River Ganga may get armed guards with powers to arrest polluters
The draft National River Ganga Bill 2018 has proposed the setting up of an armed ‘Ganga Protection Corps’, with the powers to arrest offenders who pollute it, to keep the river clean and help in its rejuvenation, according to government documents and people familiar with the matter.
The corps will be raised by the ministry of home affairs as demanded by the National Ganga Council, which is a panel of five experts with powers to issue directions on closure or regulation of industry and the construction of dams and other structures that affect continuous flow in the river, and to stop any activity causing pollution.
The Centre shared a copy of the draft bill, a copy of which is with Hindustan Times, with environmentalist GD Agarwal days before he died while on hunger strike on October 11. The bill aims to rejuvenate Ganga to its “pristine stage and ensure its uninterrupted flow”.
UP Singh, secretary, ministry of water resources, confirmed that the draft has been sent for interministerial circulation. “It will be finalised after all ministries have seen it,” he said. According to the draft bill, the armed personnel will have powers to “arrest (offenders), take him or her in custody, or take him or her to the nearest police station”. The long list of offences and penalties punishable under the Ganga Act include spoiling or defacing ghats or stairs or throwing any “offensive matter” in the river. Other offences include stone quarrying, commercial fishing without permission, deforesting hill slopes or other sensitive areas, withdrawing groundwater for organised consumption through tube wells or industrial needs, among many others. These offences are punishable with imprisonment up to two years or fine of up to Rs 50,000.
The offences and penalties come under the draft National River Ganga Bill 2018. The bill says the Centre will take control of management, regulation and development of the Ganga, and gives it the status of a national river. The bill declares that the Centre will take control of the management, regulation and development of Ganga as the river is of unique importance “ascribed to faith and reasons that are geographical, historical, sociocultural and economic is hereby given the status of a national river.”
A contentious clause, section 54 of the bill on offences by companies, states that if an offence is committed by a company, every person who in charge of the company when the offence is committed and the company will be deemed guilty. But if the in-charge is able to prove that the offence was committed without his or her knowledge or that they exercised due diligence to prevent the offence, they will not be punished under the act.
“Section 54 first strongly puts the onus of those heading operations and activities of companies that are damaging the river. But then promptly adds a protective clause by saying that action will not be taken if the offence was taken without his or her knowledge. Heads of companies have to be made liable for inaction and illegalities,” said Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR).
She added that all rivers need attention. “Such proactive measures should apply to all rivers and river basins whether regarded sacred by a specific religion or not. One more authority might not be able to do away with all the problems existing legal frameworks face when it comes to ensuring environmental justice. This includes corruption, impunity and complete disregard for the laws of the land.”
“The major issues are building barrages and diverting flow of the river, dredging to make way for inland water ways, hydroelectric projects that impact the flow and massive deforestation destroying the overall ecology. The draft doesn’t mention how these will be tackled,” said Mallika Bhanot of Uttarkashi-based NGO Ganga Ahwaan. Manoj Mishra, an activist associated with a movement to save the Yamuna, said, “The Ganga Act should be a popular movement, and not an entirely regulatory mechanism...Ganga rejuvenation plan has been a complete failure... Ganga is not a canal or a pipe. Despite the plan’s focus on sewage treatment plants, it has made no difference to water quality either.”