What Namami Gange?

by Surajit Dasgupta - Aug 9, 2015 03:12 PM +05:30 IST
What Namami Gange?

The Namami Gange project is still largely on the drawing board, with some corrections in Rajiv Gandhi’s flopped Ganga Action Plan. Activists with years of experience of working on the revival of the holy river are growing impatient. A special report.

Nothing has been done by the ‘Ganga Ministry’.” This is the refrain I heard from all NGOs, including those run by sadhus—many of them from the RSS stable—working on the rejuvenation of the holy river for years and decades. They refer to the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (WRRDGR), which got this expanded name when the NDA II government was formed, as “Ganga Mantralay”. One of them, Ganga Mahasabha, established by Madan Mohan Malviya, is currently commemorating its centennial year.

It came as a surprise to me, given that on 26 May 2014, if Prime Minister Narendra Modi appointed a few ministers in accordance with their qualifications, one of them was Uma Bharti. This firebrand sadhvi, once expelled from the BJP for her unruly behaviour, had been working to revive the Ganga for years as an independent activist outside the party. In a bid to involve all sections of Indian society in her drive, her Ganga Samagra Abhiyan had roped in 800-odd MPs of the previous Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, sending them requests to support her initiative, rising above party lines, along with a well-designed container of Ganga water.

She also took along several activists from civil society for the programme, wherein they visited the 12 jyotirlingas (the prime pilgrimage spots for Shiva devotees) across India to convey a message to parts of the country which the river does not pass through that the rivers of their areas would be taken care of with as much zeal. Bharti, as much as all NGOs that have now turned into experts of river management, thanks to years of experience, has always agreed on one point: aviral (free-flowing) Ganga is as important as nirmal (clean) Ganga.

Swami Jitendrananda Saraswati of Ganga Mahasabha poses the question and answers it, too. Unless the volume of water that is supposed to flow from Gangotri to Gangasagar is ensured, the river cannot be freed of pollution, he says. Surprisingly for activists, this is exactly what Bharti used to opine when she was not in government. But her ministry has done nothing to ensure the Ganga flows uninterrupted from its source to where it merges into the Bay of Bengal, they say.

That’s an unfair accusation as our readers will find subsequently; however, they cannot be blamed because the government’s publicity department is quiet on the issue. The cleaning of the ghats in Varanasi, some photographs of which were tweeted by no less than Prime Minister Modi, is first of all part of “Swachh Bharat” and not “Namami Gange”. Secondly, this activity has been going on for ages since it is natural for the rocky stairs to accumulate mud that comes flowing with the river.

This fact was highlighted by Pitambar Mishra, owner of Yoga Mandir Ashram where I stayed in Varanasi; Rupesh Kumar Pandey of Rashtriya Swabhiman Andolan who has been working on Ganga for years, and Shukdev Mishra, an activist from Allahabad who shifted his base to Varanasi in 2007 to devote the rest of his life to the wellness of the holy river.

Varanasi (Photo: Babasteve)
Varanasi (Photo: Babasteve)

Interestingly, Shukdev is a reference I received from an aide of Baba Ramdev and BJP supporter when the latter came to know from Facebook and WhatsApp that I was leaving for Varanasi on a study tour. He thought I would finally get something positive from his friend about the Modi Sarkar’s much publicised “Namami Gange” project. But even Shukdev was anything but impressed by the Ganga Mantralay. The act of issuing notices to polluting industries is not something unprecedented this government has done; all previous governments have done it, the activist in his 30s who took me on his motorcycle around Varanasi to meet key people, said.

It is the flow of the Ganga that had convinced the British authorities between 1918 and 1936 to let the waste generated by the city of Varanasi to be discharged into the river. The sheer force of the current would carry away all the filth, the imperial rulers had reckoned while remodelling the holy city to accommodate fresh human settlements. Before that, the city had small water bodies and landfills all over the place for disposal of the waste of a rather small population.

The British plan was ill-conceived. For one, the Ganga flows through Varanasi in the reverse direction—from south to north—which means that the speed of its current is much less in this stretch. Concerned by the development plan of the British, Ganga Mahasabha had begun demonstrating across the country. The agitation was so effective that finally the government entered a pact with the group that this plan would stay only till the time the authorities could ensure the flow of full volume of water from Gangotri to Gangasagar.

We all know that if the Ganga could be called a deluge 100 years ago, it is a trickle now—no way capable of washing away the industrial, human and animal waste that flows into it from different cities and townships throughout its course. And the biggest causative factor is the dams built on the river, many NGOs believe. However, the debate about the efficacy of dams, their effect on the ecosystem and the trade-offs involved, is one that has been raging globally for decades, and no clear scientific consensus has emerged yet.

Our ancient and medieval towns’ models are no longer sustainable either. “We cannot condemn land,” Pushkal Upadhyay, a director at the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the WRRDGR Ministry, explains. He adds that water pollution is still manageable; if industrial waste is dumped in landfills, that part of the earth can never be used for other purposes again—as it happens at sites where nuclear devices are tested.

Explaining this to the devout is a tall order. Some sadhus see in the 2013 flash floods in Kedarnath the “fury of Ma Ganga” against the human acts of tampering with her ecosystem. Scientists would, for sure, not invoke God into their theory, but even they don’t advise fiddling with Nature. Since much of ancient and medieval science is lost on this generation, we wouldn’t know what calculations the sages made that dictated constructions in old Bharat.

At Haridwar (Photo: gBSK)
At Haridwar (Photo: gBSK)

Unlike Greek and Latin mythology, Hindu mythology was accompanied by science. It is a compelling argument that the sages knew the academic subject wouldn’t be appreciated by the least common denominator and, hence, stories were woven around them. Ergo, there may be no goddess called Dhari Devi in reality, but the spot where her idol stood needed to be respected as a threshold point, disturbing which would signify disturbing the delicate balance of nature of the region. Removing this structure callously caused the flash floods in Kedarnath, sadhus believe.

The rationalists may laugh it off, but can they also dismiss the cracks the Tehri dam developed during the floods of 2013 and the Nepal-centric earthquake this year? “At the time of its construction, Russian scientists had calculated that the dam could resist earthquakes that measured up to 9 on the Richter scale. After the flood and the earthquake, can the structure still withstand quakes? To what extent—8 or 7?” Swami Jitendra asks.

I pose to him the question I had asked other activists, too: If Uma Bharti can’t, who can?

“Ab kya bataun? Uma ji meri bahen jaisi hain, par sachchai yahi hai ki kaam kuchh bhi nahin hua hai!” (What do I say? Uma Bharti is like a sister to me, but it’s a fact that no work has been done), the current head of Ganga Mahasabha said.

He was more unforgiving about Modi. “The government fooled us like Kalnemi, using a Sanskrit term ‘NamamiGange’ to rouse our religious sentiment,” he said, invoking the Ramayana character—an emissary of Ravana who, disguised as an ascetic, had tried to trap and kill Hanuman. One can attribute this rant to the fact that his NGO is closely associated with K.N. Govindacharya, a known Modi baiter, and also to the fact that this swami was once an RSS pracharak of the faction that still hasn’t forgiven the Prime Minister for marginalising their fellow pracharak Sanjay Joshi.

Some environmental scientists associated with the rejuvenation programme claim that the government’s proposal to build barrages, dams and enable navigation of small ships on the river is going to affect aquatic life and create more pollution. On the other hand, the argument from an overall transportation point of view is that transporting goods by river is the least expensive and least polluting of all modes available currently, and continental Europe has used its inland waterways brilliantly for trade and commerce without increasing pollution levels.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, professor of electronics at IIT-BHU and head priest of the famous Sankat Mochan Temple, alleged that the government was ignoring its pledge to ensure continuous and uninterrupted flow of the river and their proposal will commercially exploit the Ganga. He suggested that the government should install sewage treatment plants, fully upgraded and equipped with the latest scientific technology, to ensure not a single drop of sewage flows into the river.

Swami Avimukteshwaranand Saraswati, mahant of Vidya Math, often belittled for his pro-Congress tilt, alleged,

“The Modi government is making the river a materialistic thing to generate revenue which is against its glory. If the government insists on constructing barrages, it would be Modi’s betrayal of Mother Ganga as well as the faith the people of this country have reposed on him.”

I came back from Varanasi with the impression that the locals were not complaining against Modi at all. They were mostly happy about a very receptive branch of the Prime Minister’s Office in their city and zealous implementation of the Swachh Bharat programme. Cleanliness was visible in the streets; only the narrowest lanes still remain filthy.

Computer Society of India’s Anupam Pandey, who is based in Varanasi, has studied the problem in depth. He shares the observation of other activists that no tangible work on Namami Gange has started as yet. Of course, some decisions—such as which sewage treatment plants would work on the project—have been taken. They are situated at Ramana, Goithyan and Dinapur.

A multitude of authorities is a problem yet to be addressed. Even today, it’s the Ministry of Environment and Forests that represents the government in Ganga-related cases in the court of law. Activists blame Prakash Javadekar’s ministry for declaring the Kanpur-Allahabad stretch of Ganga safe while this course of the river has for long been infamous for its tanneries and other polluting factories.

A government official of Bharti’s ministry agreed this was a problem. Citing Swatanter Kumar of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), he said that the retired judge wondered why “every authority agrees that the Ganga is unclean, and yet every authority issues No Objection Certificates to polluting factories”.

Kumbhmela (Photo: Yosarian)
Kumbhmela (Photo: Yosarian)

In May this year, the NGT allowed the closed down tanneries situated on the banks of the Ganga at Kanpur to operate on a trial basis for 19 days in June during which their effluent levels would be checked by a team of experts. Between 7 and 25 June, the joint inspection team visited and collected samples of effluents discharged from these units. The tribunal had, while passing an order on a bunch of pleas, asked all the industrial units to furnish details of steps taken by them to curb pollution levels to the joint inspection team, comprising experts from Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB), Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and IIT Kanpur by 6 June.

On its part, the Ganga Ministry claims removal of thousands of encroachments through the course of the Ganga. It also claims, and rightly so, that it had issued notices to all factories releasing chemical effluents to the river to clean up their act within the month of June.

So I asked Upadhyay of NMCG how different this act of issuing notices to polluting industries is from notices of all governments since Rajiv Gandhi’s initiative in the 1980s that the factories couldn’t care less about. He uses the analogy of a police station.

“You must have noticed that the board declaring crime records of the area inside a police station never looks dangerous. That is because the guy who puts up that notice board himself is responsible for law and order in the area. Would he admit he is not doing his job?” Upadhyay asks.

The mission director explained that several centrally planned projects, including that of the Ganga, have suffered from the malaise of passing the buck due to a confusion over who, out of the Centre and the states, is supposed to do what part of the job.

“Typically, these projects were sponsored 70 percent by the Centre and 30 percent by the state until the previous government. The proportion of work responsibility was also the same. The UPA government made it 50:50 for all such projects while Ganga is now 100 percent the Centre’s responsibility”, Upadhyay said, adding that till last year, the State Pollution Control Boards used to claim they had done their part of the job.

Hereafter, while the monitoring will be done by the Centre, the polluters will be accountable for not cleaning up their act within deadlines. Continuing on the topic of the difference between UPA and NDA’s initiatives, Upadhyay said that no notice from the previous governments was sent via NMCG. This made this authority incapable of monitoring the scenario and taking necessary action.

Moreover, 118 towns, 1,649 gram panchayats and 144 drains that discharge effluents into the river have been identified. “The problem was never defined so clearly before,” the officer says.The states through which Ganga flows have been told to submit their detailed project reports (DPRs) by 30 July, failing which the Centre will take over the whole operation.

Finally, to ensure a aviral Ganga, a rigorous plan has been chalked out, reveals a Cabinet note in the possession of Swarajya. The Union government is working on the recommendations of a consortium of IITs and Ganga River Basin Management Plan in this regard. Capacity building, setting up of monitoring centres and institutions, research, training, model interventions for non-point pollution migration, agricultural run-off, GIS-based data, mapping, spatial analyses of the basin, study of communities dependant on the river, special guidelines for sand mining, study of possible diversion of River Bhagirathi at a suitable location etc are parts of the government’s initiative.

What Namami Gange?

This piece is from the July 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe now to get print copies delivered to your home.

New regulations will be needed to ensure that a minimum volume of water flows through the river from its upper to the lower course. As of now, the National Ganga River Basin (NGRB) Project does not have law enforcement powers. It can only instruct the local police to take action in cases related to pollution.

Pandey is an activist I have known for years. While he was as disappointed with the proceedings, he preferred that I spoke to experts in the field. So he referred me to Prof U.K. Chaudhary of BHU who was part of the government project for a while. “The pollution of Ganga cannot be monitored (let alone stopped) unless excessive discharges from Bhimgora, Narora and other barrages are controlled and sandbeds selected for the purpose,” the professor said. The government has yet to do anything in this direction, he said.

Residents and hotel owners along the Ganga basin told me they would happily maintain hygiene if the option existed. Throughout the course of the river, there are slums that do not have toilets. The occupants have to defecate on the banks of the river. Those in Uttar Pradesh I met with or spoke to over the phone were, however, upbeat about Modi. They are not sure what work is done by the Centre and what part is taken care of by the state. They say they are witnessing heightened activity for the past one year since Modi came to power.

Mishra of Yoga Mandir says the only thing Bharti did since she became a minister was visit Varanasi once “for a photo op”, which only burdened the local civic authority with the additional task of cleaning the area that her cheerleaders left strewn all over with posters and handbills.

“All these ‘middlemen’ are talking out of their hats,” thundered Rajesh Katiyar, an aide of Uma Bharti, adding, “They have to say something to express their concern; so they are saying whatever comes to their mind!” He said the Cabinet approval for initiatives under Namami Gange could be obtained only in May this year, and nothing could have been done before that.

When told that this year-long delay did not show that this government was actually concerned about the Ganga, he said, “At least this government is doing something. We do not wish to repeat the flaws of the Ganga Action Plan (launched by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985). Due diligence takes time.”

What Namami Gange?

Uma Bharti’s main concern in this entire effort has been to stay clear of partisan politics. Importantly, none of the four states through which the river passes are with the BJP—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Congress, Samajwadi Party, Janata Dal (United) and Trinamool Congress would also not lose any opportunity to slam the BJP for pushing a “saffron” agenda.

Criticising the Congress for finding holes in the Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi river links, Bharti offered to make “presentations” on the Ganga and river-linking before Congress president Sonia Gandhi, party leader Mallikarjun Kharge and Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh to enable them to explain the factual position to their parties.

“If you say that it is a saffron agenda, then you should rethink. I am ready for a presentation at their residences,” the Minister said.

Removal or relocation of dams could be touted as the Centre’s obstruction in the development of these states. Confident that the Ganga would be pollution-free by 2016, she said in early June that the project had been “delayed” as the Centre decided to bear the entire funding, instead of asking states to give a matching grant, and thus had to rework its financial plans and approvals. A sum of Rs 12,000 crore has been set aside for the project.

Even Congress appointees are not unhappy with the minister. One of them confided, “In our first meeting with the minister, as we were giving suggestions to make the project a success, she said she was aware of the pros and cons of all these proposals and asked when we would start working on it. We found out that in the course of the past one year, lack of knowledge of the subject was not a problem with this minister, unlike her predecessors. But I really doubt Ganga can ever be clean. It’s impossible to rein in all the polluters.”

Shukdev agrees that at least the religious lot does not care for laws; you must appeal to their heart. He related a five-year-old incident at the Harishchandra Ghat where a police commissioner who had arrived at the spot with full force to evacuate shops that dumped wood along the banks was manhandled and his jeep set on fire.

“Later on, when we (NGO Satyameva Jayate) took up the task, we assured the businessmen that our drive would benefit them, and they agreed. The shops were haphazardly located; we placed them in one row, streamlining the movement of goods and customers. As incentives, we gifted all of them CFL bulbs. They are very happy now,” he said, betraying a sense of achievement.

Before Varanasi, the defiant behaviour of polluters is noticed in Kanpur. The tannery owners of Jajmau have rejected the proposal of a zero discharge treatment plant to save the Ganga from pollution. They allege that it is the officials who discharge untreated tannery effluents into the river!

The tannery owners say that at least 10 hectares of land would be required every year to dump the waste. They claim to have already contributed in a 36 MLD treatment plant and refuse to contribute any more. So much for the suggestion from the Sankat Mochan Temple’s mahant!


Levying on the industry the entire responsibility of sewage treatment is indeed an expensive proposition. The water ministry agrees it is a costly affair. “Treating 1 MLD costs Rs 1 crore,” an officer said.

When officials gave demonstrations of a zero discharge system treatment plant and said that a plot of 55 hectares would be required for it, the tannery owners pointed out that the Wazidpur common treatment plant’s 36 MLD facility was meant to treat tannery waste alone, but only 9 MLD of tannery waste was treated whereas, they claim, they had contributed for 36 MLD. And now even 9 MLD of tannery waste is not being treated and that is being discharged directly into the Ganga silently.

I raised this issue with the government along with the issue of corruption and a new set of rules leading to an inspector raj. I was told the issue would be addressed via e-governance.

Govind Sharma, another activist dedicated to the cause of the river who works with Ganga Mahasabha, informed me that the boatmen have been given the charge of removing floating objects from the river. Walking through all the ghats in Varanasi, however, I found polythene packs, industrial discharge, a dead calf and a dead turtle—raising a stink—floating about.

“The police gets Rs 1,500 to dispose of human corpses. No money is provided for dead bodies of animals, though,” he noted.

Shukdev said his NGO could undertake the job of clearing animal corpses if funded adequately. Bharti has the solution that she used to eloquently speak about when she was an activist: declare Ganga as the National River. This will make all laws applicable to heritage sites apply to the holy river. Ensure the river’s right to flow, and make sure a certain catchment area on both banks of the river stays exclusively to maintain its ecology and not disturbed by industrial activities.

If, with years of gathered knowledge, on-field experience and commitment to the cause, Uma Bharti can’t, who can?

This piece is from the July 2015 issue of our magazine. Subscribe now to get print copies delivered to your home.

Photo Credit: AakjiKhabar

Surajit Dasgupta is National Affairs Editor, Swarajya.
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