During his election campaign Narendra Modi had sworn to clean "Maa Ganga". Given the prompt allocation of Rs 2,037 crore to the Namami Gange project in last year's Budget it was clear that Modi is quite serious about this poll promise. Since then, the project has hit headlines number of times; reasons ranging from Uma Bharti's plan to set "Ganga Guard Cops", to Narendra Modi's shram daan at Assi Ghat in Varanasi. Not much information is available on concrete efforts taken towards cleaning the river in the last one year.
Allocation of a whopping Rs 20,000 crore to the project has brought it back in news. It is much more than the money spent on Clean Ganga projects in the last three decades - which isn't modest in any way; reportedly, the sanctioned cost of Ganga Action Plans (GAP) I and II is approximately Rs 2,747 crore. That makes the current allocation seven times bigger than the expenditure in the last 30 years. Nothing absolutely wrong with that. However, the result of past programmes is what makes one sceptical about this massive funding.
In India, conversation about cleaning rivers have been more about political tokenism than sincere efforts. River Gomti, which flows through UP's capital Lucknow, is the case in point. Cornered by Narendra Modi's takeover of Ganga Maiyya, the UP CM Akhilesh Yadav has decided to clean Gomti by the next state elections. It isn't the first time Gomti has been evoked by the SP leadership. In the past, the SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav too had had raised it during election campaigns, and on many other occasions, but nothing was done on the ground. Now that Ganga is making headlines, the UP CM has got worried about Gomti losing the race.
Ganga cleaning is a different story altogether. The Clean Ganga projects were never short of funds, priority wise it was placed quite high on government's list of to-be-cleaned-rivers, but thanks to the lack of political will and a concrete plan it still remains a flowing mess. Despite massive funds not much has been actually done to clean the river. Against the projected expenditure of thousands of crores only Rs 967 crore was actually spent on GAP I and II; that is just 35 per cent of the sanctioned budget. Not surprisingly, the project failed miserably in achieving its target. Against the targeted sewage treatment capacity of three thousand million litres of sewage per day, in three decades the project achieved just one-third of the target (See this report).
Despite the massive funds being poured for cleaning the river, the prime minister headed the National River Conservation Authority (NRCA) didn't meet even once during Manmohan Singh's regime. Reportedly, the NRCA held its last meeting in 2003 under the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
The hype around Namami Gange might not let this project die a slow death, but it is yet to be seen if the government has any concrete plan to make it happen. Condition of the Ganges is not only a result of millions of litres of untreated waste being discharged into it every day, but also religious significance attached to it. Any effort towards cleaning the river without involving people who look at it as a dumping ground for their religious waste is unlikely to succeed.
Past debacles show that the river doesn't need money, it needs consistent efforts and proper utilisation of funds. A bigger budget would certainly be a boost for the project but only if the money goes where it should. In July 2014, Rs 44.8 lakh was spent on one meeting of the National Mission for Clean Ganga. Out of this, five lakh rupees were spent on "advertising" the event, and Rs 75,000 was spent on flower decoration alone. The spending doesn't say much about whether the Namami Gange funds are being utilised the way they should, neither should it be a basis to raise questions on it so early in the project. But one thing is sure, in the absence of a comprehensive plan no amount of funding or "Ganga Guard Cops" would be able to fix the flowing mess that Ganga has become.