Cleaning Ganga holistically

The Centre's integrated Ganga conservation scheme, Namami Gange, is timely. The Ganga, being the fifth most-polluted river in the world, is already threatening inter alia many piscean, amphibian and aquatic mammalian species (the endangered Gangetic river dolphins). Its cleaning will reduce pollution for various human uses and also arrest the disappearance of aquatic population.

The Ganga is one of the many rivers originating in the Himalayas. The Ganga basin, having an area of about 1.09 million sq km, spans across four countries-China, India, Bangladesh and Nepal-with about 80% of its area falling in India. The basin also extends in more than 10 Indian states. The river has many tributaries, passes through 52 Tier-I and Tier-II cities, 48 towns, thousands of villages, and crosses five states-Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. About 43% of total irrigated areas in India lies in the Gangetic basin. In the upstream of the Ganga, there is a fragile ecosystem. The Himalayas, being comparatively young, have high rate of erosion. The upper catchment of the Ganga has little vegetation to bind the soil. Deforestation has aggravated the problem. Rivers like the Ganga tend to have a high sediment load. Climate change also makes predictability of the river flow extremely uncertain.

The Constitution recognises water as a state subject: the state deals with water supplies, irrigation and canals, drainage and embankments, storage and hydro-power projects, subject to the provisions of Entry 56 of the Union List. The Centre deals with regulation and development of inter-state rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulations and development, under the control of the Union, is legislated in Parliament to be in public interest. Because of this complicated Constitutional provision, the Clean Ganga campaign poses a big challenge as the stakeholders also include the states.

Pollution issues are covered under different regulations such as the Environmental Protection Act, 1986, and the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974. Notwithstanding the putting in place of these Acts, there is a need to minimise wastage of water; reduce non-point sources of pollution; recover, to the extent possible, water from waste; and ensure that anything that does not conform to the quality standards is not allowed to enter water resources.

The pollution in the Gangetic basin is caused by the fact that all the sewage, industrial effluent, runoff from chemical fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture within the basin, solid wastes, etc, are dumped into the river every day. In addition, any extraction and diversion of river water at various points pertaining to livelihood are linked with river quality conditions.

Earlier attempts to clean Ganga did not achieve the desired goals due to many reasons. For example the Ganga Action Plan (GAP 1986), later rechristened the National River Conservation Programme, a top-down approach, did not yield results despite heavy expenditure. The National River Conservation Authority and the Steering Committee, at the central level, did not make much headway either. So is the case with the state-level committees and citizen’s monitoring committees set up to tackle municipal waste. These bodies were supposed to monitor the point sources of pollution (industrial pollution and municipal waste) and non-point sources of pollution (disposal of dead bodies and animal carcasses, runoff from solid and medical wastes and agricultural fields, open defecation, etc). In fact, the major weakness for cleaning Ganga till now are: inappropriate choices of technology for treatment of wastes, incorrect policy of discharging waste water into river, lack of clear legal and institutional framework, low political motivation, partial coverage for collection, conveyance and treatment of sewage across cities in river basin, suboptimal functioning and irregular maintenance of assets, failure to monitor water quality data, non-establishment of effective citizen monitoring committees, weak monitoring of central institutions, etc.

Given the past experiences, a few steps are a must for a successful Ganga-cleaning campaign. First, the approach has to be basin-centric, rather than river-centric. Since the question of pollution has to be tackled holistically, based on the principle of a watershed, the integrated Basin Water Management Plan, as conceived by the Centre, is a welcome step.

Second, appropriate technologies have to be used while addressing treatment of sewage. Under the GAP, the following technologies are mostly used: UASB (Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket), ASP (Activated Sludge Process), and SPT (Stabilisation Fund Technology). The effectiveness of each of them in particular circumstances is also known. However, new research is called for to develop additional options that are simple and easy to implement. While developing such options, leveraging the existing technology should be considered.

Third, water is basically a state subject and the Centre's role comes for regulation and development of inter-state rivers. In the water sector, there are plethora of institutions at various levels with overlapping and ambiguous responsibilities for cleaning of the Ganga, as was noticed during the GAP implementation. There is a need to have institutions at the central level and state levels with clear mandates and clear responsibilities for cleaning up of the Ganga. The pollution prevention institutions created have a major role to play, in association with the other agencies at various levels. Failure to create the right institutional mechanism may hinder the progress of the clean Ganga campaign. If necessary, legal changes should be brought.

Fourth, there is a need to appropriately design the participatory approaches. So far, the basic thrust in cleaning the Ganga was technical in nature with a low content of mass movement. The earlier scheme in cleaning the Ganga used to be generally perceived as government-sponsored with little ownership among stakeholders, due to their limited participation in formulation and implementation. There are large number of stakeholders, and their participation is absolutely essential to make the programme a success. A river basin is a large, complex and integrated ecological system. There is a need to have participatory practices for effective interaction between humans and the ecosystems. There has to be an approach that is different from the traditional one, which, till now, is engineer-centric and has discouraged public participation in water resource management.

Fifth, the cleaning of Gangetic basin has to be integrated with the broader development policies (e.g. policies for industrial development, urbanisation, irrigation, sanitation). Without this integration, many deeper problems underlying cleaning of the Ganga will remain unaddressed, and the 'Clean Ganga' campaign may not be sustainable in the long run.

Sixth, there is a need for adequate incentivisation for the stakeholders to perform the task of cleaning the Ganga. States, in particular, should be incentivised for maximum efficiency of the campaign.