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The river must flow

Old missteps must be avoided in the project to clean the Ganga.

The human bodies in the Ganga are biodegradable. Industrial and agricultural chemicals are not. The human bodies in the Ganga are biodegradable. Industrial and agricultural chemicals are not.

It was the summer of 1985, the first meeting of the Central Ganga Authority was being held. They were all there — the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, the Union ministers of finance, water resources, environment and science. I was there as the project’s first director. We all agreed on the following. First, even in the mightiest of rivers, water has to flow. Without water, a river is a ditch beyond cleaning. Second, that watershed management was essential for maintaining the flow of the river.

Third, that the purity of the waters of the Ganga was legendary but that this was because of the countless micro-organisms in the river. Over the years, chemical fertilisers and pesticides had affected these organisms, rendering the river vulnerable. Fourth, that pollution — waste and sewage discharged into the river from the many cities along its banks — was a phenomenon of recent years, thoughtless and without restraint. And last, that industries and others extracting water from the Ganga should pay for it and not discharge their waste into the river. All this was known to and accepted by the powers that be. But we made three mistakes.

One was to regard the Ganga project as a substitute for sewage treatment. Engineering reports had conjured up a picture that sewage treatment would yield saleable products — methane and fertiliser — which could be used to pay for the project. There was also the hope that a variety of technologies for sewage treatment would be available to be applied in the project. But before long, the project was tied up in sponsoring sewage treatment plants, which should really have been the concern of the municipalities. The second mistake was to succumb to pressure from various agencies, including the courts, to make all settlements, big and small, the concern of the Ganga project. This diluted the project’s priority and selectivity, reduced it to a platform for ceaseless design and tender disputes between the squabbling parastatals of public health, engineering, municipalities and others. The third was the belief that engineers could discipline the Ganga by training its course, hemming its banks, curtailing its spread and diverting its waters to provide flushing doses. The hidden agenda was to extract valuable real estate from the river. But the nagar nigams and municipalities were marginalised and had little to do with the programme. The cities and the Ganga depend on each other for their life. One without the other has no meaning.

It’s good that the prime minister has turned his attention to Varanasi, one of the world’s continuously inhabited settlements. The mayor of Varanasi, like his colleagues in the state, has only one blessing — a five-year tenure. He has to take charge of the city. The jal nigam, development authorities and various other bodies should be accountable to him. And the mayor should be politically accountable for this project. He may succeed or be swept away like the floating debris in the river. To the clinical and antiseptic Western mind, the dead bodies, half or partially burnt, floating in the river are cause for consternation. But the human body is biodegradable. Industrial and agricultural chemicals are not. Downstream from Varanasi, in Rampur and beyond, there used to be large groups of turtles that fed on the carcasses.

And the Gangetic ghariyal kept the turtles from proliferating. Sometime during the 1990s, the Ganga project became the sideshow for the national rivers authority. That authority went about listing ditches across the country for so-called cleaning. One such was the Cooum. The government of India was generous — money was for the asking. The idea of the Ganga does not need to be sold to the people. It is part of the belief systems of most Indians. Yet the project failed to devise a programme for public education and support for the care of the Ganga. One redoubtable woman, Pupul Jayakar, made some valiant efforts through Intach.

The Planning Commission under Manmohan Singh was warm to the idea, but by the time proformas and receipt books in triplicate were designed for public contributions, it was too late. The PM has now created yet another opportunity. There is no need to travel all over. Be selective. Focus, as has rightly been done, on Varanasi. Invest the mayor with authority and let us hope that the job can be done. Has anyone seen the image of the goddess, Ganga? She rides a ghariyal. The message is simple — leave Ganga alone, she’s your mother. Don’t heap filth on her head, let the water flow. She will recover. The writer was the first project director of the Central Ganga Authority and is chairman, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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