Can Ministry of Jal Shakti save Indian rivers?

The new ministry has its work cut out as old ministries’ track record in cleaning and saving river basins hasn’t been great

By Sushmita Sengupta, Rashmi Verma
Published: Friday 21 June 2019
Photo: Getty Images

There is a visible thrust on water by Modi government 2.0 and this was promised during his Lok Sabha campaigning. He took a step towards it by launching a new ministry called Jal Shakti, which he recently referred to as a symbol of his commitment towards resolving the country’s water crisis. The government seemingly wants to catch up with the water sector.

Jal Shakti, which will be the umbrella ministry in which all water-related ministries will be integrated. So, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the former Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation will be merged into the new ministry.

The National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD), which was under the purview of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), will also be brought under this umbrella. The officials of National Mission for Clean Ganga said this will be notified soon.

NRCD is majorly implements pollution abatement works in polluted stretches of various rivers under the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) and provides assistance to various state governments in this sector. So far it has covered 33 rivers in 76 towns of 15 states.

Ganga, a battle lost?

The river Ganga, which was under NRCD, was transferred to the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation under the Government of India (Allocation of Business) 350th Amendment Rules, 2019.

The history of river cleaning programmes in the country started with the launch of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) and setting up of Ganga Project Directorate (GPD) in 1985. Later, Ganga Action Plan was expanded to cover other rivers under National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) in 1995 and GPD was renamed as the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD).

Till date, NRCD has taken up various pollution abatement measures for Satluj, Beas and Gaggar, Sabarmati, Mindola, Devika and Tawi, Caurvery, Godavari, Musi, Adyar and Cooum, Pamba, Rani Chu, Diphu, Dhansiri and Krishna rivers. As estimated by MoEF&CC, around 2520.43 MLD of pollution load has been tackled by the directorate by spending Rs 3,232 crore.

Experts believe this transfer will not solve any purpose. Nothing much can be anticipated from this move. It is well evident that no great improvement has been sighted in the status of Ganga, despite it being separated from NRCD long back, said Manoj Mishra from Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.

According to a map of Ganga’s water quality presented by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 2018, only five of the 70-odd monitoring stations had water fit for drinking and seven for bathing.

In March 2018, Nitin Gadkari, the then minister of water resources, said by March 2019 almost 70-80 per cent of Ganga would be clean.

Against the standard of 2,500 per 100 ml, the faecal coliform in cities with Ganga basin ranged from 2,500 to 2,40,000 per 100 ml in May 2018, according to data provided by pollution control boards of five states. This proves that sanitation in areas around the river is mismanaged.

Till April 2019, projects worth Rs 28,451.29 crore had been sanctioned under Namami Gange, the flagship programme looking after the cleaning of Ganga. But not even one-fourth of the sanctioned costs had been put to work.

The total expenditure on these projects till April 30, 2019 stood at Rs 6,838.67 crore. Also, the government has managed to complete only 98 projects against the sanctioned 298 till April 30, 2019.

What about the others?

Despite huge investments, the NRCD could not save the rivers in the country. Of India’s 36 states and Union territories, 31 have polluted stretches, according to CPCB’s 2018 report. Maharashtra is home to most of these (53 polluted river stretches) followed by Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, and several other states.

India has 351 polluted stretches on 323 rivers, which rose from 302 polluted stretches on 275 rivers in 2015, highlighted the report. Rivers not only face pollution but also loss of flow due to mismanagement of catchment areas.

So, the question is if the backlog and bad history of the old ministries let the new Jal Shakti perform better?

The umbrella ministry sounds good, but saving a river basin needs terrain-specific planning which has always been ignored, said Ajay S Rawat, an ecologist from Uttarakhand.

For example, since Uttarakhand has six river catchments and 1,120 micro watersheds, the planning should start from micro watershed level and accountability should also be fixed on high-level officials, added Rawat.

Others are also not very optimistic about the new ministry. Ultimately all these ministries focus on distribution of water rather than conservation of water resources, said Prakash C Tiwari, a professor of Geography from Kumaon University.

But some disagree. “Most of the government schemes for betterment of rivers face management issues, mainly due to departmental coordination and cooperation. The step taken is in a right direction, will help to bridge the gap and support efficient implementation on ground,” said BD Tripathi, coordinator, Centre for Environmental Science & Technology, Banaras Hindu University.

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