Originating from Gaumukh in the Gangotri glacier as a stream called Bhagirathi and culminating in Gangasagar, Ganga enlivens a culture and establishes a habitat along its 2,525 km bank. This holy river has been an epitome of Indian cultural and spiritual heritage since eternity. Infact, we can better say that India once lived on the banks of Ganga, but unfortunately today, India is crawling on its banks.
The Ganges, which once was a symbol of India’s spiritual supremacy, today symbolizes our inefficiency, inaction and ignorance, drawing a sorry state of affairs and ignorant bliss.
The Ganges of today is a Goose that lays golden eggs and cleaning it up is like killing this Golden goose. Politicians, Bureaucrats, Contractors, NGO’s are all into this flourishing egg business. The business of corruption is inversely proportional to the pollution in Ganga waters. Not surprisingly thus, Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan(GAP) was first initiated by the Prime Minister Mr. Rajiv Gandhi.
On 14th of June, 1986, while launching this august plan, late Rajiv Gandhi had this to say: “The Ganga Action Plan is not just a government plan, it has not been prepared for the PWD or government officials alone. It is upto us to clean the whole of Ganga and refrain from polluting it. This programme, starting at Varanasi here today will reach out to every corner of our land and to all our rivers. In the years to come, not only the Ganga, but all our rivers will be clean and pure as they once were, thousands of years ago.”
Unfortunately, the statements/promises made by the late PM rung hollow. The expectations of people, despite incurring an expenditure of approximately Rs 2,000 Crores, have been belied and dazed to the ground. There are gaping GAPS in the GAP and it symbolizes the shocking tale of official apathy and corruption.
However, GAP-I was extended as GAP-II from 1993 onwards covering four major tributaries of Ganga, viz. Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahanadi. The scope of program was further widened in 1995 with the inclusion of other rivers and renamed as National River Conservation Plan (NRCP). It is worth noting here that Ganga could not be cleaned but 34 other rivers have been taken up for cleaning with the same failed model of ‘GAP” – Golden Egg business expansion!
Now let us do a reality check of waters of Ganga, from its inception to culmination. The defilement of Ganga begins at Rishikesh itself, when the river enters the plains. From Narora to Varanasi, the Ganga river water is brown or black in colour during the lean months. At Kanpur, the water stinks even during monsoon when the river is flooded. Polybags are tossed in publicly and casually; piles of refuse tumble down the slopes to the river edge. During the lean period the river is so shallow that one can walk through the black muddy waters. The holy Ganga is the private garbage dump of industries and individuals alike.
Today there are more than 50 drains carrying raw sewage to the river Ganga and Yamuna at Allahabad while there were only 13 drains before Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986. Every Magh-mela, Ardh-kumbh and Kumbh, saints protest in large numbers against river pollution and boycott the ritual bathings which hurts the religious sentiments of devotees.
Nowhere in Varanasi is the Ganga worth taking a holy dip with the coliform count exceedingly high. The 84 bathing ghats are sandwiched between the two tributaries of Assi and Varuna, which are now huge sewage drains. As the Ganges flows down towards Kolkata she experiences dozens of similar assaults that fill her water with toxins and diseases and leave it fetid.
Now that the Ganga Action Plan has miserably failed on all counts, the pressing question which arises is, Can Ganga be cleaned ever?
Few will believe the undertaking given by the government in the Supreme Court that River Ganga will be pure and free of pollution by 2020. Similar commitments were made to the public 25 years ago when the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) to clean this most treasured and revered of the sub-continent’s rivers was launched. Even after spending several Thousand Crores of rupees on the project, the Ganga is today more polluted than ever before — a truth recently conceded by the Union minister for Environment and Forests in Parliament. Ironically, this is the state of affairs even though the Central Ganga Authority, rechristened as National Ganga River Basin Authority, came into existence years ago under the chairmanship of the prime minister to oversee the implementation of the Action Plan.
The declaration of Ganga as a National River in 2008 seems to have made little difference. The river’s water, in many stretches, is unfit even for bathing and agricultural use, leave alone drinking, though millions of people still drink it, regarding it Holy. Not only has the content of pathogenic bacteria, notably Coliform, risen to menacing levels in the river, but the amount of biochemical oxygen has also dropped drastically, rendering it incapable of supporting any aquatic life. As a result, several stretches of the river are now bereft of fisheries resources. Rather than giving life, the Ganga seems to be taking it!
A true miracle is needed indeed, to make Ganga water drinkable in the next ten years. Little wonder that the amicus curiae of the public interest litigation in the apex court was quick to express his misgivings about the government’s ability to fulfill its time-bound pledge to restore Ganga’s pristine glory. Indeed, it cannot be denied that the task of tidying up the 2,525-km long river spanning nine states is far from easy, but it is not insurmountable either.
The root cause of the river’s woes is that, even while being sacred for its believers, it serves virtually as a drain for carrying away sewage, industrial wastes, agricultural and chemical residues, carcasses of thousands of animals and half-cremated human bodies and even the discards of religious rituals and thousands of idols of gods find its way into its heart.
Unless the Ganga’s many devotees themselves address these issues and mobilize themselves to clean the river, there is little that the governments can do. “Clean Ganga” cannot be a bureaucratic, government administered top-down program alone, it quintessentially has to be a bottom-up people’s initiative. A purely technological and technocratic approach, using a billion dollars of World Bank money and expertise from the Indian Institutes of Technology is not going to work on its own, unless there is a coming together of administrative, technological, scientific, socio-religious, cultural and popular interventions.
All must work in tandem with the singular aim of reclaiming a lost river — the Ganga to be cleansed of our sins!