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.
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?