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. …continued »