Mujhe na kisi ne bheja ha, na mein yaha aya hu, mujhe toh ma Ganga ne bulaya hai” (I don't think anyone has sent me here, or I have come here on my own. I feel Mother Ganga has called me to Varanasi).
No one can forget these words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi before filing his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat in 2014. His love for the Ganga overflowed when he attended the evening aarti on the banks of the great river soon after winning the seat.
His love for the Ganga found a reflection in papers, when the NDA government created a separate ministry headed by sanyasin Uma Bharti to rejuvenate the river. He announced the launch of what is called the Namami Ganga project with a promise of spending Rs. 20,000 crore over a period of five years.
Unlike earlier schemes, the new scheme sought to establish implementing agencies -- the National Mission for Clean Ganga and its state counterparts i.e. State Programme Management Groups (SPMG). It also proposed to establish a three-tier monitoring mechanism with the help of a high-level task force headed by the cabinet secretary and assisted by SPMGs and district-level committees.
The scheme not only focused on setting up sewage treatment plants (STPs) and effluent treatment plants (EFPs) but also on strengthening the existing infrastructure and maintaining the new for a period of 10 years under the Public Private Participation (PPP) model. The plan looked great on paper but questions have been raised on and off about the outcomes.
A 14-year-old student from Lucknow filed an application under the Right to Information Act last year, asking questions regarding budget allocation, total expenditure incurred and meetings chaired by Modi. The query revealed that the government had initially allocated Rs. 2137 crore but it was reduced to Rs. 2053 crore subsequently. More important, only Rs. 326 crore was actually spent during the financial year 2014-15.
Similarly, the budget for 2015-16 was also reduced from Rs. 2750 crore to Rs. 1650 crore. Unlike Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh, who chaired all the meetings of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), Modi chaired only one meeting out of the three.
The latest report from the National Green Tribunal reveals that the government has incurred an expenditure of more than Rs. 7,000 crore but the plight of the Ganga remains the same. It continues to be “serious environmental issue”.
The efforts to cleanse the Ganga are not new but date back to 1985 when the Supreme Court of India directed various authorities to clean the Holy river. At that time, the judgement under M C Mehta vs Union of India was considered as a landmark judgement.
The story began from Haridwar, when the Ganga caught fire as a person tossed a matchstick into it while smoking. The fire continued for 30 odd hours due to the presence of a highly toxic layer of chemicals dumped into the river by a pharmaceutical firm. In view of the incident, which sent shock waves across the country, environmentalist lawyer and social activist M C Mehta filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court against the government authorities.
Considering the impracticality in delivering justice, the court asked Mehta to narrow down his focus from the 2500-km long stretch of the river to a particular area. Mehta chose Kanpur because the Ganga acquires a distinct red colour when it passes through the city.
For more than a century, Kanpur has been a major centre for India’s tannery industry. The processes, including washing, liming, fleshing, tanning, splitting and finishing, involved a large number of chemicals. The effluent is characterised by strong red or dull brown colour with high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), high pH and large amount of solid wastes.
As Mehta chose Kanpur, all 75 tanneries operational in Jajmau district, the central and state pollution control boards and the Indian Statistical Institute became parties to the case. Later on, the cases were divided into two parts. The first part dealt with the tanneries and the second with the Municipal Corporation.
Towards the end of the year 1987, the apex court came down heavily upon the tanneries and ruled that either they should clean the waste water within six months or shut down their operations. This was followed by another judgement in 1988 directing the municipality to take immediate measures to control water pollution, including relocation of 80,000 cattle, cleaning sewers, construction of public toilets and ban on disposal of corpses into the river. The schools were directed to devote one hour every week towards environmental education and awareness.
The government came up with the Ganga Action Plan in 1986 with a budget of Rs. 350 crore. The project was declared a failure as only 35 per cent of the waste was treated in sewage treatment plants and some of these plants stopped functioning within three years of the closure of the project. In 2009, after the Ganga was declared the national river, the government established NGBRA with a budget of Rs. 7000 crore. The World Bank also sanctioned $1 billion towards the project.
The only positive outcome of the NGBRA was the decision to stop 13 projects approved by the Centre and state governments on Bhagirathi and declaration of the 130-km stretch from Gaumukh in Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone.
Thirty years after what was known as the Ganga Pollution case, the apex court acknowledged the ineffectiveness of its directions. “We regret to say that the intervention and sustained effort made by us over the past 30 years notwithstanding no fruitful result has been achieved so far, except shutting down of some of the polluting units. This is largely because while orders have been passed by us, the implementation remains in the hands of statutory authorities including the CPCB and the State PCBs which have done practically nothing to effectuate those orders or to take independent steps that would prevent pollution of the river. A total lack of monitoring by the statutory bodies has contributed to the current state of affairs".
Considering the sorry state, the court transferred the Mehta case to the national green tribunal in October 2014. The NGT has been very quick in passing orders. The recent order passed on July 13, 2017, has laid down fresh directions. It has prohibited dumping of waste within 500 meters of the river with a penalty of Rs. 50,000 to be paid by the defaulter.
The tribunal has painstakingly referred report after report while delivering its 543-page judgement. The order declared an area of 100 meters from the edge of the river between Haridwar in Uttarakhand to Unnao in Uttar Pradesh as no-development zone.
One of the most startling facts that the NGT highlighted in its judgement is that pollution has increased nearly four times from 2009 to 2016, especially between Haridwar and Kanpur. Incidentally, the past and present governments have spent a major chunk of its budget on the same stretch which received a lot of attention from the judiciary as well.
The NGT went into the minute details to find out the conflicting interests of the State and Central pollution boards. It also found that the common effluent treatment plants set up in the area are not equipped to treat complex pollutants like faecal colifrom. And the plants that have the capacity are not operated to save costs! What a treatment Modiji! Was the Rs. 20,000 crore scheme announced to save on costs or to reduce pollution or to attract media attention?
The holy river has the same fate as that of the holy cow, which is forced to eat plastic when it is useless. The Ganga, too, is considered as a sewage drain even in areas where it is revered as the most sacred. The politics of Ganga has helped many in hogging the limelight and winning elections too. It should not come as a surprise that even after 30 years of efforts, judicial orders, not even a single officer was held guilty for wilful or deliberate violation of the orders of the apex court.
While the NGT has done its part by issuing the order, Mehta, the stoic environmentalist, has demanded a CBI enquiry into the way Rs. 7,000 crore was spent by both the Central and state governments in last two years. How things unfold in the next couple of months or years is yet to be seen.
Meanwhile, the Ganga continues to be a cocktail of amrit, a symbol of purity, and the complex man-made pollutants. Modiji will once again claim to be a son of maa Ganga when the need arises just like others of his ilk, who half-heartedly, endorsed the cause for political gains, without going into its nitty-gritty.
(The writer, a company secretary, is director, communications, Deepalaya and can be reached at email@example.com
(Published on 31st July 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 31)