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The river challenge

Cleaning the Ganga will need sustained effort, constant vigilance

Written by Justin Rowlatt | Published: May 14, 2016 12:05 am
File photo of River Ganga. Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi. File photo of River Ganga. Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi.

It is clear that Narendra Modi sees cleaning up the Ganges as nothing less than a mission from God. “Maa Ganga is screaming for help”, he told the crowd at a celebration rally in the hours after his landslide victory two years ago. “She is saying I hope one of my sons gets me out of this filth.”

But fulfilling his promise to clean the holy river may be one of his greatest challenges because if anything speaks of the lack of governance in India it is the terrible state of one of India’s mightiest rivers, as I found while investigating for BBC World News.

You don’t have to be a scientist to know there is a problem. In Kanpur, the centre of India’s huge leather industry, Rakesh Jaiswal, a veteran environmental campaigner led me to a filthy stream that flows into the river.

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I am totally overwhelmed — disabled — by the warm, oily stench coming from the water. The smell is impossible to describe. There’s human waste in there, and something very rotten indeed. But that’s just what a wine buff would call the “top notes”. Behind them are other awful odours that I can’t even begin to identify: Meaty, acidic and very wrong.

Instinct takes over. I begin to retch uncontrollably. And each time my body convulses I suck in another great lungful of that fetid air. It is only with great effort that I manage to avoid vomiting. Once I get my breath back, Rakesh tells me the last time he tested the water it was contaminated with numerous pollutants including heavy metals and pesticides.

He says in 20 years of campaigning he has only seen the river deteriorate. “All hope is dead for me now”, he says in despair.

But we should not give up on the Ganges. Just two years into Modi’s “Clean Ganga Miss-ion” and it is too early to judge progress, but during the making of our BBC World News documentary on the subject we found encouraging signs.

For a start the government now openly acknowledges that corruption has been a problem — an important step toward dealing with the issue. It has tightened up the rules on pollution and has improved enforcement, it says more than 100 tanneries have already been closed down.

The government is also open about sewage treatment, or the lack of it. At one of the huge effluent plants in Varanasi, the chief engineer acknowledges that only a third of India’s holiest city is actually connected to a sewer, “the rest goes straight into the Ganges”, he says. And, the figures outside the cities are even worse. Just 20 per cent of the sewage from the 450 million who live within the catchment area of the river is reckoned to be treated.

Recognising just how big a challenge cleaning up the Ganges will be is an important beginning, but now the hard work starts. Back in the eighties, Rajiv Gandhi’s government spent millions on muscular infrastructure to clean the river, yet pollution only got worse. So why does Modi’s government believe it can do better?

“Because we have learned lessons from their mistakes,” says the environment minister, Prakash Javadekar with a confident smile. He tells me Modi is leading from the front: “There is tremendous focus and therefore we are very confident we will achieve our targets”. The government has set itself tough targets and, to be fair, assigned a decent budget — almost $3 billion — to the world’s biggest river cleaning project — but for the moment it is dwarfed by the sheer scale of what it is attempting to do.

“We are not saying that the whole Ganga mission will be complete in five years, no. Five years will ensure there is a marked difference but this is a long project,” says Javadekar. “The Rhine and the Thames were in the same dirty state 50 or 60 years ago and it took nearly 20 years to change the overall ecology of that, and we will also achieve it within 10 to 15 years’ time.”

If the government is to succeed and clean up this mighty river it will require sustained effort and constant vigilance. But Modi has an important asset: The fact that so many Indians want him to succeed. And if India can clean up one of the dirtiest rivers in the world, who knows what else this great rising nation can achieve?

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The writer is South Asia correspondent for the BBC. “Our World: Killing the Ganges”, Rowlatt’s documentary on the effort to clean India’s greatest river will be broadcast on BBC World News  this weekend at 5pm IST on Saturday  (May 14) and at 10am and 11pm IST  on Sunday (May 15)

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  1. R
    Reena
    May 14, 2016 at 11:32 am
    Justin, I read the story "India's dying mother" and was quite surprised that you didn't cover the root issue of Ganga's pain in this country - which is the compromised flow of the river and her tributaries in her upper catchment. Your story starts from Rishikesh and has missed on the crucial origin path of the river..!!! Surely Ganga rejuvenation is not feasible without protecting the origin path of the river. While I appreciate the in-depth analysis that you have done of the issues she faces downstream but the issues along her upstream path are the most horrifying because the river is being diverted through a series of tunnels and her original flow is practically non existent... Ganga holds immense self purifying properties but only when she flows. If only her path could be uninterrupted and free and natural, as it should be of a river who is revered as "mother" - she will cleanse herself all along her path.
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