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Why the CAG rap on Ganga pollution may not change anything on ground

It’s really surprising that a country that views the Ganga as a some kind of a religious entity (it’s a living entity, said Uttarakhand High Court earlier this year and the UPA declared it India’s ‘national river’), has failed so spectacularly to keep it clean. There is no point blaming successive governments only; citizens are equally to blame. To clean Ganga, the State must start with rejuvenating and cleaning the tributaries that feed the river

opinion Updated: Dec 22, 2017 17:27 IST
KumKum Dasgupta
KumKum Dasgupta
Hindustan Times
Ganga pollution,STPs,Satyapal Singh
To clean Ganga, the State must start with rejuvenating and cleaning the tributaries that feed the river(HT)

A few years ago, I was in Varanasi for a short visit with a set of friends who swear by the place. After “soaking up the city”, as a friend loves to put it dramatically, we decided to do a very touristy thing: A boat ride along the Ganga. As we slowly moved from one ghat to another --- stinking refuse of the city floating past us and children swimming next to them, nonchalantly ---- another boat with three Japanese tourists and their guide went past ours. Soon enough, the tourists took out their fancy pocket cameras and started clicking furiously: Not the sunset, not the ghats (selfies were not a rage then), but the filth in the river and the two open cremations on the riverbank. The guide, of course, was undaunted by all this: He continued to regale them with stories of what the Ganga means to Indians and so on , but I think it was all lost on them: the tourists were more moved by the present condition of the river than its historicity.

It’s really surprising that a country that views the Ganga as a some kind of a religious entity (it’s a living entity, said Uttarakhand High Court earlier this year and the UPA declared it India’s ‘national river’), has failed so spectacularly to keep it clean. There is no point blaming successive governments only; citizens are equally to blame. No amount of entreaties not to pollute it has helped: Recently referring to the Hindu tradition of immersing the ashes of the deceased in the Ganga, Union minister Satyapal Singh exhorted people to revisit their beliefs and stop this practice and bury the ashes instead.

There has been no dearth of plans and funding to clean up the river. But now it seems we have a new (strange) problem at hand: the State has even lost the capacity to plan and spend the money meant to rid the river of pollutants. In a report tabled in Parliament on Tuesday, the Comptroller and Auditor General said The National Mission for Clean Ganga, the nodal body for cleaning the Ganga, “could not utilise any amount out of the Clean Ganga Fund”, which meant that the entire amount of Rs198.14 crore (March 31, 2017) was lying in banks. Cleaning the Ganga is a flagship project of the NDA, for which it had established the Clean Ganga Fund. Slamming the central government for inaction, the CAG report said that NMCG “could not finalise the long-term action plans even after more than six-and-a-half years of signing of agreement with the consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology”.

In February, the National Green Tribunal had observed: “Not a single drop of river Ganga has been cleaned so far,” rapping the government agencies for “only wasting public money” in the name of the cleaning project.

To clean the river, spending on Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) won’t be enough; the government has to ensure that the flow of the river is intact. According to the Namami Gange Mission, rejuvenation implies restoring the “wholesomeness” of the river and that includes three things: Aviral dhara (continuous flow), nirmal dhara (unpolluted flow) and ecological and geological integrity. Yet the State it seems is overly focused on ‘nirmal dhara’ but not ‘aviral dhara’, forgetting that nirmal dhara is only a subset of aviral dhara, not the other way round. To ensure that there is aviral dhara, the focus cannot be only on the main river but also on the smaller rivers, which feed it. The main problem with the STPs was not only that they could not cope with increasing pressure, but also bad maintenance. The Centre put them up but the states and municipalities did not have the wherewithal to maintain them and the contractors made a killing.

Is it surprising then that we are back to square one on the Ganga cleaning mission?

@kumkumdasgupta

First Published: Dec 22, 2017 12:00 IST