The central government’s earlier appeal to companies, spiritual organisations and wealthy Indians abroad to contribute their mite to the cleaning up of the Ganga is acquiring concrete shape with the decision to allot the job of sewage management and water treatment to corporate bodies. In this respect, the government can draw upon the example of the Thames, which had become a cesspool over centuries, but is now a clean river. In his budget speech this year, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley had said that contributions other than those under corporate social responsibility to the Clean Ganga Fund by resident Indians will be eligible for 100% deduction. In addition to this the government has set aside a sum to be paid as annuities to the companies doing the job, much on the lines of the road-building model. To begin with, the arrangement is expected to last 15 years. Union shipping and road transport minister Nitin Gadkari had said at the Ganga Manthan last year that Rs 80,000 crore was needed to do the cleaning up, but some experts had then felt the amount was insufficient. A committee Mr Gadkari headed had then come up with the idea of viability-gap funding with the Centre meeting 30% of the need and the rest coming through public-private partnerships.
But the enormity of the problem throws up a question as to whether the companies expressing interest now shall be able to execute the job competently. One issue is that the cleanliness of the river comes into conflict with the question of navigability. Barrages and bridges along the Ganga have made the flow of the river sluggish and allowed for silting and pollutants to accumulate. The river takes in more than 2,000 million litres of discharge a day from factories, apart from the human waste, which accounts for about 80% of the pollutants. Of the amount spent on cleaning up the river (Rs 2.2 lakh crore over three decades, according to a recent parliamentary committee report), more than 95% was on constructing a sewage system, which seems to have met just one-third of the requirement.
There is another issue here. Minimising the role of municipal and civic agencies would mean working out arrangements with state governments, and this can give rise to turf issues, causing delays and more dirt to accumulate. Given this scenario, the most sensible thing would be to create enough space for companies to complement the roles of municipal agencies.