Ganga and the death of its crusader

Read Down To Earth’s upcoming issue for a detailed analysis of the current state of the Ganga

By Banjot Kaur
Published: Thursday 11 October 2018
A boatman rowing in River Ganga in Allahabad. Credit: Avikal Somvanshi A boatman rowing in River Ganga in Allahabad. Credit: Avikal Somvanshi

Scientist, environmentalist and Ganga crusader GD Agarwal, who passed away today, spoke to Down To Earth in perhaps his last interview. The magazine’s October 16 issue is on why the Ganga will remain polluted despite river-friendly budgets and politically correct rhetoric. An excerpt:

Ramji Tripathi took bottles filled with Ganga water to the offices of the Kanpur Jal Nigam and the Ganga Pollution Control Unit to confirm his strong hunch. Tripathi is a seer and the national coordinator of Kanpur-based Ma Ganga Pradushan Mukti Abhiyan Samiti, an outfit led by Swami Harchetan. When he started sprinkling the “holy water ” on the officials, the police was called and he was forced to leave the premises. Tripathi says he did this only to debunk the claims of officials that river-cleaning operations were yielding results. “Why did they stop me from sprinkling holy water,” he asks. His organisation is now going to launch a movement to boycott bathing in the Ganga in the next Kumbh Mela, which begins on January 15, 2019. After three decades of efforts to clean the national river, it is a sad state of affairs that the river is not even fit for bathing. According to a map of Ganga river water quality presented by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to National Green Tribunal (NGT) in August 2018, only five out of 70-odd monitoring stations had water that was fit for drinking and seven for bathing.  

Initiatives to clean the Ganga began with the Ganga Action Plan I in 1986. Till 2014, over Rs 4,000 crore had been spent. But the river has remained dirty. So when the National Democratic Alliance government launched the Namami Gange in mid-May 2015, there was a new hope. It was the biggest-ever initiative—over Rs 20,000 crore was allotted. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it his personal agenda and set a deadline: “Ganga will be clean by 2019”, it has now been extended to 2020.

Namami Gange is being implemented by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), and its state counterparts—State Programme Management Groups. NMCG would establish field offices wherever necessary. The National Ganga Council (NGC) was created. And to give it utmost importance, the Prime Minister was made its head. This council replaced the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). NGC would have on board the chief ministers of five Ganga basin states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal—besides several Union ministers and it was supposed to meet once every year.

The Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Ministry signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with 10 other ministries to synergise the activities under the Namami Gange. The government said it would involve grassroots level institutions such as urban local bodies and panchayati raj institutions to implement the programme.

An Empowered Task Force, headed by Union Water Resources Minister, was created and it has on board the chief secretaries of the five Ganga Basin states. It was supposed to meet once in every three months. State Ganga Committees have been formed, which would be the nodal agency to implement the programmes in a state. Besides, these committees would conduct safety audits of the river and take remedial measures. The draft Ganga protection law is with the government but experts question its utility. “It is immaterial whether you come up with a new law or not. What is required is an autonomous body for the rejuvenation of Ganga which is independent of the government when it comes to its functioning. Instead of bureaucrats, it should consist of experts well-versed with the river,” environmentalist GD Agrawal, the 86-year-old former IIT-Kanpur professor who was on an indefinite fast to save the Ganga from June 22, 2018, told Down To Earth in perhaps his last interview before he passed away at 1.11pm today.    

The Centre had also said it would establish a 4-battalion Ganga EcoTask Force to spread awareness about pollution and protecting the river. The government is contemplating a legislation to arrest and fine those found flouting norms.

The government also tasked seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) to prepare a report on the best strategies to clean up the river. IITs batted for a Ganga basin approach, which meant not only cleaning the Ganga, but its tributaries as well. The report, Ganga Rejuvenation Basin Management Programme (GRBMP), submitted in March 2015, says that instead of establishing a few projects on the stretch of the Ganga, the whole river basin—that is all the states coming under the main stem of Ganga and its tributaries—must come under the ambit of the programme. 

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in its report in December last year, said, “The NMCG neither circulated GRBMP to different ministries/departments for consultation and seeking their opinion, nor finalised the GRBMP for initiating the long-term intervention on the Ganga.” The document on NMCG website which talks about the towns under consideration for pollution abatement belong to five states on the main Ganga stem—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal—and not the ones which lie on the tributaries of the Ganga. Cleaning of the Ganga needs a strategy where the NGC has to find effective solutions to the challenges that the previous programmes have failed to address. This would entail addressing untreated waste that flows into the river, restoring the flow of the river, sludge management in Ganga basin towns, cost overruns in execution of projects and governance glitches.  

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