By Advait Moharir
The Ganga is the largest river basin system in India, flowing through 11 States and covering 26% of its area in terms of catchment. It supports around 43% of the population of the region and is a lifeline for agriculture across north Indian states, as it feeds many tributaries that flow through these areas.
However, the same Ganga suffers from unsustainable levels of pollution. The Modi Government made it one of its core aims to clean the Ganga and allocated a whopping 20,000 crore rupees for this purpose. It was followed up by a scheme called Namami Gange – a special action plan to achieve the aim of a clean Ganga by 2019. A look at the implementation of this project, however, reveals that it has been a failure on several accounts; but more tellingly, a review of government attempts to clean up Indian rivers reveals systemic roadblocks that prevent schemes such as this from being effectively realised.
The same old story
The first ever attempt was made in 1985 under the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). Phase 2 was launched in 1993, and it was expanded to include many other rivers. However, the problem here was a sheer lack of technical understanding. The dynamics of river morphology, which includes the energies of the river (i.e. its volume of
water and flow patterns) were not understood properly. Unscientific methods used in treating effluents were another issue. The effluents, mainly coming from refineries across Uttar Pradesh were of deteriorating quality and increasing quantity, therefore putting pressure on the already inefficient water management systems.
The story of the stuttering GAP is a story of a failure of collaborative institutional effort coupled with an inadequate understanding of root problems. While the failures of many government schemes are blamed on lack of funding, the case here is completely different. Exorbitant amounts of money have been poured in continuously by successive governments, including 974 crore rupees allocated by the union government in 2009. There is also no dearth of regulatory bodies such as the Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) which was established almost a decade ago in 2009. But while the structural mechanisms are in place and the projects look perfect on paper, actual groundwork on these initiatives remains deficient on several fronts.
Several problems, several solutions
Bureaucratic red-tape is a major contributing factor towards the ineffectiveness of several government schemes and a huge amount of time and money gets lost in such endeavours. Lack of monitoring procedures makes it worse, as seen in 2015 when the Government claimed that it had identified 764 grossly polluting industrial bodies, while the same bodies had already been identified by another body! By the end of 2014, the Supreme Court had to vest the National Green Tribunal (NGT) with full authority to shut down polluting industrial units. The Court’s statement is a clear diagnosis of why schemes have failed: “This is an institutional failure and your story is a complete story of failure, frustration and disaster. You need to stand up against the polluting units. It will take another 50 years if the task is left to you”
The Modi government needs to break this policy paralysis immediately. The solution lies in the problems identified by a consortium of IITs which was asked to create a basin management project by the government. It found that the biggest problem was the multiplicity of authorities involved in the implementation of these schemes, leading to problems of overlapping power and delays in decision making. Thus, the government needs to identify redundant bodies and dissolve them while empowering the necessary bodies with appropriate powers. Another issue is the lack of coordination with state governments.
The Ministry of Water Resources in conjunction with any other Ministries involved in the decision-making process must ensure that the centre and state governments work in tandem by ensuring symmetry of policies and continuous dialogue.