By Kiran Thakur
If Mr Narendra Modi takes up Ganga cleanup project in right earnest now that he is at the helm, he will not be the first prime minister to evince keen interest in the task.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi had announced a fund of Rs. three crore to study Ganga pollution in 1980. When she made the announcement in the Parliament, she wanted only to wriggle out of a huge embarrassment for her government caused by repeated assertions by her minister that Ganga cannot be polluted. The opposition parties had created din in Rajya Sabha when her colleague very categorically asserted that Ganga could not be polluted because “the river is holy.”
The opposition had raised the issue in the upper house based on a UNI report from Varanasi. The UNI correspondent had written a feature on dead bodies and carcass floating in the river causing serious pollution. It was followed by a story on prevalence of water-borne diseases in Varanasi, and still later a feature based on a research paper in a British medical journal. Mrs Gandhi had to intervene on the floor of the house, when the minister continued to contradict the stories maintaining that Ganga was holy and could not be polluted!
Newspapers subsequently reported that the Rs. three crore central fund was to be utilised to study the extent of Ganga’s pollution, from its origin Gomukh in Himalaya, to Bay of Bengal. The Banaras Hindu University was to be given the responsibility to study the pollution levels.
The next Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who took over after her assassination, evinced kin interest in the Ganga cleanup. He launched Ganga Action Plan (GAP) on June 14, 1986. Even BJP leader L K Advani, on January 07, 2013, gave him credit for initiating the GAP to clean the polluted river. The occasion was launch of the BJP’s programme last year to save the river. The programme was formulated by party leader Uma Bharati and was to have spread across all the states through which the Ganga flows.
In his speech that day, Mr. Advani pointed out that the Supreme Court has issued an elaborate order on the Ganga pollution issue and told the amicus curiae (the friend of the court) who could even file a contempt case against the government if he deems it necessary.
Mr Nitin Gadkari, who was the party president last year, announced at the function that BJP would set aside Rs. 10,000 crore for cleaning the Ganga if voted to power.
It thus became clear that the prime ministers after the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi, did nothing to follow up his initiative. These included Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was the prime minister twice, for 13 days in 1996 from second time from 1998 to 2004.
Dr. Manmohan Singh, who succeeded Mr. Vajpayee, declared Ganga as a National River on November 4, 2008, and set up a Ganga River Basin Authority. The Authority, thus, is in place. It is chaired by the Prime Minister and has as its members Chief Ministers of states through which the river flows.
Two years later, on October 23, 2010, the Central government committed that the Ganga would be pure and free of pollutants by year 2020. It acknowledged that the GAP had failed and Rs. 1000 crore investment did not yield desired results. However, the Attorney general G E Vahanvati assured a Supreme Court Bench comprising Chief Justice S H Kapadia and Justices K S Radhakrishnan and Swatanter Kumar that day that the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) headed by the prime minister would deal with river pollution in a comprehensive manner.
The work has since been entrusted to a consortium of seven IITs -- Kanpur, Delhi, Madras, Mumbai, Kharagpur, Guwahati and Roorkee. The National River Conservation Directorate under ministry of environment and forests has in its affidavit said that the World Bank has sanctioned a project preparation facility of US $1 billion.
But amicus curiae Krishan Mahajan, who was part of the public interest litigation filed by M C Mehta for cleaning of Ganga since 1985, expressed doubt if the programme would succeed during the near future. During the hearing at the supreme course, the states had identified Investments totalling over Rs 1,200 crore.
One gets an impression that the state governments and their agencies did not care what was submitted or committed during the court hearing. Earlier, in another case, in July 1997, a the Supreme Court was told that activists had cleaned Ganga in Kanpur that year and had removed 127 dead bodies (117 human and 10 animal carcasses). However, within just a fortnight, the activists found 100 bodies floating in the same stretch of the river. The government agencies not only in Kanpur and Varanasi, but also elsewhere on the bank of the river had displayed similar apathy before and since then. Besides, the industries and tanneries pour affluent into the Ganga and its tributaries.
The governments, local self-governments, and other official agencies have shown apathy, lack of concern, and also helplessness to tackle the pollution and related issues. Besides the courts, which admit public interest litigations, there are ministries and high-power committees that express serious concern over the state of affairs.
Statistics indicate that over 1.3 billion litres of sewage goes directly into the river per day in over 29 cities, 70 towns, and thousands of villages. Besides this, about 260 million litters of industrial waste is poured into the rivers by hundreds of factories along the rivers banks. Thus, the river is polluted with organic waste, sewage, trash, food, and human and animal remains. The pollution is aggravated by the over 40,000 cremations in Varanasi alone where bodies are burnt on wood pyres. Remains of these bodies, and un-burnt and half-burnt human bodies and carcass thrown into Ganga, add up to the filth that make the river a major source of water-borne diseases.
These reports give us only a broad idea about the enormity of the Ganga pollution and its impact on the hygiene and health of the people living on its banks. This affects millions of tourists and pilgrims visiting the holy places around the year.
Will Narendra Modi be able to make the river clean? His supporters assert that he can, and he will. They cite his record of accomplishment as Gujarat Chief Minister in this field also. They say he utilised a central government fund to develop 10.4 km riverfront of Sabarmati flowing through Ahmadabad. If he could get it done there, he would be able to it in Varanasi. His critics, including those in Aam Adami Party, counter this by producing reports of water samples of Sabarmati that indicate that the river continues to be badly polluted. Photographs of filth floating in the river are circulated in social media.
The prime minister, as the reports suggest, is likely to create an agency to monitor execution of plans to clean Ganga in Varanasi which has elected him to represent the constituency in Lok Sabha. Will he be able to tackle ruling and opposition politicians from this region, and also in the states not ruled by his party, such as UP and West Bengal? Will he be able to give this issue a priority over other pressing problems facing the country?
Post-script: I wrote this piece before the swearing-in of the Modi-cabinet yesterday, May 26, 2014. Today, I notice that Mr Modi has created a ministry to take care of Ganga Clean-up. Title of the ministry raises hope. It is “Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.” Name of the minister to head the ministry, however, may not create optimism because of the controversies associated with the person throughout her political career. It is Uma Bharati. One hopes that there will be no controversy surrounding this personality and that she would fulfil the heavy responsibility that Modi has assigned to her.
Point No. 2: I was the Varanasi-based Special Correspondent of UNI who wrote the features on the Ganga pollution mentioned in this blog post.