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How to deal with Ganga

Written By Gopal Krishna on Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 1:55 AM

First of all there has been a structural flaw in the conceptual design of initiatives for saving Ganga which is 2,525 kilometres long  across northern and eastern India and neighboring countries from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. 

Once again Supreme Court has pulled up central government for not showing urgency' in saving Ganga. It has asked for status report and road map for cleaning Ganga by September 3, 2014. Like other pillars of our democracy, the court has been involved with the Ganga issue for several years. This involvement has not altered the current state of Ganga in anyway. From now onwards, the court should hear the matter on the bank of Ganga in the polluted and dammed stretch- not in the court premises- to witness the plight of the river and decipher the true meanings of the affidavits filed by central government, state governments and other agencies.      

On June 6, 2014, four ministries - water resources, transport, environment and tourism met to discuss the road map for the river Ganga. This inter-ministerial group (IMG) on the river Ganga has been given the task of preparing a blueprint for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's dream project to create an aviral and nirmal (clean and continuous) Ganga within 30 days. The IMG is headed by Nitin Gadkari with Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, Tourism Minister Shripad Naik, Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Minister Uma Bharti as its members along with senior ministry officials. An inter-ministerial committee of secretaries under the chairmanship of Alok Rawat, Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources has been constituted for the same. "A Cabinet note on the subject will be prepared thereafter," said Gadkari, Union Minister for Road, Transport and Shipping Ministry.

The IMG has proposed to construct 11 terminals on the banks of the Varanasi-Hoogly stretch on the river Ganga for freight movement along with barrages at every 100 kilometers. Gadkari said, "It is proposed to conduct dredging to provide a width of 45 meters and for a three meters draft (depth) to enable transport of passengers and goods between Varanasi and Hoogly on the river Ganga in the first stage of its development." Such proposal without a proper cumulative environment impact assessment gives birth to serious doubts.

During his election campaign, Modi claimed that he is contesting from the Varanasi seat because he has been called to "serve Ma Ganga." After the electoral victory a separate ministry for the river Ganga has been carved out.

Prior to these proposed initiatives by the Modi Government, a 110 page report of B K Chaturvedi headed Inter-Ministerial Group on River Ganga set by Manmohan Singh government dated March 2013 underlined the need to address three problem areas for a comprehensive solution to Ganga pollution. These were: “(i) The inadequate flow of water in the river, needed to dilute and assimilate waste; (ii) The growing quantum of sewage discharged from cities along the river; (iii) The lack of enforcement against point source pollution from industries discharging waste into the river.” The report recorded its assumption stating, “Rivers have a self-cleansing ability, which allows for assimilation and treatment of biological waste. But in the current context, where withdrawal from the river is much higher than the discharge of waste, pollution is inevitable.”
To deal with this situation, the Inter-Ministerial Group recommended mandatory ecological flow in all stretches of the river which was 50 % for the lean season flow and 20-30% for all other seasons contrary to even the pre-existing wisdom that environmental flow of the river should be at least 75 % in winters and 50 % in summers.

Besides that it recommended that for urbanized stretches mandatory ecological flow be based on quantum of wastewater released in the river and calculated using a factor 10 for dilution and suggested business as usual for power generation by 69 large hydro projects unmindful of the fact that it contributed to depletion in flow of Ganga and thereby deteriorating water quality. This was suggested as part of the UPA Government’s National Mission for Clean Ganga. It is evident that both the diagnosis of the problem and the remedial action that was suggested failed to address the root causes that threaten the existence of Ganga itself. The complicity of several organizations with the report and its recommendations revealed how environmentalism with regard to protection of Ganga was hijacked by the government.

In the meanwhile, a 2012 parliamentary committee report revealed that so far Rs 39, 225.95 crore has been spent  on cleaning of the river under various schemes or projects. As of now it can only be hoped that the initiative of the Modi government will chart a new course.  
The Ganga Action Plan, which used function under the Ministry of Environment and Forests has been placed under the supervision of Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti, who is also in-charge of the Ganga Mission. She convened a the first National Dialogue on Ganga on July 7 2014 organised by National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) as part of Ganga Manthan, a national level consultation to facilitate interaction with various stakeholders including policy makers and implementers, academicians, environmentalists, saints and spiritual leaders from all faiths and NGOs on how to save the river.

Each Ministry within the IMG of the new government has been given specific mandate. Tourism Ministry has been asked to explore and expedite a tourism plan covering the stretch of the river starting from Gangotri, and running through Rishikesh, Hardwar and Varanasi. Power Ministry has been entrusted with the responsibility of looking after ways to harness hydro-electricity. Environment Ministry has been assigned with the task of cleaning the river, and the plan to set up a national waterway has been placed under the stewardship of the Ministry of Surface Transport and Shipping. Gadkari has been asked to prepare a feasibility study on the proposed river-route for development in a time-bound manner.

These deliberations need to be looked at in a context. Citing a World Bank document of 2009, the three volume and 909-page report titled 'United Nations World Water Development Report 4: Managing Water under Uncertainty and Risk published by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) states: "The National Ganga River Basin Authority in India, with the financial support of the World Bank, launched a programme in 2009 to clean the Ganges, to ensure that 'no untreated municipal sewage or industrial effluents would be discharged into the river by 2020'. Previous action plans did not improve the health of the river, in which almost 95 percent of the pollution is caused by sewers and open drains. This time the governmental approach has moved from a town centric approach to a broader river basin approach..."

But the UNESCO report's treatment of Ganga Basin, the largest river basin of the country which has catchment in 11 States leaves a lot to be desired. The report fails to enlist any achievement of the Ganga River Basin Authority that was set up in February 2009. It does not scrutinise whether or not the promised 'broader river basin approach' has indeed been adopted. It does not dwell on the split personality of the World Bank either.  

The Bank has been undertaking contradictory projects in the Ganga basin without any sense of accountability. It depletes water quality of Ganga by supporting dams upstream and it provides loans for improvement of water quality in its downstream. The second volume of Environmental and Social Management Framework for Bank assisted National Ganga River Basin Project document says, "The Ganga basin (which also extends into parts of Nepal, China and Bangladesh) accounts for about 26 percent of India's landmass, 30 percent of its water resources, and more than 40 percent of its population."

If the Bank knew that Ganga basin is an international river basin but it chose to refer to it as 'national' accepting its faulty description by the government. The UNESCO's report like the Bank failed to comprehend that Ganga like Mekong are trans-boundary rivers of the Himalayan watershed. 

In such a backdrop when Jim Yong Kim, World Bank President met Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 23, 2014 in New Delhi and promised to help in cleaning up the river Ganga saying, "If Prime Minister Modi wants this to be a top thing to work on together, then that's what we will do. It is hard. We happen to have one of the best water specialist in the world. We will bring our A+ team here and will do everything we can to help," it did not inspire confidence. 

While the commercial benefits of damming rivers has been talked about a lot, the in-stream and off stream monetary and non-monetary benefits and advantages of flowing rivers has not been assessed so far. Does basin approach mean undertaking that assessment?

The declaration of Ganga River Basin Authority in the aftermath of the acknowledgment by the Prime Minister's Office during UPA’s regime said, "there is a need to replace the current piecemeal efforts taken up in a fragmented manner in select cities with an integrated approach that sees the river as an ecological entity and addresses issues of quantity in terms of water flows along with issues of quality" merits attention of the Modi government as well.  

One can refer to initiatives under Ganga River Basin Authority as the Third Phase of Ganga Action Plan (GAP-III) which promised a river basin approach which could have affected the quality and quantity of surface water, ground water and the survival of natural flow of the rivers in the basin. The GAP-I, which was to be completed by March 1990 was extended till March, 2000 when it was declared complete but Phase I of the Plan is not yet fully complete. GAP-II which was to be completed in 2001 was extended till December 2008. This too remains incomplete. Not surprisingly GAP-III also failed because it applied only to 79% of Ganga basin, which is in India. It did not include 13 % of Ganga basin that is in Nepal, 4 % in Bangaldesh and 4 % in Tibet. It did not factor in its relationship with the river systems and with the composite Ganga-Brahmputra-Meghna basin and its consequences. 

The fourth phase for the protection has been initiated by the Modi Government. The fact remains unless measures for protection of Ganga is in not situated in the policies of Industry, Power, Agriculture, Urban Development, Health and Environment by the central government, the governments of eleven states (Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, NCT of Delhi, Rajasthan, Uttranchal, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal), the neighboring countries, industry bodies like CII, FICCI, ASSOCHEM and PHCCI and religious organizations, this phase too will meet the fate of earlier initiatives. 

IMG will have to examine and deploy the relevance of Ganga River basin approach because the river channels have been amputated from the flood plains besides the amputation of the river channel itself.
Given the poor track record of the National River Conservation Directorate in the past and the new regime under Gadkari and Uma Bharti, it would be naïve to believe that the threats to Ganga’s existence will be identified and mitigated.

But if the Ganga basin approach is indeed adopted then as per Comptroller Auditor General's audit reports there is a need to strengthen the environmental clearance process emanating which is being weakened with each passing day. The blind enthusiasm about mega projects like Ganga Expressway and 'interlinking of rivers' scheme must factor in the fact that Ganga, an inter-generational heritage of our civilization is more important than development and the ecological entity of the river basin is non-negotiable.

Whether or not the Ganga basin approach gets the support of concerned states remains to be seen but what can be done even under current scheme of things is to review and reverse the policies like the government’s current hydro power policy because they were formulated when river basin approach was not adopted. Consequently, fragmented river valley project specific clearances are given without any considered sensitivity towards the environmental health of the river ecosystem. An environmental audit of all the industrial activities in the Ganga basin is a must because auditing and accounting are inextricably interlinked, the important pre-requisite for effective environmental auditing is sound environmental accounting.

Data on environmental costs and liabilities can be used for better decision making relating to usage of alternative raw materials, consumption of utilities like water and power, choice of processing technology based on environmental cost of treating discharge into water, adverse environmental aspect and impact on flora fauna and human beings and treatment of byproducts.

In the face of limitations encountered by National Water Quality Assessment Authority, one of the immediate needs of the basin is to take urgent steps to restore the water quality by seeking Zero tolerance towards hazardous chemicals, waste water and depletion in the natural flow due to uncalled for hydro projects adversely affects the water quality.

Here is a litmus test for the new Government vis-à-vis protection of Ganga. Pursuant to the Cabinet note on Ganga, to begin with by issuing an enforceable order banning discharge of industrial effluents and domestic sewage into Ganga, its tributaries and the ground water aquifers of the Ganga basin, it can demonstrate its political will and its commitment for saving the holy river.

Gopal Krishna     
Ganga Bachao Samiti
(Ganga Protection Committee)

P.S: The Ganga basin outspreads in India, Tibet, Nepal and Bangladesh over an area of 10,86,000 Sq.km. 
In India, it covers states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh and Union Territory of Delhi draining an area of 8,61,452 Sq.km which is nearly 26% of the total geographical area of the country.  

The basin is bounded by the Himalayas on the north, by the Aravalli on the west, by the Vindhyas and Chhotanagpur plateau on the south and by the Brahmaputra Ridge on the east. 
The Ganga originates as Bhagirathi from the Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas at an elevation of about 7,010 m in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand.

At its source, the river is called as the Bhagirathi.

It descends down the valley upto Devprayag where after joining another hill stream Alaknanda, it is called Ganga.

The total length of river Ganga (measured along the Bhagirathi and the Hooghly) up to its outfall into Bay of Bengal is 2,525 km.

 The principal tributaries joining the river from right are the Yamuna and the Son. The Ramganga, the Ghaghra, the Gandak, the Kosi and the Mahananda join the river from left. The Chambal and the Betwa are the two other important sub- tributaries.

The major part of basin in Indian territory is covered with agricultural land accounting to 65.57% of the total area and 3.47% of the basin is covered by water bodies.

The basin spreads over 239 parliamentary constituencies comprising 80 of Uttar Pradesh, 40 of Bihar, 40 of West Bengal, 25 of Madhya Pradesh, 16 of Rajasthan, 12 of Jharkhand, 8 of Haryana, 5 of Uttarakhand, 4 of Chhattisgarh, 2 of Himachal Pradesh and 7 of Union Territory of Delhi. But these MPs have failed to demonstrate required political will to set matters right in Ganga basin without pandering to the interests of polluters, mutilators and dam builders who sponsor their elections.     

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