Cleaning-up Ganga: Will Modi’s commitments succeed?

Maitreyee Mukherjee and Asit K. Biswas

SANCHAR EXPRESS | June 27, 2014 

Attempt to clean the sacred river is not new. The first major plan was initiated in 1985 and spent thousands of crores of rupees but the Ganga and its main tributary Yamuna is still more polluted than ever before.

According to Comptroller and Auditor General’s report, between 1993-2000, Ganga Action Plan completed only 39% of its main target of constructing sewage treatment plants. It was a static plan which did not consider population increase or phenomenal growth in Indian economic activities. In addition, the co-ordination of activities between the Central and state organizations were poor.

The designs of sewage treatment plants were done without considering the State level requirements. Many urban centers did not even have adequate sewage network for carrying wastewaters to the treatment plants. Hence most of the sewage generated has to be discharged untreated into the river. The design capacities of the plants were often lower than the incoming loads. Furthermore, even the plants that were built became increasingly less efficient or non-functional with time. Frequent changes in administrative or institutional power and personnel contributed to serious disruptions, delays and shoddy implementation. Meanwhile Ganga has continued to suffer from over-extraction of water, along with steadily increasing volumes of wastewater. Not surprisingly the river is more polluted than ever.

Ganga was made a National River in 2008. World Bank has sanctioned a loan of 1 billion USD over the period of 2001-2019, under the National Ganga River Basin project that would assist in capacity building and provide technical assistance to local and central organizations. The main itemss include municipal wastewater management, industrial pollution control, solid wastes management and river front beautification. Unfortunately, after three years of running the program, the World Bank, concluded in February 2014 that overall progress and implementation is unsatisfactory.

According to Central Pollution Control Board, current wastewater treatment plants can treat only 44% of urban sewage generated along the river. In addition, 6087 million liters of untreated open drain discharges containing animal wastes, partially burnt corpses, agricultural run-off, and effluents from solid waste dumpsites continue to pollute the rivers each day. There are some 764 grossly polluting industries on the river, 687 of which are in Uttar Pradesh. The situation in UP is particularly bad, as excessive blockages and water withdrawals upstream have reduced the river’s normal flow substantially. Thus, even if 100% of treated sewage is discharged, Ganges water cannot be of bathing quality in dry seasons, unless its natural flow is maintained.

Modi has indeed accepted a Herculean task, especially after the abysmal record of cleanups under the past governments at all levels. The World Bank considers the current $1.6 billion clean-up a “high risk” project. Hence, he would need expertise of best water professionals in the world to provide good implementable advice.

Modi could well consider the example of the Singapore River cleanup under the legendary Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. He gave authorities 10 years to clean up the river, and asked that a monthly progress report be submitted to him. He personally monitored the progress regularly. True to Singapor style, the river was cleaned up within budget and time. The benefits of this clean-up have been phenomenal. For every single dollar spent on cleaning up the river, the benefits have been over 12 times.

There are many examples of successful cleaning of water bodies from different parts of the world, like Thames in England, Rhine in Europe or Great Lakes in North America. The Cuyahoga River in the United States was even declared to be a fire hazard. All these rivers are now clean. The Indian authorities should review how these rivers were cleaned up and what lessons, both positive and negative, could be learnt from these experiences. They should also objectively assess why after spending thousands of crores of rupees over the past three decades, why both Ganga and Yamuna are getting more polluted by the day. These lessons should be incorporated in the clean-up exercise.

Fortunately in Modi, there is a Prime Minister who has made both political and personal commitments to cleanup River Ganga. This political will was consistently missing in the past. If Modi can assemble some of the best brains of the world and monitor the progress regularly, there is reason to hope that the quality of the Ganga water will start to improve. It will not be an easy task but can be a doable task.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar, and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. Maitreyee Mukherjee is a Research Assistant, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore.