1986. But, according to activists, the stretch flowing through Varanasi is in worse condition today than it was even five years ago.

Late PM Rajiv Gandhi had initiated a Rs 1,700 crore-worth Ganga Action Plan (GAP) project. A 2004 parliamentary committee report declared the project a failure, due to insufficient funds and monitoring mechanisms.

In 2009, after the Ganga was accorded National River status, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Rs 7,000 crore-worth National Ganga River Basin Authority was constituted.

In 2011, the World Bank sanctioned $1 billion towards the NGRBA clean-up. But, no major ground-breaking step had been implemented by the previous government to ensure the cleaning of Ganga.

And it’s not just the Ganga that has suffered at the hands of years of exploit. Other major rivers of the country too are in no better condition.

Yamuna, that was labelled at the “filthiest“river too needs major correction plan to “detoxify” its bed. Earlier, the concern was that the pesticides may be contaminating what’s grown on the bed of the Yamuna.

READ  Why Ukraine's Deal with the EU Matters

But recent reports suggest that the harmful mix of sewage and industrial effluents must be making its way in the fruits and vegetables grown on the bed of Yamuna River too, compromising the quality of these fruits and vegetable drastically.

Recently, an application has been filed in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) detailing how the river’s pollution is thwarting the health prospects of those who eat greens grown on its soil.

An RTI application filed in 2013 suggested the amount of the sewage and industrial effluents discharged in the river from a number of cities upstream was at an alarming rate.

Recently, the rejection of several consignments – for quality issues – of fruits and vegetables exported from India made news. In the beginning of this month, even Saudi Arabia banned import of Indian chillies due to high level of pesticide residues.

The recent application submitted in the NGT by Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan suggests large-scale pollution of Yamuna from industrial effluents and sewage that has led to groundwater pollution and soil pollution. Vegetables irrigated by this contaminated water are laced with heavy metals and chemical residues, the plea states.

The plea has been submitted with various research reports including a 2012 – The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) study that found the level of toxic metals like nickel, lead, manganese, chromium and zinc high in many water samples.

The findings of the report suggested that at one location, lead levels were 10 times more than as compared elsewhere along the river. At another site, near a thermal power plant, mercury concentration was about 200 times more than a United States Environmental Protection Agency standard.

It also contains a reference to a 2012 study by National Reference Trace Organics Laboratory and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in association with the environment ministry that found Lindane, a carcinogenic insecticide in Yamuna water.

The application seeks NGT implead Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) as a respondent in the case and direct CPCB or the state pollution control board to prepare a report on what action must be taken to stop this sort of contamination.

In 2011, scientific data proved the level of industrial pollution in the river was nearly 13 times the permissible limit. The river, when passing through Delhi, registered the highest levels of industrial pollution in the country.

Data collected over a 10-year period by the Central Water Commission through its 371 monitoring stations across the country then revealed Yamuna has the highest level of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) concentration when it passes through Delhi.

Yamuna’s level of industrial pollution based on the BOD test conducted then suggested there was 39.83 mg per liter of water as against the permissible limit of three mg during non-monsoon days.

In Mumbai, cleaning of Mithi River has always been a project of contention between different government bodies. An RTI application filed in 2013 had revealed despite Rs 975 crore having been spent on Mithi River Cleaning and Development since 2005, by the MMRDA and MCGM, the Mithi remains salty. De-silting of Mithi River is carried out every year before the monsoon but there is still a lot that needs to be done.

The water bodies in different states in India are in terrible condition. Be it the Bandi River in Bali, Rajasthan that gets polluted by over 500 textile units, or the fact that sewage water freely flows in Gorewada Lake – Nagpur’s drinking water reservoir – in Maharashtra, or the Narmada River in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh gets polluted by various dairy industries, the water bodies in the country needs to be preserved and preserved fast.

Now, everyone is waiting to see if the Modi government will achieve any success and lives up to its promises of cleaning the sacred river. Modi’s tryst with Ganga has to do with a lot more than conceding to a mere religious compulsion: A dirty Ganga symbolizes a dirty India and by cleaning up Ganga, Modi blows the clean India trumpet…loud and clear for the world!

Gajanan Khergamker is an independent editor and legal counsel with over three decades of experience. He heads DraftCraft – an India-based media-legal think tank. His areas of expertise include policy, inclusion, foreign affairs, law and diversity. His firm’s website is www.draftcraft.in and he can be reached at gajanan@draftcraft.inRead other articles by Gajanan.