The Union government proposes to outsource sewage management in the 118 towns and cities along the Ganges to corporate entities as part of its Namami Gange or National Mission for Clean Ganga. This is a clear break from the approach of successive governments since 1986 under the earlier Ganga Action Plans. The change is welcome.
Available evidence shows urban local bodies, especially in smaller towns, simply do not have the resources or capacity to set up, operate and maintain modern sewerage systems and treatment plants. According to the new plan, the government will allow corporates, in both the public and private sectors, to “adopt” towns/ cities of their choice and invest in such projects that would ensure no municipal waste and effluent discharge into the river.
The Centre, it seems, has already received proposals from both Indian and international companies. The firms to be selected through a bidding process would be paid through fixed annuities for a 15-year period. Unlike in the past, when state governments and local bodies were also required to contribute, the entire monies would come from the Centre.
Cleaning the Ganga has proved to be a Gordian knot for successive governments. Repeated doses of monetary infusion by the governments have failed to yield results, primarily because the responsibility to make things work on the ground, as far as sewage treatment is concerned, has been stuck in a bureaucratic quagmire — with multiple
departments, from urban development, water resources and irrigation to power and tourism, involved. Not surprisingly, it has been impossible to fix accountability, with fund-starved municipal bodies making matters worse. Cities such as Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s constituency, have the capacity to treat hardly a third of the sewage dumped in the Ganga. The working of even the established sewage treatment plants have often been hampered by the lack of electricity.
The latest plan, one hopes, would first and foremost fix the accountability problem. This can be done by spinning off sewerage and treatment systems into a special purpose vehicle independent of the municipal corporation/ state government, although the latter could take equity in these. The second aspect relates to funding. The budget allocation for Namami Gange has been raised to Rs 20,000 crore over five years — five times the cumulative expenditure of Rs 4,000 crore over the past three decades under the Ganga Action Plans.
Apart from annuity, the implementing companies could also be encouraged to create a market for treated water, which can be used for industrial and agricultural purposes. The successful creation of such a market would allow the operation and maintenance of sewage systems to become self-sustaining.