After facing the National Green Tribunal’s wrath earlier this month for failing to clean the Ganga, minister for water resources Uma Bharti announced that a committee of secretaries would be set up to expedite the process.
MC Mehta, a Delhi-based lawyer, was not impressed. The long-winded saga of Ganga’s clean-up has had as many turns as the river itself, with Mehta witnessing them all. He had filed a public interest litigation (PIL) with the Supreme Court in 1985 for cleaning the river. A few months later, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the first Ganga Action Plan.
Two action plans have been completed and hundreds of crores of rupees spent since then, but the river still remains heavily polluted. “Not a single drop of the Ganga has been cleaned so far,” the green tribunal noted at a hearing in January.
Mehta says the only things that changed under the Narendra Modi government are ministries, names and budgets. Cleaning the Ganga was one of the cornerstones of Modi’s campaign in the 2014 elections, when he fought and won from Varanasi – one of the holiest sites located on the banks of the Ganga.
The call to revive a river that is sacred to the Hindus, and a lifeline for almost 40% of the country’s population, helped propel him to power.
His administration made a promising start. In his first year, Modi launched the Namami Gange programme with a whopping budget of 20,000 crore for a five-year period ending 2020.
This was at least 20 times more than what had been spent on Ganga rejuvenation projects since 1985.
However, as his government nears the three-year mark, it is becoming increasingly clear that lack of funds was never the problem. An RTI reply from the PMO last year revealed that about 20% of the Rs 3,700-crore funds allocated in the first two years of the programme was not utilised.
The committee formed by Bharti is part of the latest in a series of steps taken at the central level to reinvigorate the programme.
Under the banner of the Namami Gange programme, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) – tasked with the overall planning, implementation and monitoring of the project – was transferred from the ministry of environment and forests to the ministry of water resources (renamed as the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation). Then the NGRBA itself was replaced by the National Council for River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) or the NCRG.
An empowered task force was set up in 2016. The newest committee has been formed under the aegis of this task force.
For a mechanism as elaborate as this, the government seems woefully unprepared to even diagnose the problem – leave alone implement solutions. “The people implementing the project know nothing. They don’t know how many polluting industries are there, what is the length of the polluted stretches, or the number of villages dependent on the river,” said Mehta.
According to documents submitted to the court by the Centre, the number of grossly polluting industries (GPIs) affecting the Ganga was 764 in 1985. In 2017, government officials were still listing the number of GPIs as 764.
There is lack of clarity on the number of major drains that discharge pollutants into the Ganga and its main tributaries. While the CPCB pegs the number at 30, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board claims that at least 150 directly join the Ganga and its tributaries.
“Government data is often ill-founded, and it hardly reflects ground realities,” a green tribunal panel observed when an expert group presented its findings in December 2016. The group, comprising IIT professors, cited multiplicity of authorities as a major stumbling block for the programme.
RM Bhardwaj, a senior scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), blamed lack of coherent information about the river’s condition on the ministry’s over-reliance on state governments for data. “Now, these things are emerging only during the judicial process,” he said.
CPCB is the agency charged with monitoring water quality.
The Ganga basin, the largest river basin in the country, serves Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, and parts of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.
Lack of coordination between the Centre and state governments have also been blamed for poor implementation of Modi’s pet project. “Our regulatory system is not strong,” said Bharadwaj. “The industry is not honest, and there is no culture of owning up to one’s mistakes. If we are able to take care of the major industries, it will be a big achievement.”
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had entrusted the green tribunal with hearing the petition for cleaning the Ganga. The apex court directed the tribunal to submit progress reports on the case every six months.
The tribunal held a hearing this week. The National Green Tribunal ordered a CBI inquiry into the setting up of sewage treatment plants and network in the Garhmukteshwar area in Uttar Pradesh as part of the clean Ganga programme.
“People like you sit on your chairs and waste public money, Ganga is what it is because of people like you,” Justice Swatanter Kumar, who heads the bench, lashed out at the officials.”
However, Mehta, who was present at the hearing, said it does not matter which arm of the judiciary handles the petition. When it was pointed out that the green tribunal would pronounce its verdict on the PIL this month, he simply asked: “The courts can keep passing orders, but who is implementing them?”
The Modi government had promised the country a clean Ganga by 2020. The water resources minister set an even more ambitious deadline of 2018. With just a year to go, the country should be pardoned if it doesn’t hold its breath.