On Thursday, Union water resources minister Nitin Gadkari made two important announcements. He said that the government will “try to ensure improvement” in the Ganga’s “water quality by 70 to 80 per cent by March 2019”. If his ministry attains this target, it would have fulfilled a major promise in the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections: “Ensuring the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority.” In fulfilling this objective, the water resource minister’s second announcement laid down a major policy shift. “The government won’t approve any new hydropower project on the river Ganga,” Gadkari said.
The Ganga cleanup plan has so far focused on creating sewage treatment plants (STPs), crematoria development, biodiversity conservation and rural sanitation programmes. This overwhelming reliance on sewage cleanup has rightly been criticised because 50 to 60 per cent of the population in cities along the Ganga lives outside the sewerage network. The waste generated in these areas does not reach the STPs; it flows directly into the river. Beset by numerous dams, the Ganga does not have enough water to clean up this sewage. The decision to not allow more dams will help the river to improve its self-cleansing property. Implementing it, however, will not be an easy proposition given that the BJP governments in states in the river’s upstream — Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand — lay much store by hydroelectricity projects. In April, the Himachal Pradesh chief minister announced that his government is working on a policy to “tap the hydroelectric potential of the state”. The Uttarakhand government, too, has more than 30 hydroelectricity projects on its anvil, most of which have been stalled due to instructions from the National Ganga River Basin Authority and the Supreme Court. The state has repeatedly sought the Centre’s assistance to get these projects back on track. Is the Centre’s new policy a signal to Uttarakhand to rethink these projects? More importantly, will the Centre, in an election year, have the political will to ask the BJP-ruled states to backtrack on their emphasis on hydroelectricity development?
Meeting the March 2019 target to clean up the Ganga will require resolve of a somewhat different order. So far, the government has spent barely a fifth of the Rs 20,000 crore sanctioned under the National Mission for Clean Ganga. Only a fourth of sewage infrastructure projects envisaged under the mission has been completed. Gadkari believes these projects will be implemented by the end of the year. If its performance in the past four years is any indicator, his ministry will need to pull up its socks to stand up to the minister’s claims.