Despite Rs 20,000 crore to clean up Ganga, we can't even bathe in India's holiest river

The Ganges is dying, as are the people who dare take a dip in it.

 |  6-minute read |   29-03-2018
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Water from the Ganga can cleanse your soul, many believe. It can also expose your body to 13 times the level of bacteria considered safe, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data says.

According to a report in Hindustan Times, at a holy site for Hindus – the sangam (confluence) of the Ganga and the Yamuna in Allahabad – concentration of faecal coliform (FC), a bacterium that enters the water through the faeces of warm-blooded animals, is 5-13 times the permissible limit. The permissible limit for FC is 2,500 MPN (most probable number)/100 ml, while the desirable level is 500 MPN/100 ml, the report says.

This is the venue of the poorna kumbh and the maha kumbh melas, which see millions of devotees gather for a “holy dip” every few years.

The Ganga's pollution levels have been worrisome for years. The Ganga's pollution levels have been worrisome for years.

The alarming data raises key questions – what are its implications for us, why is the Ganga in such a terrible shape, and what is happening to Namami Gange, the Narendra Modi government’s much touted, flagship, river clean-up programme?

What pollution can do to us

According to the HT report, in Uttar Pradesh, 50 per cent of the 16 stations for which FC data was available for 2018 did not meet desired standards. In Bihar, 88 per cent stations fell below the mark.

The Ganga is the lifeblood of one of the most populated pockets of the country, passing over Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal in its journey from the Gangotri glacier to the Bay of Bengal. According to Colorado State University fluvial geoscientist Ellen Wohl, the Ganga river basin supports 10 per cent of the world’s population. 

Every use we put the water to – drinking, bathing, irrigation of crops, consuming the fish it harbours – is a way for its pollutants to enter our bodies. According to an article in Newsweek, “Diarrhoea, often caused by exposure to fecal matter, kills 6,00,000 Indians per year, and waterborne diseases throughout the Ganges river basin, many a result of the polluted waters, cost families $4 billion per year. Sanitation and water pollution issues cause 80 percent of the diseases that afflict rural Indians”.

Hence, for people in the Gangetic plain, the toxic substances they put into the waters of the Ganga find their way back in some form or the other.  

Namami Gange status check  

After Narendra Modi became the prime minister of India, he addressed the public at a grand event in Varanasi, where he had contested from. He made an emotional pitch for cleaning up the Ganga: “Mother Ganga has made me yours. Perhaps these opportunities and good fortune do not come in the life of everyone. That is why I say that Mother Ganga has decided some tasks for me. And as Mother Ganga guides me, I will perform those tasks. Brothers and sisters, from her source to end, Mother Ganga is wailing, ‘Let any of my sons come and rescue me from this filth’.”

Narendra Modi had come to Varanasi for a ganga aarti after leading the BJP to a win in the Lok Sabha polls 2014. Narendra Modi had come to Varanasi for a ganga aarti after leading the BJP to a win in the Lok Sabha polls 2014.

A budget of Rs 20,000 crore was pitched and four years later, Mother Ganga is still wailing. The prime minister did begin the task in right earnest. The water ministry was named ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, funds sanctioned.

However, in December 2017, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found that the allotted funds had not been utilised. A report tabled in the Parliament said: “Funds amounting to Rs 2,133.76 crore, Rs 422.13 crore and Rs 59.28 crore were lying unutilised with the National Mission for Clean Ganga, various state programme management groups and executing agencies/central public sector undertakings (as on 31 March, 2017).”

While presenting the Union budget 2018, Finance minister Arun Jaitely had said, “A total of 187 projects have been sanctioned under the Namami Gange programme for infrastructure development, river surface cleaning, rural sanitation and other interventions at a cost of Rs 16,713 crore. 47 projects have been completed and remaining projects are at various stages of execution.”

However, Down to Earth points out that “recent data from the National Mission for Clean Ganga suggests otherwise. Only 18 projects have been completed out of 95 sanctioned (see table below). Moreover, not a single project has been completed in Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana and Delhi”.

Delay in finalising plans and lack of coordination among various bodies involved are among the reasons for the poor utilisation of funds. But the BJP, the “champion” of Hindu pride, was expected to show more efficiency in cleaning up a river so integral to the faith of its most loyal voter base.    

Why the river is polluted

For a large population of Indians, the Ganga is the source of economic as well as spiritual sustenance. The more populated towns in this belt are along the river, and it has to swallow their domestic and industrial waste.

Then, of course, is fact that immersing a dead person’s ashes in the Ganga is integral to the Hinduism. Faith and money often come together to ensure that not just ashes, but bodies too are immersed in the river.     

Governments, over the years, have not been able to come up with a robust solution for treating the effluents discharged into the river. For example, in Kanpur, a major centre of the leather industry, up to 50 MLD of toxic tannery wastewater is generated daily, but the city has the infrastructure to treat only 9 MLD.

Environment is usually not a poll issue in India, and when governments are moved to act, they tend to announce Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs), which are expnesive to operate and maintain, but sound impressive. A few CETPs are woefully inadequate to tackle the amount of sewage discharged into the Ganga.      

Another major problem is that the flow of the river is reduced to a trickle as it meanders over the plains. Less water means the concentration of pollutants immediately becomes higher. According to a report in The Wire, 80 percent of Ganga’s water is diverted at Haridwar and Narora for irrigation. Thus, while on one hand water flow diminishes, pollutants are added to the river.

The drop in water levels can have macabre consequences – in 2015, the river had revealed its worst secret, when more than 100 decomposed bodies had come up to the surface in Uttar Pradesh’s Unnao.

A people that worship a river as a mother goddess would be expected to treat it better. But this is where faith mixes with civic sense to create a dangerous cocktail. The Ganga lived in the heavens above, it came down to earth to wash away people’s sins. The idea has been taken rather literally by people, who seem to think that consigning everything to the Ganga relieves them of their responsibility towards it.

Devotees think that the Ganga is the mighty force that has sustained civilisations for centuries, and will magically continue to do so.

However, the magic, if there was any, is about to come to an end. It is high time the public and the government worked together to ensure that Ganga is treated like a river, and not a sewer.  

Also read: Ram Navami violence: Why Hindutva forces are fanning communal flames in West Bengal

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