Ganga Rejuvenation Must Go Beyond Lip Service

Bharat Lal Seth

The rejuvenation of the Ganga figured prominently in the manifesto of the Bharatiya Janta Party, which took over the reins of power in May earlier this year. To show the party’s commitment to restore the Ganga, the Prime Minister elect (Narendra Modi) stood for elections from Varanasi, considered the holiest city along the banks of the river. He referred to the river as his mother and bowed in reverence. The symbolism didn’t stop there. The title of ‘Ministry of Water Resources’ was suffixed with the additional tag of ‘River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.’ Political and media pundits saluted the initiative. 

Citizens congregating on the banks of the Ganga during the Mahakumbh mela in 2013
Citizens congregating on the banks of the Ganga during the Mahakumbh mela in 2013
Photo by Bharat Lal Seth

The Government even committed itself to maintain aviral (uninterrupted) flow, which gave environmentalists a flicker of hope that this initiative would be different from the Ganga Action Plan, launched in mid-1980 and widely considered an abject failure. At the time, the action plan sought to solely invest in the sewer network and treatment plants to deal with urban sewage run-off – all of which proved woefully inadequate. The government is now first and foremost interested in turning the river into a waterway. An inter ministerial panel tasked to oversee the rejuvenation project (including the Ministers of Environment, Tourism and Water resources) is being led by the Minister for Road Transport, Highways and Shipping. The minister has proposed a series of barrages (every 100 km) in a 1620 km stretch, known as “national waterway one,” with the intention to uniformaly dredge the river to a depth of 3 to 5 metres. There is much confusion surrounding this project which I will discuss in later paragraphs.

The current plan to revive the suffering Ganga does not detail how it will deal with the effluent of more than 2,000 grossly polluting industries along the main river stem (besides tributaries) nor the sewage from towns and cities (less than half of which is currently treated). There is big talk that industries will be turned into zero discharge campuses, but similar efforts in the past have failed due to expenses incurred and technological snags. The government is throwing more money down the drain; there has been little learning from the failure of previous action plans as investments in expensive sewerage infrastructure in towns and cities failed to expand as needed. This time around the approach remains the same, although the proposed investments have increased substantially. According to media reports, it is estimated that over the next eighteen years, the government will invest Rs 51,000 crore (approximately USD$8.5 billion) to deal with wastewater from 118 towns and cities in the river basin. Unfortunately, few low cost sewage treatment alternatives have been piloted, neither with the sincerity nor the urgency needed to give them a fair chance to succeed. The proposal makes no mention of employing inexpensive and less energy intensive options.  

To make matters worse, the administration continues to turn a blind eye towards destructive large hydropower dams in the headwaters of the river, which are not only impacting habitations downtream, but altering biodiversity, habitat and sediment flow. There is, however, a flicker of hope from a recent affadavit submitted to the Supreme Court of India. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has reportedly stated that the statutory clearances required for large dam projects will be given only after taking into account the possible impacts on efforts to rejuvenate the river. The ministry has proposed a new set of norms to ensure better longitudinal river connectivity and maintain sufficient environmental flows, i.e. water released downstream of a hydraulic structure. Some say that clearances will now be mandated for hydropower projects below 25 megawatts (currently exempted), something International Rivers and our partners have been advocating for. However, it remains to be seen whether or not any of these measures will be implemented in practice. 

The government has grand plans to restore “national waterway one,” a project environmentalists believe is in absolute contradiction to the Ganga rejuvenation mission. But here too there is much confusion. In a meeting on October 8, World Bank officials – the financiers of the project – explained that the proposal before them entails 4 barrages (not 16 as stated by the Minister for Road transport, highways and shipping) and that as per a study by the Danish Hydrological Institute, a 3 metre (not 5 metre) minimum depth will allow barges up to 2000 ton capacity to ply on the 1620 kilometre route. Submissions by a group of civil society members (including International Rivers) to the Government and World Bank has recommended that they study the impact of barrages on the transport of silt, the water budget, flora fauna and water quality, as well as undertake a cost benefit analysis and study the expected health impacts, among others. Setting up barrages at regular intervals will interfere with ecosystem services, all of which depend on maintaining adequate quality, volume and velocity of flow in the river. The project will additionally impose huge environmental and social costs, especially due to intensification of flood, riverbank and coastal erosion. The Bank has decided to commission three studies: a detailed feasibility analysis of alternative options, a cumulative impact assessment and a market development report for the sector. Expressions of interest have been called and the Bank is hoping to finalize consultants by early next year. 

Prime Minister Modi says the Ganga will be a model river in self-praise. But neither he nor his band of ministers have cared to hold broader consultations in an attempt to understand how disastrous the initiatives planned can be not only on river ecology but also on people dependent on the river for their livelihoods.  

Friday, October 17, 2014