The mighty Himalayas is the place for the origin of the Ganga which is one of the three major river systems of India. In terms of altitude, climatic variation, land use, flora and fauna, social and cultural life of the Indian subcontinent, Ganga has been a cradle of human civilization ever since the ancient times. Millions of Indian people living in its catchment areas depend on this holy river for spiritual and physical sustenance.
Ganga basin is the largest river basin in India in terms of the catchment area constituting about 26% of the total land mass and the dependence of about 43% population on it in various ways. Ganga emanates from the Gangotri Glacier at Gaumukh in Himalayas and it traverses to a distance of about 2525 Kms through the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, and territory of Bangladesh before finally emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The major tributaries of Ganges include Alaknanda, Ramganga, Kali, Yamuna, Ghagra, Gomti, Gandak, Kosi and Sone; these rivers with their other sub-tributaries draining 11 states join Ganga at different confluence points during its course.
In view of the socio-economic and cultural significance of Ganga, the Government of India declared it as the National River way back. To a majority Hindu population at philosophical level, Ganga is not only a lifeline river and a purifier of the mortal beings but also a living holy Godess, the Mother Ganga. Many people have an immense faith in the healing and regeneration powers of the Ganga and for many of them, it remains a life time ambition to take a holy bathe in Ganga, particularly during periodical Snan festival of Kumbh Mela.
Pollution is the major problem across the entire length and breadth of this mighty river. The chief sources of pollution remain direct sewage disposal from cities and towns situated at the bank of the river, industrial waste from factories, disposal of mortal remains of dead bodies and religious offerings mostly wrapped in non-degradable polythene bags. With the passage of time, the total population and population density has increased many fold in the plains of Ganga basin. Consequently, the per capita discharge of pollutants has also considerably increased in the river while diversion of the dry season water flows for the purposes of drinking and irrigation is further aggravating the problem.
A large populace exists in the cities and towns on the banks of the river and a very substantial portion of pollutants come from human wastes through domestic uses like bathing, laundry and even public defecation. On many places, after cremation of the deceased, ashes and body remains like hair and bones are thrown into the water of Ganges. Even un-cremated bodies are a source of pollution as many sages, pregnant woman, children below a certain age, people bitten by snakes, people with leprosy and the poor dead bodies are disposed of without rites to decompose in the river.
Industrial waste is another major source of pollution. Some of the major cities like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna exist on the banks of the river with a large number of tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughter houses and hospitals dumping their untreated waste into the river - many of these substances being toxic and non-biodegradable. Sugar mills in the Western Uttar Pradesh and Tanneries at Jajmau (Kanpur) are bigger pollution threats for Ganga on account of their poisonous chemical wastes rendering water unusable for drinking and bathing.
Festive occasions like annual holy bathe are periodical major source of pollution with people offering or throwing flowers, leaves, food and other substances during religious rituals. In the absence of toilets in many household in rural India, the open defecation of lakhs of people along the riverside also adds up to the growing pollution. Although under the Swachh Bharat Mission, the construction of a large number of toilets have been undertaken in villages and cities as well to discourage open defecation but the problem persists.
Besides, several dams and pumping stations across the river in its entire length are another cause of concern not only diminishing the flow of the river but also endangering its ecology and aquatic life. Major dams and barrages across Ganga include the ones at Haridwar, Bijnor, Narora, Kanpur and Farakka. Diversion of water at these points for the irrigation and drinking purposes makes the river water deficient particularly during the lean season raising the pollution levels. Similarly, a large number of pumping stations on the river banks for irrigation schemes deprive the river of its base-flows. Apart from increasing the pollution level, these activities also have damaging effect on the ecology including the ground water and soil along the river.
Rejuvenation Efforts: Past & Present
During the last three decades, efforts have been made by the respective governments and institutional level to rescue and rejuvenate the river Ganga. However, a comprehensive and credible data is not available on the measures taken by the Centre and the State governments in the past. Besides, though a lot of expenditure has been incurred but any concrete and measurable impact is yet to be seen. As per the estimates of a Standing Committee of the Parliament some time back, so far over Rs 9,000 crores have been spent by various governments for cleaning efforts of the Ganga. A substantial amount of this has been spent on sewage plants but there has been hardly any perceptible improvement in terms of cleanliness and pollution control.
Major Government and Institutional initiatives and efforts and consequent outcomes are briefly enumerated in the following paragraphs.
1. Ganga action Plan
At the Central Government level, an action plan in two phases was initiated during the mid-eighties of the last century. In the first phase, the Ganga Action Plan-1was initiated in June, 1985 by the then Congress regime focusing on 25 major cities and towns at the banks of Ganga. An amount of about Rs 452 crores was spent, major beneficiary states were Uttar Pradesh (6 cities), Bihar (4 cities) and West Bengal (15 cities) and the scheme was finally closed in March, 2000.
In the second phase, the Ganga Action Plan-2 was started in 1993 and continued up to the year 2009; this time the plan included main tributaries of Ganga too. This programme was focused on 95 cities and towns of the same beneficiary states with a total expenditure of about Rs 838 crores. In addition, the respective state governments, several cooperatives, social groups, non-government organization and individuals have been working for the cause over the years and reliable figures on the amount of money spent by them is not available.
These government initiatives taken to clean Ganga under the Ganga Action Plan have largely been unsuccessful due to lack of foresight, deficient environmental planning and requisite technical expertise. Faulty application without proper understanding of the human–environment interactions, rampant corruption and lack of support from religious heads and organizations only added fuel to the fire.
2. Recent Initiatives and Namami Gange
The current thrust for the ‘Nirmal and Aviral Ganga’ (clean and continuous Ganges) came at the initiative of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the present NDA government formed in May, 2014. He vowed to work for the clean and uninterrupted Ganga during his campaign in Varanasi, and now the government has taken several policy initiatives besides making adequate provision for funds to work in a mission mode for a clean and continuous river. Seriousness of the Government’s commitment can’t be doubted with the restructuring Water Resources Ministry as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD & GR), with dedicated Ganga Rejuvenation Cell.
“The Government will work out a policy initiative for the rejuvenation of Ganga as well as the cleaning up of other important rivers in the country. Efforts will be made to make it clean and pious as it was in the past,” Union Minister of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation made a statement immediately after taking charge of the ministry.
Besides, the Government also took prompt action to sanction several sewage treatment plants (STPs) for the cities on the banks of the river in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) and feasibility of more plants is believed to be under consideration. Recent initiatives have been taken exclusively by the Central Government under the aegis of the following institutions/programmes.
National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA)
The National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was constituted in February, 2009 under the chairmanship of the then prime minister of the UPA Government for revamping the river conservation programme with commensurate planning, financing, implementing, monitoring and coordinating activities. The NGRBA has taken several initiatives under overall supervision of the Government since its formation for making Ganga clean and uninterrupted.
The NGRBA functions include development of a Ganga River Basin Management Plan, regulation of activities aimed at prevention, control and abatement of pollution, to maintain water quality and to take measures relevant to the river ecology in the Ganga basin states. It is mandated to ensure the maintenance of minimum ecological flows in the river Ganga and abate pollution through planning, financing and execution of programmes including that of – 1) Augmentation of Sewerage Infrastructure, 2) Catchment Area Treatment, 3) Protection of Flood Plains, and 4) Creating Public Awareness.
The NGRBA meeting are normally chaired by the concerned Minister but the 5th meeting was chaired by the Prime Minister himself on 26th March, 2015 at the policy formulation level. During the meeting, the need for collective will and action was emphasized for rejuvenation of the river for massive economic transformation and socio-economic benefits. The concerned state governments were requested to give priority to the towns located on the banks of Ganga in their development programmes, identification of advanced technological solutions for the abatement of pollution in the river, conservation of indigenous species of the aquatic and terrestrial flora and fauna, incentivizing industries for industrial pollution abatement and participatory approach to the river rejuvenation process as key focus areas under the Namami Gange Programme, launched by the Government.
National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG)
The NMCG is the implementation body of the NGRBA. It is a registered society originally formed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on 12th August, 2011 under the Societies Registration Act, 1860. Both NGRBA and NMCG are now allocated to the restructured Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR, RD &GR).
The NMCG was primarily established to work on effective abatement of pollution and conservation of the river Ganga. It coordinates project implementation at the national level supported with the state level Project Management Groups of five basin states of the River Ganga, namely Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. The area of operation of NMCG is the Ganga River Basin, including the states through which Ganga flows as also the National Capital Territory of Delhi.
In a series of steps taken for cleaning the Ganga, a major event named Ganga Manthan was organized under the aegis of NMCG, the project implementation arm of the NGRBA on 7th July, 2014 at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. It was actually a national level interaction and consultation among various stakeholders which included policy makers, implementers, academicians, environmentalists, NGOs, saints and spiritual leaders for the cause of Ganga rejuvenation. The main purpose of the Ganga Manthan was to bring all stakeholders under one umbrella to seek their inputs on various problems and possible solutions.
The deliberations were organized in parallel sessions on four distinct themes namely ‘Ganga and Sanskriti’ (culture), ‘Nirmal and Aviral (clean and continuous) Ganga’, ‘Comprehensive & Sustainable Solutions’ and ‘Jan Sehbhagita’ (public participation). Participants too were accordingly identified stakeholder wise as saints and spiritual leaders, NGOs and environmentalists, academicians and technocrats, and public representatives and administrators, respectively.
During the day long deliberations at national level, the following key suggestions and views emerged:
That no further dams and barriers should be constructed, fishing and hunting be banned, and disposal of dead bodies and their belongings should be completely stopped. Further river bed farming - a source of harmful chemicals, should be stopped, Vetiver (khus) grass be planted along the river bed to prevent soil erosion and siltation.
There should be focus on rainwater harvesting, recycle and reuse of the generated effluent by industries, finding alternative for chromium sulphate in the tanneries, finding alternative options of STPs and monitoring of bacteriological quality of water through multi-stabilization ponds and UV.
An umbrella agency is required for Ganga conservation to manage inter-ministerial and inter-departmental coordination. Also there is need that all the affected states adopt Sanitation Act and public awareness programme is undertaken at a massive scale.
Government shall focus more on the decentralized small sewage treatment plants (STPs) rather than big treatment plants, take policy measures on metering and water tariff to minimize leakage and improve water usage, improved coordination among agencies working for the same cause, adoption and promotion of innovative technologies like bio-digestor developed by the Defence Research & Development Organization, undertake development and implementation of the river regulation zone. Besides, there is also a need to incorporate the existing best practices of the international and national institutional models in the Ganga rejuvenation plan.
Namami Gange Programme
Namami Gange is an integrated Ganga conservation and cleaning programme undertaken by the present NDA regime to be implemented by NMCG. A total allocation of Rs 20,000 crore have been made by the Union cabinet for the five year period (2015-2020). In the Union Budget 2014-15 itself, the cognizance of the programme was taken and an amount of Rs 2,037 crores was set aside for an Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission called “Namami Gange”. In addition a sum of Rs. 100 crores had also been allocated for developments of Ghats and beautification of River Fronts at Kedarnath, Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna. The programme envisages Ganga Rejuvenation by consolidating the existing on-going efforts and planning for a concrete action plan for future.
Keeping in view the multi-sectoral, multi-dimensional and multi-stakeholder nature of the Ganga Rejuvenation challenge, a Group of Secretaries (GoS) of the concerned key Ministries i.e. WR, RD&GR, Environment, Forests & Climate Change, Shipping, Tourism, Urban Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation and Rural Development was constituted to develop a draft action plan. Assistance of a consortium of seven IITs was also taken to prepare a long term Ganga River Basin Management Plan in a long term vision.
Broadly speaking, the GoS has recommended the following action plan under the Namami Gange Programme:
(i) Nirmal Dhara (Clean Flow) – This includes action on sustainable municipal sewage management, management of sewage from rural areas and taking care of the industrial discharge. To manage municipal sewage, Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) shall coordinate project prioritization for upgrading the existing sewerage infrastructure as also expanding this coverage to more urban habitations on the banks of Ganga. Uniform standards for both MoUD and Namami Gange Programme shall be applicable and incentives will be given to the participating states by providing an additional share of central grants. Simultaneously, plan envisages a close working with all Ganga Bank Gram Panchayats (estimated 1649) to make free from open defecation by 2022 by providing adequate Central share. To manage Industrial discharge, apart from strictly implementing existing guidelines, government is considering the zero liquid discharge (ZLD) as mandatory, rationalized water tariff to encourage reuse and real time water quality monitoring.
(ii) Aviral Dhara (Uninterrupted Flow) – To ensure this, the government plans under Namami Gange and through other means enforcing River Regulatory Zones on Ganga Banks, rationalization of agricultural practices, efficient irrigation methods, restoration and conservation of wetlands, and ecological rejuvenation by conservation of aquatic life and biodiversity. Besides, action plan also envisages making the river navigable, promotion of tourism and shipping in a rational and sustainable manner.
However, keeping in view immediate problems of controlling the spread of pollution and keeping it to manageable limits, the GoS have also identified the following activities in the short term:
"Scheme for rehabilitation and up-gradation of existing STPs – By ensuring 100% sewerage infrastructure in identified towns, in situ sewage treatment in open drains, support for preparation of DPRs, River Front Management for Ghat’s developments in selected cities and towns, Industrial pollution abatement at Kanpur on priority, augmenting public amenities, waste disposal and sanitation for Char Dham Yatra, capacity building of urban local bodies, conservation of Flora and Aquatic Life, study of communities dependent on Ganga for their livelihood, special guidelines for sand mining in Ganga and setting of a National Ganga Monitoring Centre etc."
Current Status of Namami Gange Programme
The Cabinet approved the Namami Gange program on 13th May, 2015 as a comprehensive approach to rejuvenate the river Ganga and all its tributaries under one umbrella with a total allocation of Rs. 20,000 crore over the next five years. This includes funds allocated for on-going projects to clean river Ganga and new initiatives.
Under structural reorganization, the Ministry of Water Resources was renamed in May 2014 as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, with obvious focus on Ganga and gazette notification of transfer of work relating to this river and tributaries to the reorganized Ministry on 1st august, 2014. An Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission was announced under the nomenclature ‘Namami Gange’ and budget allocations made in July 2014 and NGRBA reconstituted.
Besides launching NMGC website, stakeholders’ deliberations were organized at national level by organizing Ganga Manthan in July and workshop with industries in September and October, 2014. The Group of Secretaries submitted their report on action plan towards the end of August,2014. A high level Task Force was also constituted under the Cabinet Secretary for the apex level monitoring.
Consequently, over 50 cities/towns, including major cities like Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna, have been undertaken for activities including sewage treatment, river front development and ghat construction at an estimated cost of about Rs 5,900 crores. A separate exercise is stated to be on to constitute the performance and innovation unit (PIU) in 118 cities/towns and 1649 gram panchayats.
Due to multi-pronged action and efforts of various agencies, accurate compiled data on projects and expenditure is not readily available on date. However, data compiled upto December 2015 by the Ministry of Water Resources suggest that under the Namami Gange programme projects (mainly STPs) have been sanctioned to the tune of Rs 6192 crores with funds released Rs 1501 crores in the affected states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and west Bengal.
Ongoing Challenges & Contraints
Though the Government has launched Namami Gange programme with 100% central assistance including capacity building of state agencies and expansion of the scope of work for faster and smoother implementation process but the programme cannot be implemented smoothly without active cooperation and coordination with the state agencies i.e. the state governments, municipal corporations and gram panchayats. As such there are instances and reports of non-cooperation largely due to political alignment and differences.
Indications are that the programme has not progressed well during 2015-16 despite availability of enough funds allocation. Apparently this occurred mainly due to substantive change in the procedure adopted for the award of the projects and adoption of the hybrid annuity based public private partnership (PPP).
Then there are substantive issues to tackle with their pros and cons on the subject. For instance, dams and barrages have their own relative advantages and disadvantages. While they are necessary and useful for tapping hydroelectric potential, irrigation and drinking water but they also hinder the river in its natural and normal flow besides affecting the ecology and aquatic life. Hence a balanced approach and convergence of views is required for any futuristic dam or barrage. It goes without saying that it is a major policy issue having bearing on the nirmal and aviral Ganga.
The effluent of industries is the major pollutant in the context of the Ganga River System. Though some of the laws might need correction but this is largely due to its flawed implementation that the industries keep merrily dumping their liquid waste or sewage in the river. It is understood that a comprehensive legislation for rejuvenation of river Ganga is under consideration of the Government. In modern times, the technology is available for cleaning and recycling the polluted sewage water with some initial investment. While this mandatory provision should be made for all the new industries, a timeline also need to be given the existing industries to implement in situ disposal of all industrial waste.
Then government initiative is not enough, the common citizen must realize their responsibility of cultivating healthy habits not only for their good but also to save future generations from the harmful effects of pollution and filth. People must stop defecation and washing activities, disposal of waste, plastics and dead bodies, and even religious offerings in the river. In short, to achieve a nirmal and aviral Ganga, while the government shall continue to discharge its duty but a similar commitment and resolve is also required at every citizen, group and community level.
At best, measure taken and being taken by the Government could be considered as a satisfactory beginning but the sustained efforts and funding over a period would be necessary to achieve the goal of the nirmal and aviral Ganga. There is no doubt that making Ganga clean and continuous is an uphill task requiring massive investment in terms of funds and sustained efforts. Whatever efforts the Central government makes in this direction, a similar awareness and resolve at the level of the state governments and people in general (including institutions, communities and non-government organizations) will be necessary with active participation to ensure success of the programme and its long term sustainable impact.