Why PM Modi's Rs 6,300 cr 'Namami Ganga' budget plan is misguided
The plans are grand, all running into several hundred crores of rupees in estimated costs, and nobody will be able to accuse this government of a lack of ambition in rejuvenating the Ganga. Problem is, the plans focus on taxing the river further.
Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti recently praised Narendra Modi as the "modern day Bhagirath," the legendary king who brought Ganga to the earth. Yesterday, the Prime Minister seemed to live up to his newly acquired name.
In its maiden budget, the Modi government announced a Rs 6,300-plus crore 'Namami Gange' scheme. While Rs 2037 crore will go into rejuvenating the river, another Rs 4200 crore will be spent on developing a navigation corridor in the next six years. Then there is a Rs 100 crore project dedicated to ghat development and waterfront beautification. The government also announced a 'NRI Ganga fund' to help drive fund collection, the money from which will be spent on 'special projects'.
This came as no surprise as Maa Ganga played a prominent role in the speeches of the BJP candidate from Varanasi, a constituency Modi chose for its rich symbolic value. “(The) need of the hour is to restore the glory of the Ganga. Today Maa Ganga is calling us, her children, to make the river clean once again," newly elected prime minister Narendra Modi tweeted on May 17, signalling his priorities which were writ large in the Union Budget.
But while all those zeroes suggest strength of intent, Modi sarkar's Ganga revival strategy may be weak in execution.
The first indication of flaws came at its first meeting held on 7 July with stake holders to discuss the revival of the river, inviting suggestions from secretaries, NGO activists and civil society at large.
The Ganga Manthan also revealed the Modi sarkar's blueprint for Ganga revival: Develop the river as a tourism and navigation hub, while stopping the inflow of pollutants into the river.
On the tourism front, the government proposed a massive project along the river, which will reportedly include river cruising facilities, floating hotels and moving light and sound shows, The Times of India reports. "Our ministry is exploring the possibility of introducing shikaras on Ganga on the pattern of Kashmir," Tourism Minister Shripad Naik said at the meeting.
Besides tourism, the government also plans on utilising the river as a means of transport with boats travelling between Varanasi and Hoogly, something Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari had stated as his top priority when he took over the ministry.
Gadkari also said the government has a proposal to dredge the riverbed in order to provide a width of 45 meters and five meters draft (depth) to enable navigation of small barges between Varanasi and Hoogly.
"Barrages cum bridges are proposed to be constructed at every 100 kms on the river and the ministry has sent the proposal to World Bank for development of Allahabad-Haldia corridor," Gadkari said.
Problem is, the plans focus on taxing the river further: more development, building more structures, imposing a greater burden for purposes of transportation and hospitality. The result may well be a spectacular cosmetic surgery that further erodes the fragile ecosystem of and around the river.
What about dams?
More importantly, there is little evidence that the government is planning to tackle the river’s biggest menace: dams. Environmentalists have long argued that the only way to restore the Ganga is to restrict the number of dams along the river. The elevation of Bharti who has in the past vociferously opposed the construction of dams offered some hope in that direction. But she reversed herself at the Manthan, saying, "There are many new technologies, which can be used for (constructing) dams. Even the older dams could be maintained with these technologies.” she said.
Environmental experts strongly disagree. According to a Tehelka report:
"The Ganga is in serious danger from 600 dams that are either operational, under construction or proposed. These dams will not only obstruct the river’s natural flow and divert water into tunnels to power turbines, but will also have cascading effect on the livelihood of communities and the biodiversity and stability of the surrounding natural ecosystems. Downstream communities also face the danger of flash floods when water is released from the dams."
Highlighting the same concerns, BD Tripathi, an member of National Ganga River Basin Authority said: "Eight streams of Ganga originate from Gangotri glacier but the main ones are Bhagirathi, Mandakini and Alaknanda. All the proposed dams near the source should be cancelled. They (government) can construct small dams," he told news agency PTI.
What about pollution?
Dams aside, any effective Ganga revival plan will have to tackle the other great threat, of toxic sewage, both industrial as well as domestic.
According to an India Today report, over three billion litres of sewage from over a hundred towns and cities flows into the river daily.
Varanasi, by itself, generates 400 MLD of sewage. And yet the city has only three sewage treatment plants which can handle just 102 MLD. That means over 300 MLD of sewage flows into the river untreated, India Today Magazine reports in its July 2014 edition.
A 2012 study commissioned by the Banaras Hindu University's Centre for Environmental Science and Technology counted 33,000 cremations over a period of 12 months, using more than 16,000 tonnes of firewood. The study further states that more than 700 tonnes of ash and partially burnt skeletal material found its way into the Ganga.
The Modi sarkar has offered few details on how they plan to address these issues, more so since some of them involve religious sensitivities that may prove politically expensive. Beautifying the ghats does little to address the burden they place on the river.
Is development the answer?
The Ganga Manthan approach appears flawed because it focuses on new and different uses of the resources of an already overtaxed river.
The BJP's Varanasi manifesto promised to restore the lost glory of the Ganga on the lines of Gujarat's Sabarmati river. However, activists have cautioned the government, saying it would be no easy exercise given that the Sabarmati is 300 km long, while Ganga is more than 2,550 kms long.
In an earlier article on Firstpost, columnist Jay Mazoomdaar argued that if Ganga goes the Sabarmati way, there will be no hope of its revival.
"But what is wrong with Ahmedabad’s pride, the Sabarmati miracle? In short, everything. The Sabarmati springs to life in the Aravalli hills near Udaipur and reaches the Arabian Sea in the Gulf of Khambhat. In 1978, a dam built at Dharoi, 165 km upstream of Ahmedabad, locked much of its natural flow. In the next decade, heavy municipal and industrial pollution downstream made it one of India’s most-threatened rivers. The famed riverfront project covers a mere 10.5-km segment of this 370-km-long river.
In that short stretch, concrete embankments have constricted the once 330-380 meter-wide river to just 275 meters. This gives an impression of more water flowing in the channel but has made Ahmedabad vulnerable to floods. The high embankments are touted to be capable of containing a surge of 300,000-odd cusecs, the kind that drowned much of the city in 2006. But the river’s historical peak discharge can be as high as 400,000-550,000 cusecs, a volume the narrowed channels will not hold."
What looks good is not necessarily good for a river. While tourists may be thrilled at the thought of sailing down a pretty shikara, the Ganga is not just a resort destination but our largest and most important river which sustains entire eco-systems and vast number of communities across her length.
"Cosmetic surgery is not the solution for Ganga. Riverfront development may improve its beauty, but it won't ensure cleaning up of the river," VN Mishra, chairperson of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, told The Economic Times. And a dirty Ganga is not a luxury we can long afford.
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