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What completely exposes the Modi Government and its so-called religiosity is the government’s attitude towards cleaning of Ganga, India’s longest river along whose basin more than 40 crore people live, the largest such number in the world. Yet, it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The river is also considered to be sacred by the Hindus.
Five years ago, at the time of the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, Narendra Modi announced that he was going to contest the Parliamentary elections from Varanasi as he had got a call from Maa Ganga. Soon after winning the elections and coming to power, Modi announced plans to clean up the Ganga, declaring that “Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt and she’s chosen me to do the work.” The Ministry of Water Resources was given the task of cleaning up the Ganga, and its name was changed to include “Ganga Rejuvenation”. Uma Bharti, who was given charge of this ministry, announced in Parliament that the river would be cleaned and rejuvenated by July 2018.[i]
In mid-2015, the Modi Government, as is its wont, bombastically launched a new plan, the Namami Gange, to clean up the Ganga, with a budget outlay of Rs 20,000 crore for the next five years.[ii] As a part of this, a five tier structure at the national, state and district level was created to take measures for prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution in river Ganga and to ensure continuous adequate flow of water so as to rejuvenate the river. At the apex of this structure was the National Ganga Council (NGC), headed by the Prime Minister himself. This council replaced the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), the previous apex body that had been created during the UPA regime in 2009 for cleaning up the Ganga. NGC also had on board the chief ministers of the five Ganga basin states—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal—besides several Union ministers.
Apart from this, an Empowered Task Force, headed by the Union Water Resources Minister, was created with the chief secretaries of the five Ganga Basin states as members. The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was created as the implementing arm of the Namami Gange project.[iii]
A lot of hot air
All this architecture looks great on paper. But in reality, the Namami Gange programme too has remained another hot air balloon released by the master braggart Narendra Modi. The seriousness of the Modi Government, and of Prime Minister Modi himself who heads the NGC, regarding cleaning up the Ganga can be gauged from the fact that the NGC has not met even once since it was set up in October 2016 (it is supposed to meet at least once a year)! The Empowered Task Force on River Ganga too was set up at the same time as the NGC. According to regulations, it is supposed to meet every three months, that is, four times a year. RTI queries reveal that ever since it was created in October 2016, it has met only twice (in February and August 2017).[iv]
So far as the NMCG is concerned, which is the implementing arm of the Namami Gange programme, its functioning was criticised by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in an audit report released in December 2017.[v] It redflagged the delay in river cleaning and construction of infrastructure for sewage treatment.
Review of Namami Gange
Let us take a closer look at the most important steps that need to be taken to clean up and rejuvenate the Ganga, and what has been achieved by the NMCG so far.
This is probably the simplest of the challenges—reducing the untreated waste that flows into the river by building sewage treatment plants (STPs) and rehabilitating the older plants to improve their capacity. According to a report of the Parliamentary Estimates Committee presented to the Lok Sabha on May 11, 2016, on the mainstream of the Ganga, 7,301 million litres per day (MLD) sewage is created in five states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal), but facilities existed to treat only 2,126 MLD sewage. And if we take the entire Ganga basin (that is, Ganga and its tributaries) into consideration, that comprises of 11 states, a total of 12,051 MLD sewage is created, but only 5,717 MLD is treated.[vi]
That means that more than 50% of the sewage flowing into the Ganga and its tributaries is untreated. But the Modi Government, despite all the propaganda about cleaning up Maa Gange, has not shown any urgency in setting up STPs to clean this untreated sewage. The government informed the Lok Sabha in response to a question asked that as of November 30, 2018, projects for the creation of 3,083 MLD new STP capacity and rehabilitation of 886 MLD STP capacity had been sanctioned, of which work on creating 560 MLD STP capacity had been completed.[vii] Considering that STPs having a total capacity of treating 6,354 MLD sewage water are required to be built to clean all the untreated sewage presently flowing into the Ganga basin, this means that so far, under Namami Gange, only 9% work has been completed three-and-a-half years after the project was launched. The pace of the work is so slow that it is going to take several years for the NMCG to reach its target of sewage treatment, but by then, the volume of sewage generated would have gone up by several times.
The other important pollutant flowing into the Ganga is faecal sludge. Faecal sludge is a bigger pollutant than sewerage. While the BOD (Biochemical Oxygen Demand) of sewage is 150–300 mg/l, that of faecal sludge would be 15,000–30,000 mg/l.
To check this, the Modi Government took the first step of making the villages and towns in the Ganga basin open defecation free (ODF) by constructing toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission. But after that, it apparently lost interest, and did nothing as regards the next important step of faecal sludge management. Most of the villages and towns in the basin of the Ganga don’t have sewage systems. With the result that while now people don’t shit in the open, all that has happened is that the shit accumulates in the toilet tanks in the households. Once taken out of the tanks, this untreated faecal waste is just dumped around, and ends up flowing into the river, defeating the very mission of making the Ganga river basin ODF. According to one estimate, in cities like Allahabad, Varanasi and Kanpur, hardly 25 per cent of faecal sludge generated is collected for safe disposal. Even in PM Modi’s own constituency Varanasi, 246 kilolitres of faecal sludge is generated every day, but only 30 kilolitres is collected for safe disposal.[viii]
If the Modi Government had the slightest sincerity about cleaning up Ganga, this was the least it could have done—build the necessary infrastructure to collect and treat this faecal sludge, in at least the most important cities in the Ganga basin. But it is more interested in spending money on advertisements rather than taking steps on the ground.
iii) Restoring the Flow of the River
This is the most important challenge.
The water flowing in river Ganga has several unique properties because of the path it treads naturally: it has medicinal properties—due to medicinal plants on the path of Ganga—that can treat skin infections; it is very rich in minerals; and it has bacteriophages which kill bacteria. But these properties depend on the river being allowed to flow; if the flow of the river dwindles (due to man-made reasons), then the water loses these properties.
To an extent, the above mentioned problems of cleaning up the Ganga can be reduced if the natural flow of the water is maintained; Ganga’s ability to self-clean will then automatically reduce its pollution level (the pollution level today is too high for the river to completely purify itself).
Unfortunately, today, except during monsoons, the Ganga fails this basic test. The water levels in the river have fallen drastically. According to one study by geologists Abhijit Mukherjee and Soumendra Nath Bhanja of IIT Kharagpur, the base flow of Ganga River has declined by as much as 56% from the 1970s to 2016. In several stretches of the river, the water levels are so shallow, especially during the summer season, that people can walk across the river. One reason for this is massive extraction of water from the river for irrigation purposes (today, the Ganga canal system in the Doab region between the Ganga and Yamuna rivers in the states of UP and Uttarakhand irrigates nearly 9,000 sq km of agricultural land). The second reason is excessive groundwater extraction. During the lean season, the underground aquifers partially recharge the river. However, the introduction of bore wells—with pumps run by electricity—in the Gangetic plains in the 1970s has led to overexploitation of both shallow and deep aquifers. Therefore, instead of the aquifers recharging the river, the land is soaking water from the river. This has affected the base flow in the rivers of the Ganga basin.[ix]
This means the whole problem of rejuvenating the Ganga is linked up to questioning the entire model of agricultural development being promoted in the country. The present agricultural model is what can be called chemical intensive, external input oriented industrial agriculture, which also guzzles water. Instead of that, we need to shift to alternate technologies that promote sustainable, environment friendly agriculture, which also conserve and minimise use of water. But the BJP is obviously not interested in this, as it is seeking to promote corporate farming, which is even more chemical intensive and uses even more water. We have discussed this in our previous article on Modi’s Budgets and Agriculture.
The third reason for the falling water levels in the Ganga is the reckless construction of dams on the Ganga and its tributaries. By the last count, there were some 795 dams and 181 barrages/weirs that were obstructing and diverting water from almost every tributary in the entire Ganga basin![x] Worse, dams are being built even in the upper reaches of the Ganga. According to a report published by Wildlife Institute of India in May 2018, 16 existing and 14 ongoing hydroelectric projects on the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda river basins (these two meet at Devprayag, after which the river is called Ganga) have turned the upper stretch of the Ganga into an “ecological desert”.[xi] Just the Tehri Dam built on the Bhagirathi River in Tehri in Uttarakhand state has reduced the lean season flow at Haridwar from 6,500 cusec to around 1,000 cusec.[xii]
A river, to be called a river, must flow. For Ganga to continue to be the lifeline it has been for crores of Indians since ancient times, for Ganga water to retain its almost magical properties, the river must be allowed to flow. For that, environmentalists say that no more than 30% of the flow in the river should be allowed to be diverted for agricultural, domestic or industrial purposes.[xiii] For any meaningful effort to clean up and rejuvenate the Ganga, among all the steps that need to be taken, removing the impediments to the uninterrupted flow of the river is the most important.
For this, apart from taking steps to regulate extraction of groundwater and reduce diversion of river water for irrigation, most importantly, we will need to impose a complete ban on construction of more dams on the Ganga. Modern environmental science is now quite emphatic that for generating hydroelectricity, building large dams is not a sustainable technology, and alternate sustainable methods exist.
Saints on Fast for Aviral and Nirmal Ganga
These were precisely the demands of the fast-unto-death undertaken by Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand last year. Before he became a saint, he was known as Professor Guru Das Agrawal, and had taught at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and had also served as the founding member-Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. Swami Sanand began his fast on June 22, 2018, demanding that Ganga be allowed to flow Aviral (uninhibited) and Nirmal (unpolluted). For this, he wanted the government to enact a law for conservation of Ganga, scrap all ongoing and proposed hydroelectric power projects on it, ban mining and deforestation activities in its vicinity, and form a council consisting of people sensitive to Ganga to oversee its interests (to be nominated by the Prime Minister). Before he began his fast, Swami Sanand twice wrote to the Prime Minister, and then during his fast, he again twice wrote to him. But our much vocal Prime Minister, who speaks out his mind to the country regularly in public broadcasts known as Mann ki Baat, chose not to respond. Swami Sanand died on the 112th day of his fast. Modi then broke his ‘maun’ and tweeted a condolence.
Modi’s Love for Ganga another ‘Jumla’
The reason why the BJP/RSS and Modi chose to completely ignore the demands raised by Professor Agrawal turned Swami Sanand is that the issues raised by him go against Modi’s and the BJP’s ideological outlook, in which ‘development’ means ‘construction’, and that is more important for the BJP than the health of Ganga. The BJP is keen to undertake more and more construction projects in the Himalayas, including building all weather roads, even if it involves cutting down large number of trees thereby destabilising the hills, and speeding up construction of hydroelectric projects irrespective of their consequences for the aviral and nirmal flow of Ganga.
Clearly, PM Modi’s concern for Maa Gange is only another of his big lies.
And so, four years after the launch of Namami Gange, river Ganga is today more polluted than it was earlier. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), an organisation under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, monitors the quality of Ganga water from Gangotri, where the river originates, to West Bengal, at 80 sites. The CPCB’s findings are that on all the scientific parameters on the basis of which the quality of Ganga water is determined—the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) level, the Dissolved Oxygen level, total coliform bacteria level and pH level—the Ganga is more polluted now than it was in 2013.[xiv]
Swami Sanand (Prof G.D. Agrawal) had chosen Matri Sadan in Haridwar as the site for his fast. The head of Matri Sadan, Swami Shivanand, has announced that he and his disciples are going to continue the unfinished task undertaken by Prof. Agrawal, and that one saint after another will sit on fast until the demand of Professor G.D. Agrawal to let Ganga flow uninterrupted and clean is met by the government. After Prof. Agrawal’s death, Brahmachari Atmabodhanand, a 26-year-old ascetic from Kerala, sat down on fast. Finally, after he had fasted for a heroic 194 days, the government used a trick to get him to break his fast. The Director-General of the NMCG wrote to Swami Shivanand, head of Matri Sadan, that during the elections, the government cannot take policy decisions, and that the Uttarakhand government’s policy on hydropower projects would be reviewed after the elections. So, on May 5, the saints of Matri Sadan decided to suspend their struggle till after the elections, and Swami Atmabodhanand broke his fast on May 5. With such powerful vested interests involved, and a very pro-corporate government in power, it is going to be a tough struggle to force it to accede to the demands for which Prof. Agrawal sacrificed his life.
Why doesn’t the RSS mobilise its cadre, which number in lakhs, to reach out to the crores of people living in the Ganga basin, and educate and organise them and build up a powerful social movement that will force the government to take steps to clean up and rejuvenate the Ganga—a river that is revered by the Hindus as sacred. Such a social movement would genuinely benefit crores of people. Instead, it is mobilising people across the country for building a Ram Temple and raking up issues like Love Jehad and holy cow—issues which do not benefit anyone really, but which have led to attacks and even killings of Muslims across the country by violent mobs.
The struggle of these heroic saints of Matri Sadan glaringly brings out the difference between their true Hinduism, and the Hindutva of the RSS and Modi. True Hinduism motivates people to fight for a genuine cause (this is true with all religions actually; as Swami Vivekananda has said, true religion motivates people to devote their life for the good of all). The genuine saints are even willing to sacrifice their lives for it. On the other hand, the Hindutva of Modi and the RSS is only to exploit people’s religious sentiments for narrow sectarian ends, to polarise the people and divide them for votes. If it leads to killings of others (like in riots, lynchings, assassination of intellectuals), so be it—collateral damage.
“Ecologists Don’t Buy New Ganga Rejuvenation Plan”, June 4, 2014, https://www.indiawaterportal.org; Sanjana Ray, “Modi’s ‘Clean Ganga’ Project – The Story So Far”, August 8, 2016, https://yourstory.com.
[ii] “Cabinet Clears Rs 20,000 Crore Outlay for Clean Ganga Project”, May 14, 2015, https://www.livemint.com.
[iii] Banjot Kaur, “Namami Gange: 5 Reasons Why Ganga Will Not Be Clean By 2020”, October 26, 2018, https://www.downtoearth.org.in; “Namami Gange – National Mission for Clean Ganga”, https://nmcg.nic.in.
[iv] Dheeraj Mishra, “Water Ministry’s Task Force on Ganga Is Not Having the Meeting It’s Supposed To”, March 19, 2019, https://thewire.in.
[vii] “Government of India, Ministry of Water Resources . . ., Lok Sabha Unstarred Question No. 3767, Answered on 03.01.2019”, http://184.108.40.206.
[viii] Banjot Kaur, op. cit.; Akshit Sangomla , “Pollution ‘Time Bomb’ Ticking for Ganga Despite ODF”, April 3, 2019, https://www.downtoearth.org.in.
[ix] Soumya Sarkar, “No Water for a Clean Ganga”, March 12, 2019, https://www.thethirdpole.net.
[x] “How Modi Government Went Horribly Wrong On Ganga Rejuvenation”, October 16, 2018, https://sandrp.in.
[xi] Banjot Kaur, op. cit.
[xii] Soumya Sarkar, op.cit.
[xiv] Dheeraj Mishra, “Almost Rs 4,000 Crore Spent, but the Ganga Is More Polluted Under Modi’s Watch” October 20, 2018, https://thewire.in.
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