All want to save Ganga, none have the roadmap
No agency or political party has found any middle path for protecting the river without hampering livelihood of lakhs settled in its valley
RISHIKESH: Earlier this week, National Green Tribunal (NGT) rapped the Centre for not doing enough for cleaning Ganga --- the river that originates at Gaumukh in Uttarakhand and travels 2,525 kilometres through several states before merging into Indian Ocean at Bay of Bengal.
More than ₹12,000 crore was spent under Ganga Action Plan, launched in 1986, to clean the river. In 2014, Union cabinet approved another ₹20,000 crore under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project – ‘Namami Gange’.
On its part, the NGT, in December 2015, passed two orders for “safeguarding” the river. It prohibited camping activities at Ganga banks in Rishikesh. It also banned use of “plastic (carry bags, plates, glasses, packages and allied items) in all cities/towns” from Gaumukh till Haridwar. However, last year, the Centre, through Department of Posts, launched a scheme to sell “Gangajal” bottled at Rishikesh and Gaumukh. The water is collected in plastic cans, clearly violating the NGT order.
Amid hullaballoo over funds, projects, and commercial activities, the basic issue remains unresolved. The issue whether there’s a way to strike a balance between protecting the river without hampering the livelihood of lakhs of people settled in the river valley.
Two rivers originate from Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region --- the Bhagirathi from Gaumukh and Alaknanda from a glacier near Badrinath. Several other minor rivers merge into these two during their journey to Devprayag, nestled 74 kms above Rishikesh, the yoga capital of India. The Bhagirathi and Alaknanda merge at Devprayag and proceed further as Ganga.
Status of Ganga
In 2013, Uttarakhand High Court banned all construction activity within 200 metres of all rivers in the state — including the Ganga, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi but the order is yet to be implemented in entirety.
According to the estimates of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), only 1,000 million litres of the total 3,000 million litres sewerage is treated (every day) before it falls into Ganga.
Moreover, 12,000 million litres sewerage goes into the Ganga river basin of which only 4,000 million litres is treated. The human settlements, hotels and industries located along the river also play a big role in polluting Ganga as many of them don’t have sewage treatment plants (STPs). The NGRBA is currently working on 57 projects of STPs with combined capacity to treat 470.53 million litres of sewerage per day. Of these, 15 projects are in Uttarakhand, seven in Uttar Pradesh, five in Bihar and 27 in West Bengal.
Gains and loss
In upper region of Garhwal, the tributaries are the lifeline for locals. Garhwal being the seat of the Char Dhams, sees arrival of lakhs of pilgrims who perform rituals on the banks of the rivers. The towns are dependent on the rivers for water for drinking and irrigation. Over the years, the adequate water in the Ganga basin attracted hydro power giants amid protests from environmentalists and locals. Three hydro-power projects were stalled in Bhagirathi valley following protests that they would hamper the free flow of Ganga. After a court order in 2013, the future of another 24 under-construction hydro projects are in limbo.
The tourism industry has been the major loser after the NGT order banning camps along 36-km stretch between Kaudiyala and Rishikesh. As per the records, 136 rafting operators and 157 camping sites were registered in the area. The rafting and camping sites employed nearly 5,000 people directly or indirectly. The trade was pegged at ₹10 crore annually.
“Rafting and camping go together. The faulty government policies have taken toll on our business,” rues Ratan Aswal who had employed 10 people at his camping site.
Some colourful rafts are seen on the gushing white waters of Ganga but for the operators it is a loss making entity. Dinesh Kathet, a raft operator says from license fee to hiring a guide, a raft costs more than ₹1 lakh and they are not making even half of that amount.
Is Ganga a poll issue?
Haridwar-based mutt Matri Sadan had remained at the forefront demanding complete ban on mining on the Ganga river bed. One of its seers, Nigamanand died for the cause. Swami Shivanand, head of the mutt, says that it was ironical that none of the political parties have expressed interest in putting a ban on mining.
“Protection of dying and disappearing Ganga and its tributaries is not on the agenda of political parties including those chanting Namami Gange,” says Vimal Bhai, a Srinagar-Garhwal-based social activist.