Even as the Kumbh Mela kickstarts at Allahabad – now renamed Prayagraj – on Tuesday, January 15, with all the government paraphernalia advertising a cleaner Ganga for the devotees, activists and Opposition party leaders have come down heavily on the government’s failure on exactly the same.
Dams in the higher reaches of the Ganga, illegal sand mining, dumping of debris following massive road construction under the Char Dham Yatra project and, of course, the intermittent sewage – treated and untreated both – flowing directly into the Ganga in the plains – the list of all that is wrong goes on and on.
Environmental and social activists, not to mention a group of sanyasis, and a few leaders from Opposition parties have been at pains to draw the attention of the government to their demands.
In fact, Samajwadi Party leader and member of Parliament, Revati Raman Singh, has announced launching a 'jan andolan' (people’s protest) at the Kumbh itself.
Carping on the Modi government’s attempt to turn the Ardh-Kumbh almost into Mahakumbh in an election year (Kumbh Mela is held every four years at four different places across India, with each of those places getting to host it once in 12 years in rotation; Ardh-Kumbh is once every six years at Allahabad/Prayagraj, midway between the two Kumbhs), Singh said, “Our demand is very simple. What we need is Ganga’s aviral dhara (continuous flow). The government is talking only about treated-untreated sewage from smaller tributaries and nullahs flowing into the Ganga. Where is the Ganga Jal then?”
Singh had first announced the jan andolan and court arrest (jail bharo andolan) too at a multi-lateral stakeholder meeting in December 2018.
“Today and tomorrow, there would be hundreds and thousands of people at the Kumbh venue for the Shahi Snan on the occasion of Makar Sankranti. Once that is over, I will definitely launch the protest there. People need to reach the Kumbh area to protest,” he told me over the phone on Tuesday.
The largest congregation of humanity
Advertised as the largest congregation of humanity, a great number of sadhu-sanyasis, Indians from across the country and abroad – and nowadays, several foreigners – reach the Kumbh venue, the Triveni Sangam, the meeting point of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and the mystical Saraswati. Kumbh tourism has been on the rise as scores of non-believers, both Indian and foreign, also throng the venue, especially for witnessing and photographing the Shahi Snan by the myriad sadhus and sanyasis of various Akhadas (schools of sanyasis).
According to government data, this year, the Prayagraj Kumbh is spread over 3,200 hectares land – about 700 hectares more compared to 2013's Maha Kumbh. The area has been divided into 20 sectors. Eight km-long bathing ghats have been developed at the Sangam for the holy dip and similarly, several other ghats have also been developed along the banks of river Ganga in different sectors of the Mela. About 12 crore pilgrims and tourists are expected during the Kumbh. Massive security arrangements are in place for the smooth passing of the first bathing festival and the Shahi Snan.
Every Kumbh witnesses a large number of visitors, devotees, tourists with the majority reaching there only for their faith – the faith in the Ganga, India’s national river.
In all their devotion, they take a dip in the Ganga waters, oblivious to the actual condition of the water quality, or choosing to neglect it for the time being, even if they do worry about it.
The people and their Ganga
How good is it to play with people’s aastha (faith)?
That is the question on the lips of the common visitor as activists harp on the fact that the Ganga can clean itself provided the government lets it flow continuously. Aviral (continuous) flow will ensure nirmal (cleaner) Ganga, the activists point out time and again. Only 80 kms of the Ganga witness this natural flow.
The meeting of the stakeholders in December at Delhi, where Revati Raman Singh had made the initial announcement to launch his protest during the Kumbh, was organised by Ganga Aahvaan, an organisation striving for a free-flowing, cleaner Ganga.
It was attended by activists and political leaders. Apart from Jairam Ramesh, Congress leader and former Environment Minister, and another Congress leader, Pradeep Tamta, the event was attended and addressed by Somnath Bharati of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and Govindacharya, a former RSS ideologue.
Clearly unhappy with the Modi government’s October 2018 draft bill for protection of the Ganga, aiming to regulate minimum environmental flow in the river, the attendees discussed the People’s Ganga Bill 2018 – which was initiated during the times of late Professor GD Agrawal, who laid down his life after fasting for more than 100 days for the Ganga in October 2018.
The cornerstones of the draft act are identifying the unique status and special features of the National River Ganga; identifying and recognising the self-purifying and bacterial properties that lend Gangatva to the river; acknowledging the adverse role that developmental projects have had on the river and management and implementation of conservation plans through an autonomous body.
Environmental activists Mallica Bhanot, Ravi Chopra and Rajendra Singh dwelled on the draft act which proposes a primary core zone, a secondary zone and a buffer zone for the river. The primary core zone will comprise areas from the Himalayas, the secondary zone will be the Ganga floodplains and the length of the river from Dev Prayag till Gangasagar while the buffer zone will be the entire Ganga basin.
Ganga’s condition today
The government’s draft Bill does not talk about hydropower projects on Ganga.
There are 100-odd existing hydropower projects across the Ganga basin in the state of Uttarakhand alone, with more than 100 either planned or under construction, together targeted at more than 25,000MW (majorly from projects on the Alaknanda river).
The Modi government has been harping on its success of how it will clean the Ganga up to 80% by March 2019 – but it does not talk about stopping the work on hydropower projects. “We are not going to build any new projects,” is all that the Ministry of Water Resources maintains.
At a time when solar power is increasingly becoming cheaper, why the need to harness so much from hydropower on the Ganga alone is beyond anyone’s understanding.
Underlining that there are only 5 per cent high-end power users, Govindacharya asked if indeed we need that much power production that leads to the devastation of rivers and suggested, “Congress aur BJP ko apna mann banana padega (It is for the Congress and BJP both to take it on themselves)!”
Out in 2019, none of the parties actively said anything about hydropower projects, even when there has been a lot of noise about the clean/nirmal Ganga initiative, from both sides. The centre duly tries to showcase pockets where very little or superficial action is taking place.
But on the ground, the scores of STPs are yet to be constructed, pipelines taking sewers away from the Ganga are to be laid and even the cosmetic ghat cleaning is yet to happen at all places.
In fact, a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report ‘Biological Water Quality Assessment of the River Ganga (2017-18)’ found that almost all locations where monitoring was carried out in pre-and post-monsoon season from Uttarakhand to West Bengal were “moderately” to “heavily polluted”.
Will Ganga become a political issue?
Ahead of 2014, the BJP, especially Narendra Modi, did hype on the Ganga, making an emotional appeal to the voter from the Hindi heartland. But otherwise, cleaning of rivers, much less the Ganga, never actually figures in the political discourse.
Interestingly, even when Jairam Ramesh drew attention to the practicalities of being in the government – “I agree with (Nitin) Gadkari, being in government is different. Any government has a lot of pressure to carry out projects” – he made a very poignant point.
Alluding to the fact that the Ganga is not a rallying point for politicians as it has no vote bank, he said, “If Mandir can become a political issue, aviral Ganga too can?”
And then, as candid as he could get, he admitted, “But I cannot promise if we come to power, we will be able to keep this promise.”
Indeed. That leaves with what Govindacharya suggested. Two main parties, the BJP and the Congress, taking this up seriously if we are to ask: Will Ganga be a political issue? Will it ever be aviral and nirmal again?