One of the mainstays throughout the campaign of Narendra Modi in his bid to become the Prime Minister was his determination to clean Ganga by the end of his tenure, if voted to power. True to his word, after assuming office PM Modi announced the Namami Gange mission with a three-point agenda to ensure continuous flow, unpolluted flow and restore the ecological and geological integrity of Ganga and completely clean the river by 2020. Uma Bharti, who was tasked with the cleaning of the holy river, went a step further and claimed that the river will be cleaned by 2018. As the 2018 deadline is just three months away, one thing is increasingly clear. Ganga will not be cleaned up by 2020 let alone 2018. The ambitious mission which could have been BJP’s major sales pitch for 2019 is now fast turning to an embarrassment thanks to Uma Bharti.
The cleaning up of Ganga started way back in 1985 after a PIL filed by HC Mehta, a Delhi based lawyer and environmentalist which forced the then PM Rajiv Gandhi to act and create a Ganga Action Plan which saw hundreds of crores being pumped into the plan but to little effect. Come 2014, Narendra Modi revamped the plan and named it Namami Gange and made it clear the funds will not be an issue as it had been in the past by announcing a budget of a whopping Rs.20,000 crore for a five year period ending in 2020 for the project. This was at least 20 times more than what had been spent on Ganga rejuvenation projects since 1985. When Mehta again knocked the doors of the judiciary highlighting the failure of government to clean Ganga, the Green Tribunal in its stinging criticism of the governments both past and present said that “Two action plans have been completed but not a single drop of Ganga has been cleaned.” This certainly doesn’t bode well for Narendra Modi considering the fact that the river is sacred to Hindus, his main constituency and a lifeline for almost 40% of the country’s population, which helped in propelling him to power.
An RTI reply from the PMO last year revealed that about 20% of the Rs 3,700-crore funds allocated in the first two years of the programme was not utilised. Uma Bharti chaired a complete overhaul of the mission which saw name changing and setting up of various committees and empowered task forces but little change is visible on the ground. The committees seems woefully unprepared to even identify the problems let alone implement solutions considering the fact that in 1985, the government pegged the Grossly Polluting Industries(GPI) at 764 and come 2017, the number still stands at 764. It seems no action has been taken against the big industries out of fear of upsetting the bigwigs or the people tasked with the cleaning might be silenced by bags full of Indian currency.
The lack of coordination between the Centre and state governments has also been blamed for poor implementation of Modi’s pet project. The Ganga basin, the largest river basin in the country, serves Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Delhi, and parts of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal. Before 2017, the BJP wasn’t in power in UP, UK and Bihar, which are the main pollutants of Ganga. One example of the apparent lack of co-ordination can be seen when the CPCB pegged the number of major drains that discharge pollutants into the basin at 30 while the erstwhile UP government pegged the number at 150, this lead to utter chaos as the committees and task force heavily depend on government data. Another example can be seen when the Sewage Treatment Plants(STPs) which were built by the Centre saw them failing under increasing pressure and bad maintenance as the states and municipalities failed to maintain them which ultimately resulted in the contractors making a killing. This allowed the BJP some cover for their glaring failure, but 2017 saw BJP trouncing the opposition and wresting power in UP and UK and also saw it return to power in Bihar. There is little doubt that the onus is now completely on the BJP to clean the river.
According to the water resources ministry, a total of 160 projects, worth around Rs 12,500 crore, have been approved under the Namami Gange Mission – the Rs 20,000-crore project for cleaning the river out of which only 40 projects are said to be near completion. Such is the situation that in a presentation to a top Modi aide in 2017, that the officials from the National Mission to Clean Ganga(NMCG) marked almost the entire length of Ganga as heavily polluted stretches of Ganga. For the 2018 deadline to be met, the government should have commissioned plants to treat half the sewage by 2017 and it is safe to say the number is no way near that goal. According to NMCG, about 4,800 million litres of sewage from 118 towns flows into the river daily. The functioning capacity to treat sewage is 1,017 million litres per day (MLD).
Kanpur, the industrial city of UP, toxic pollution from tanneries operating in the city flows down slum-lined open sewers into the Ganga. Kanpur has over 400 of such tanneries and the authorities have shut down just 14 of them. It is telling that the authorities have lagged at the most basic of tasks such as the cleaning of the ghats, where the devotees assemble to bathe and where the bodies are cremated.Of 182 ghats to be modernised, work on only 50 has started. Of 118 crematoria, just 15 are currently being renovated.
In October 2016, the National Green Tribunal(NGT) ordered an inspection on the pollution in the Ganga river basin. The inspection found that out of the 33 drains joining river Ganga from Haridwar to Kanpur town, 4 drains were trapped and two were found to be dried up or used for irrigation.
Two out of the 14 drains joining River Kali-East directly were found to be dry. Shockingly, only 4 drains joining Ganga directly were devoid of pesticides. The study also found that 3515 MLD of waste water directly flows into Ganga. Drains joining Ganga were found to have traces of lead, chromium, arsenic and cadmium. As if to add insult to injury, a CPCB report in 2013 showed a massive amount of faecal coliform (human excreta) along the river’s mainstream. The river’s upstream is also concentrated with human excreta, which is a worrying factor as the upstream provides for a river’s breathing space.
A recent study by NMCG in 2015 blew the lid off the government’s defence of lack of coordination between states and the Centre due to the presence of opposition parties as the ruling party in most of the states through which the river flows. Surprisingly, out of the projects taken up by the five states, only West Bengal showed a 100% progress rate of all clean-up projects undertaken. Although the state’s expenditure was Rs.383.69 crore which was more than the total allocation of Rs. 350.90 crore. At least, West Bengal succeeded in the clean-up despite overspending whereas Uttar Pradesh despite exceeding the allocation, showed little results despite spending close to Rs 691 crore. It showed an average progress rate of 65.42 percent for all its projects. What can be termed as a major embarrassment for the BJP, Jharkhand, a state which is ruled by the party since the mission was announced, showed a 0% progress rate which consisted of only one project. Uttarakhand on it’s part too, has a very low progress rate in its projects with an average rate of 26.55 percent. Not close behind is Bihar with an average progress rate of 29.8 percent. Varanasi, PM Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency and one of the most sacred places for the Hindus showed a progress of just 22% with Allahabad being the sole bright spot in UP with a progress rate of 89%.
Haridwar another one of the holiest places for the Hindus through which is just a mere 294 km from Gangotri, the origin of the river, was declared unfit for bathing by the CPCB this year. One can only imagine how polluted it would become further downstream along its 2,525 km journey to the sea. The benefits of Gangajal according to Hindu Theology are well known to everyone and it is telling that the same holy water is now unfit for even bathing let alone drinking it. This declaration by the CPCB proved to be the final nail in the coffin for Uma Bharti and her demotion in the latest cabinet reshuffle was expected.
With Nitin Gadkari now being given the additional charge of Mission Ganga, who also happens to be one of the best performing ministers of the Modi cabinet, the expectations are sky high.
Nitin Gadkari is often said to be a good administrator but his knowledge about Ganga remains to be seen whereas Uma Bharti who initially seemed the perfect fit to head the mission as she has deep knowledge about the river and has agitated for its betterment since a long time but is said to be a weak administrator.
Uma Bharti’s reputation as a weak administrator perhaps led to her demotion as she was often found to be misled by the bureaucrats. Narendra Modi on his part too has shifted gears and is said to be personally monitoring the progress, His personal secretary, Nripendra Misra is tasked with the project and has asked the the NMCG officials for a monthly progress report. Nitin Gadkari has hit the ground running by sanctioning new contracts from the Sewage Treatment Plants under new terms where its maintenance too has to be taken care of by the contractors unlike the states and municipalities. Various other steps are said to be in pipeline with Varanasi being the main focus.
There’s a sense of “too little too late” of the recent progress by the government. The Modi government has two years to do what it couldn’t do in three years. Ganga flows through 167 Lok Sabha constituencies, most of which were won by the BJP comprehensively. Come 2019, millions of people who voted for the BJP would have the same question in their minds if the Modi-Gadkari duo fails to deliver. If they fail, the retention of the same constituencies for the BJP, which they won comfortably in 2014 would be anything but easy, let alone pocketing new constituencies.