Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken of his love for the river Ganga on more than one occasion. His election speeches were replete with reverential references to the river and aviral (unhindered) Ganga has become a catchphrase of the Modi government’s water programmme. One of his first announcements as PM underlined the priority to cleaning up what is regarded as a sacred river by a large section of Hindus, but actually resembles a sorry drain in most parts of its 2,500 km stretch. Within a month of being sworn in, the Modi government launched the Namami Gange programme to rejuvenate the river. To be executed over five years, the project has a budget outlay of Rs 20,000 crore. This is 10 times more than what was allocated in previous Ganga cleaning programmes — Ganga Action Plan (GAP) phase I and II. But more money and the prime minister’s zeal, notwithstanding, Namami Gange seems a carryover from its predecessor in one crucial respect: The overwhelming emphasis on pollution abatement that had led to the GAP’s failure bedevils Namami Gange as well
In certain respects, Namami Gange is an improvement on the GAP. The cleanliness programme that took off on July 7 with the launch of more than 200 projects has projects to develop interceptor drains, plant trees and improve the river species composition. There are also plans to develop Ganga Grams — villages where people will be educated in reducing pollution. The GAP had none of these. But like its predecessor, Namami Gange lays much store on improving the sewerage infrastructure by constructing new sewage treatment plants (STPs) and improving the older ones. In this respect, it seems that the government has not learnt lessons from the GAP’s failure. The lag between sewage generation and treatment has remained between 55 per cent and 60 per cent even as new sewage treatment plants were built under the GAP. This is because a lot of the waste is generated outside the sewerage network and is not conveyed to the STPs. A large section of the country’s urban population lives outside this network.
Moreover, the STPs can only do so much. The water treated at the STPs undergoes final cleansing at the river. Where is the water for that? With more than 40 dams, barrages and weirs — and many more planned — aviral Ganga seems nothing more than an empty catchphrase. Ganga is the sum total of the contribution of some 12 major tributaries. Without a rejuvenation strategy for each of Ganga’s tributaries, there can be no Ganga rejuvenation.