When Prime Minister Narendra Modi filed his nomination as the BJP’s candidate from Varanasi before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he said he entered the city because “Maa Ganga” called him. Subsequently, Mr Modi promised to clean up the river. The assurance did not surprise anyone since the issue of restoring the Ganga to its pristine state has been one of the favourite preoccupations/dreams of all governments since 1986, when the Congress launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP).
Since then, the State has spent more than Rs 4,000 crore on the river but without any visible improvement in its condition. On Thursday, Union water resources, river development and Ganga Rejuvenation minister Uma Bharti added one more chapter to the 30-year-old Ganga clean-up saga when her ministry launched 231 projects under the Namami Gange Programme (NGP)/National Mission for Clean Ganga. The Centre has earmarked Rs 20,000 crore for the project over the next five years.
The project aims to reduce pollution and ensure the river’s rejuvenation, and maintain minimum ecological flows in the river and environmentally sustainable development. Earlier this week, Ms Bharti said that a new Act would be formulated for a quick implementation of the programme and that five Ganga basin states — four of them are ruled by non-BJP parties — have in-principle agreed to this. The NGP will supposedly address the shortcomings of the GAP.
With the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections due in 2017, the mission with its 231 projects, ranging from the construction and modernisation of ghats to afforestation, along the banks of the 2,500-km-long Ganga — part of which runs through Uttar Pradesh — is certain to add some heft to the BJP’s vikas card. Plus, no one can discount the emotional connect that exists between Hindus and the river, and any project concerning the river could impact voters positively. Having said that, it is about time that the State did everything it can to clean up the river; its condition is a national embarrassment. The Centre has shown inclination to take a different route than the one that was taken under the GAP. Unlike in the GAP, the sewage treatment plan is much more holistic; private firms have been roped in to maintain and operate the plants; and importantly, involving people living on the river’s banks is also on the agenda. This aspect is important since only government efforts in such projects will never yield any success.
The Ganga has the largest river basin in India in terms of catchment area, which constitutes 26% of the country’s land mass and supports about 43% of its population. The basin is spread over 11 states. We cannot afford to lose it at any cost. The government must ensure that this new 100% centrally funded project does not meet the same fate as the GAP. And for that, implementation and strict monitoring will be critical.