Five reasons why the Ganga is still dirty – Abhay Mishra


The issues of the flow and cleanliness of Ganga seem to be lost in the cacophony of high-pitched political sloganeering, claims and promises. Despite manufacturing “truth” repeatedly, Ganga remains as filthy as ever. But what’s stopping the so-called Ganga rejuvenation? Let’s look at five reasons that continue to act as hindrance in the free flow of the river.

Economic leverage led to ecological oversight

The thought of exploring the idea of Arth Ganga (the Ganga Economy) for revenue generation indicates that the planners do not comprehend the real meaning of “Ganga”. Yes, it is true that the river, directly and indirectly, supports the livelihood of 400 million people, but never in the course of India’s cultural history has it ever been solely defined in terms of its sheer economic potential. Dwelling on Arth Ganga also reflects that Ganga’s “real” caretakers have accepted the river’s fate, in which its spiritual form will now return to the heavens and it will only be looked at as a commodity. Promises such as construction of waterways, promotion of dolphin tourism and bringing a blue revolution, among others, send the signal that the Narendra Modi government’s focus has now shifted to earning revenue from the holy river and not restoring it back to its ancient form.

The government is still trapped in the water quality scale developed by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and does not want to understand the concept of gangtva. It has become difficult for the government to simply accept that gangtva doesn’t just mean “clean water”. The government and scientists do consider gangtva as an “element” but would never make it an integral part of any legislation on river planning. And this is because preserving gangtva would mean ensuring virtuous treatment of the river—saying goodbye to the idea of generating revenue from it.

This is why the administrative machinery emphasises on using the practical definition of the river, according to which the real essence of Ganga does not lie in its natural properties of being bacteriophage, medicinal or having a natural flow, but in the “economy of Ganga”. However, this economics-oriented view conveniently ignores the scientific facts. After crossing Tehri, the river Bhagirathi manages to retain only 10 per cent of its bacteria. In geography textbooks, students are taught that the entire length of Ganga is 2,525 km, but they are never told that the natural flow of the river is only restricted to 80 km. And to save and extend this natural flow would require setting up new eco-sensitive zones, which will go directly against the “economy of Ganga”.

River flow data and its interpretation

As per the CPCB records, 18 major drains fall directly into the Ganga in Uttarakhand. But according to data from the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), which runs the Namami Gange Programme, the number of such drains is 141. The NMCG states that 22 such drains fall in the river in Haridwar alone, but the CPCB pegs this number at just three. Now, let’s try to decode this mathematical ambiguity. While the CPCB does not define what constitutes a “big” drain, the NMCG counts every small and big drain. This method is problematic also because it includes the count of natural waterfalls. Again, the CPCB does not take canals under the purview of its count. And since Har ki Pauri is not Ganga in its eyes, it does not count the number of drains falling into it. It is an entirely different matter that in Haridwar, all major holy baths take place in Har Ki Pauri. Since the CPCB is the main body entrusted with the task of monitoring drains, its data is considered authentic. But on-ground action is also based on this data, and as explained above, if it isn’t recognised it will never be fixed. Hence, the necessary efforts like tapping of drains do not succeed.

The NMCG will also have to acknowledge that not all “drains” are the problem, especially in a hilly state like Uttarakhand. Not long ago, people used to pronounce nadi (river) and nale (drains) in the same breath (nadi-nale). It is only when the term nala began to be associated with the urban sewage system that it became negative. In hilly areas, it is necessary for the planners to draw a line of distinction between the urban drains and Himalayan drains (streams).

The focus is on business, not on business of environment

Although the Project Dolphin was announced by PM Modi as part of the government’s plan to save Ganga, the responsibility for its promotion and execution lies with the Ministry of Environment and Forest. Truth be told, the ministry is not even interested in this initiative, because it is solely focused on diluting the environmental impact assessment (EIA) so that the corporate lobby can be made happier. Take a look at all the previous announcements by the ministry and you will know that “trade and commerce” is the focus area while environmental concern is just the outer coating.

Let’s also understand the realities of environmental concerns with respect to Ganga. The capacity of a sewage treatment plant (STP) is relative and depends on the receiving body. For instance, a 10 million litres per day STP is small in Delhi but huge in Uttarakhand. But the environment ministry, which is responsible for framing these rules, has kept them uniform for the whole country. Naturally, these rules fail to comply with the ground realities. It is necessary that the drains be treated at their inlet points, and we should not have to wait for them to reach the river.

Govt’s own drains are more powerful than Lord Shiva’s river

Since we are talking about drains, it’s important to understand their capacity and impact. The drain from Kanpur’s TV Hospital that falls in Ganga is so mammoth that the river’s natural stream is hard to detect at the spot. Drains from factories do pollute Ganga, but it’s the government-run sewage systems that are the biggest contributors to the filth flowing into the river. On many occasions, the government makes the pretence of closing such drains, but the reality is different—closing them permanently requires strong political will. The Modi government, which has already earned its share of applause for closing the 126-year-old Sisamau drain, is shying away from accepting the fact that the drain is polluting the river water again, just as before. There are no shortcuts. To close these government-managed drains permanently, the entire sewage system needs to be dismantled and preplanned, just as the government is building the Kashi Vishwanath Temple corridor in Varanasi, almost from scratch.

The bane of bureaucracy

Noted Hindi satirist Harishankar Parsai has depicted well the guile of the bureaucrats. Parsai narrates an interaction between a shark and a bureaucrat. The shark is considered clever and fast, yet the bureaucrat manages to dive deep into the sea and bring it out of the water by trapping it between his teeth.

The bureaucracy is capable enough to explain and prove to the government that Ganga has been completely cleaned. It has already proven that the STP inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in Varanasi is operating efficiently, that the Sisamau drain has turned into a selfie point, and that the river water is flowing wastefully into the seas and therefore dams should be constructed to check it. The bureaucrats have also constructed the “truth” that mankind can even create rivers. It has already created Sabarmati and the process for construction of Saraswati is going on. In the same vein, perhaps it will also construct Ganga. – The Print, 28 October 2020

Abhay Mishra is an author and environmental expert. This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the original here.

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