If there is a phrase that captures why cleaning or managing the Ganga has remained an intractable problem since the start of the formal attempts to do so in the mid-1980s, it is “bureaucratic quagmire”. Essentially, from start to finish, any proposal regarding the Ganga has had to satisfy, and has required the active cooperation of no less than seven to nine departments, both at the Central and state levels. As a result, despite thousands of crores being spent towards improving the Ganga’s condition, little ever gets done and no one is ever held responsible. Something similar is being repeated in the current NDA rule with the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, headed by Uma Bharti, engaged in a very public confrontation with the ministry of environment and forests, headed by Prakash Javadekar, in a matter pending before the Supreme Court.
The current controversy, about the fate of six hydel projects in the Upper Ganga, started when the Supreme Court, in the aftermath of the Uttarakhand floods, prohibited the setting up of any new HEPs in the state. In February 2015, a committee of the environment ministry argued against them. But in October, another expert body set up by the environment ministry, which included the Central Water Commission, that falls under the water resources ministry, overturned the first committee’s recommendation. Later, in December 2015, yet another committee — this time led by the secretary of the water resources ministry — reverted to the earlier decision against setting up the HEPs. Now, yet again, the environment ministry, against the clearly stated position of the water resources ministry and Bharti, has gone ahead and given its nod to five of the six projects in question, according to an affidavit it submitted in the apex court. Evidently, this tussle is far from over and this will not only impede the government’s plans of rejuvenating the Ganga but also smudge the policy clarity that businesses have been demanding in India.
In his first Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sharply criticised the chronic “disunity and conflict” among different government departments during UPA rule: “It appeared that everyone has its own fiefdom. One department is taking on the other department… to the extent that two departments of the same government are fighting against each other by approaching Supreme Court”. Modi had said that he had “started making efforts for razing those walls”. Clearly, he has a long way to go.