Updated: April 17, 2021 9:25:49 am
This month, India witnessed the world’s largest religious congregation as millions of pilgrims gathered for a holy dip in the Ganga during the Kumbh Mela.
Since time immemorial, the Kumbh Mela has been a melting pot for varied beliefs, practices, philosophies and ideologies. Its earliest mention can be found in the Rigveda Parisista (Supplement to the Rigveda 1200-1000 BCE ). The Mahabharata (400-300 BCE) also mentions a bathing pilgrimage at Prayag as a means of atonement for past mistakes and guilt.
I cherish my childhood memory of large hordes of sadhus, along with their disciples, travelling through our village, en route to Haridwar. Living in a Dalit hamlet, I would trudge long distances, barefoot, just to catch a glimpse and listen to them, especially at the Triveni Sangam. Their awe and reverence for Ganga maiyya (mother) left a lasting imprint on me. I internalised that Ganga is much more than a glacial river — it is the very cradle of our civilisation.
Unfortunately, over time, the increase in population, coupled with unregulated industrialisation and unsustainable agricultural practices, have led to a significant increase in pollutants in the river. As a result, Ganga, which once sustained various forms of life, struggled to support its rich biodiversity. Depleting numbers of the Gangetic dolphins was a glaring example of this.
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Erstwhile governments tried to address this problem, but their efforts didn’t make a mark. Perhaps, the challenge was graver than perceived. After coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi government started a flagship programme called “Namami Gange”. It adopted a holistic approach which I term as a “Sangam” of public policy, technology intervention and community participation.
In 2016, the government issued a notification to authorise the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) to exercise powers under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. As a result, NMCG officials regularly conducted surprise checks on sewage treatment plants (STPs) and issued notices/directions to authorities wherever required. NMCG also issued directives regulating mining activities on river banks, prohibiting encroachment and regulating activities like the immersion of idols.
Unrestricted flow of sewage and industrial effluents into the Ganga has adversely effected its “nirmalta” (purity). Previous half-hearted attempts to address this were marred by faulty planning, leading to inadequate STP infrastructure, lack of proper maintenance and frequent technological breakdowns. Hence, novel technical interventions were the need of the hour.
NMCG adopted cutting-edge technologies like satellite imagery, remote sensing and geospatial solutions which facilitated real-time monitoring of pollutants in Ganga and its tributaries. Scientific forecast models were deployed for designing new sewage treatment infrastructure. As a first, a hybrid annuity model was adopted for project implementation, thereby entrusting long-term responsibility for operations and maintenance on the project executors. A total of 342 projects worth over Rs 29,000 crore have been sanctioned till date, out of which 145 are completed. Given Ganga’s central role in cultural rituals and rites, 123 ghats and 36 crematoriums have been constructed so far, while the Ganga Avalokan Museum has been set up at Chandighat in Haridwar.
To encourage community participation in cleaning the river, an awareness campaign is regularly carried out in cities, towns and villages alongside Ganga through a newly-established community force called “Ganga Praharis”. Through them, the government seeks to transform “jal chetna” into “jan chetna” and turn it into a “jal aandolan”.
To restore the river’s biodiversity, NMCG is actively collaborating with premier institutes like the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, ICAR-Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, Kolkata and the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad. A baseline survey for mapping the biodiversity has been completed and more than 50 per cent of the river now offers high biodiversity value. NMCG, in association with the Ministry of Agriculture, is also promoting organic farming in villages of Uttarakhand (50,000 ha), UP (42,000 ha), Bihar (16,000 ha), Jharkhand (4,500 ha). A long-term Intensive and Scientific Afforestation Plan is under implementation in the river basin along with the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun. So far, 26,764 ha of area has been covered with local varieties of trees with an expenditure of Rs 337.2 crore.
The integrated “Sangam” strategy is yielding results. The entire stretch of Ganga, spanning around 2,525 km, now has prescribed water-quality standards for bathing (dissolved oxygen is more than 5mg/litre). I’m proud to inform that after years, or even decades, Kumbh Mela at Haridwar offered “Class-A” water quality to pilgrims as almost all major projects in Uttarakhand, numbering 35 with an outlay of Rs 1,159.85 crore, have been completed. The newly constructed ghats, especially Chandighat, and the face-lift at Har ki pauri, along with sprucing up of 72 ghats at Haridwar shall add to the experience of the pilgrims.
Our efforts are only half way through, but I am happy that Mother Nature is responding positively to all our interventions. The significant increase in the range of sighting of Gangetic dolphins is a testimony to this fact.
Going back to my childhood memories, I feel content that the Modi government is working relentlessly towards restoring the nirmalta and aviralta of Ganga maiyya with the awe and reverence it deserves.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 17, 2021 under the title ‘River of life.’ The writer is Minister of State for Jal Shakti and Social Justice and Empowerment.
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