The NDA government has announced major plans to clean up and harness the economic potential of the Ganga, while carrying out studies on linking major rivers to make them navigable.
The budget proposes an Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission called “Namami Gange” with funds worth Rs. 2,037 crore, besides setting up a Non-Resident Indian Fund for special projects on the river.
A policy to encourage Indian controlled vessels to boost sea-borne trade and employment is on the cards, besides developing the Ganga as a waterway at a cost of Rs. 4,200 crore to transport cargo.
A third of India’s 1.2 billion people live on the floodplains along the 2510-km sacred river. Although floating diyas, diving hermits and burning pyres on Varanasi’s ghats are enduring images of the spiritual role the Ganges plays, it is dying a slow death due to filth, untreated sewage and industrial runoff, which have soiled its waters for years. Currently, only about 45% of the 11 billion litres of sewage from 181 towns along the Ganges and its tributaries is treated.
Pollution in the Ganges had become a powerful metaphor in the BJP’s election campaign, when PM Narendra Modi chose to run from Varanasi. “I feel Mother Ganga has called me to Varanasi,” he had said, promising to restore its vitality.
“A project on the river Ganga called Jal Marg Vikas (National Waterways-I) will be developed between Allahabad and Haldia to cover a distance of 1,620km, which will enable commercial navigation of at least 1,500 tonne vessels,” he said. “The project will be completed over a period of six years at an estimated cost of Rs. 4,200 crore,” the budget said.
The budget also allocated Rs. 100 crore to prepare detailed project reports on linking of rivers. The water resources ministry had originally a National Perspective Plan for water resources in the 1980s, envisaging inter-basin transfer of water from surplus basins to deficit ones.
The NDA government is already gearing up to steer an inter-ministerial effort to clean up the Ganges, a key aspect of which will be to harness economic benefits from tourism and river-transport facilities.
The government is likely to “dovetail” the programme into making India’s five “national waterways” navigable for movement of people and goods. Although the previous government had signed a Rs. 22,000-crore plan with the World Bank for cleaning up the Ganges, it hasn’t made enough progress.