21 November 2014

Among the clouds, above our highest mountains, an old, very old, bearded man may be laughing. Or weeping. Twenty-five centuries, and one counter-example to his famous statement has emerged. We have indeed stepped into the same river twice. Our engagement with the Ganga today has not proved Heraclitus wrong. On the contrary, it shows he was doubly right: “for other waters are [ not ! ] continually flowing,” into the Ganga. What is flowing in the Ganga, between the waste, the pollutants, and the excrements? Would one find a drop of pure water as it arrives on the Bay of Bengal? No surprise, then, that all the promises of a revitalised India included the indisputable intention of cleaning the Ganga, during the last General Elections. It is a popular token, satisfying at once the fervour of the millions worshiping the river, and also the enthusiasm of the others, striving for a path towards a ‘developed India’. But behind the communications feat is a pre-existing history of nation-scale initiatives around the eco-system of the river. Over four decades, the governmental efforts have failed in fetching any result on the ground, highlighting the inefficacy of our political imagination, blocked at the historical stage of centralised governance. So, after decades, can we really talk of ‘rejuvenation’? This week on LILA Inter-actions, Ravi Agarwal highlights the short-sightedness of a political vision seeking at once development, and rescue from technological solutions. Himanshu Thakkar assesses the history of India’s public responses to the degenerating Ganga, and remarks how even just the few initial declarations of the political class betray the same deep misunderstandings about the nature and needs of our river.

Hold the cursor on the illustrations to display animations.

Beyond Technological Terms

Ravi Agarwal

Learning from Our Mistakes

Himanshu Thakkar



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Cleaning the Ganga seems to be a top priority of the current central government. However, this is no simple task. It has been attempted for the past 20 years, with an estimated 20,000 crores already spent, but with little impact. The Ganga is still as dirty as ever. The reasons are not only owing to a lack of sewage treatment infrastructure, but also a lack of effort to include citizens in such initiatives. The river’s ills are not isolated, but reflect all that is not right all around it, starting from the fragmented cultural relationship it has with people who consider it ‘holy’… yet defile it! Also, it is imagined as a mere water channel, instead of an intermeshed ecology loaded with cultural meaning. The enormity of the task to restore the Ganga cannot be underestimated, and the complexities need to be acknowledged.

From its source in the Gangotri, to its delta in the Sunderbans, the 2500 km river Ganga supports over 337.8 million people (a fifth of which are urban). Along its route, it caters to industry, agriculture, irrigation, electricity generation, besides bathing and drinking water needs, while supporting a myriad of life forms including the River Dolphin and the Garihal.

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In recent times, constant institutional efforts have focused on engineering the river, in order to make its flows more controlled, especially during the monsoon periods, or to clean it. This undoubtedly important, yet largely reductionist approach is rooted in ideas of rivers that date back to early nineteenth century Europe, when rivers like the Rhine were sought to be tamed solely as navigable waterways. Today, many people cite European rivers as examples, since they were once very dirty, and are now clean. However, they are unaware that even there, debates are raging on, as to what has been irrevocably lost in terms of biodiversity, tributaries, water flows, etc. ‘Progress’ has obviously not answered the question of ecology, and it is time to look afresh at the river as a complex mix of tradition and modernity.

Cleaning the Ganga has till now focused upon techno-fixes, such as installing sewage treatment plants, but not on river governance, effluent regulation or the ecological or cultural significance it holds. For the Ganga to be restored, our institutions need to re-think rivers in more than mere technological terms.

The long history of Clean Ganga initiatives

The long history of cleaning the Ganga started with the Ganga Action Plan (GAP I) in 1985, which extended to GAP II, approved and implemented since 1993. In 2009 the programme morphed into the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), which acknowledged a river basin approach, but continued to focus on building sewage and effluent treatment plants. Even this, however, was not properly done.

Domestic sewage flowing untreated into the river is a major problem. This pollution was earlier confined to specific urbanised stretches in UP, Bihar and West Bengal. However, now, even upper stretches in Uttarakhand are showing signs of increasing faecal coliform loads. Even today, while over 12,000 Million of Litres per Day of sewage discharged into the river, the total treatment capacity is merely 3,750 MLD. This, too, functions at less that 60% efficiency, owing to power outages, poor maintenance and lack of sewer connectivity. As per the data periodically produced by the Varanasi NGO, Sankat Morchan Foundation, the quality of water is worse than ever.

The industrial pollution regulatory system is also dysfunctional. For example, a 1000 km stretch of the river has around 687 polluting units, discharging more than 270 MLD of untreated toxic waste water. The stretches around Kanpur have several leather tanneries, which regularly discharge effluents containing chemicals and heavy metals like lead and chromium into the river. Other sources include pulp and paper mills, sugar mills, and chemical industries. Owing to years of half-hearted efforts, almost none have been penalised or their operations stopped. Only now has the National Green Tribunal (NGT) started taking a tough stance on such polluting units, and have threatened closure for non-compliance. However, even treating such effluent may not be enough. Research has shown that treated industrial effluent, which still contains heavy metals, is often used as farm irrigation, and ends up contaminating vegetables and crops.

The Tehri Dam, on the Bhagirathi River (Uttarakhand)

The diversion of water from the river from 70 odd dams (including those already built, and the proposed ones) is a central and unresolved issue. What should an ecological river flow be? Currently, for all new hydroelectric projects, the Government has recommended that they follow a norm of water discharge that ranges from 20 to 30 percent, depending on the season (lean to monsoon). However, several of the older projects have almost no discharge requirements at all. This includes the Tehri Dam. The discharge from such projects affects the river flow significantly, though there has been no reliable assessment of its extent. Environmentalists are suggesting that the impact on river flow needs to be evaluated in different projects on a case-by-case basis, and that mandating a single norm is not the answer. Fundamentally one cannot hope to have a river left, if no or insufficient water flows in it.

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Some of the current solutions proposed are untenable, and there is an overemphasis on finding ‘business models’, rather than people’s participation. The central transport ministry wants to build multiple barrages to create navigation channels. However, this can lead to siltation, blocking of river flows, and stopping the free movement of fish and other marine life, which depend on the river for their existence. There is another proposal to seek a 4,000 Crore loan from the World Bank. However, the river is dirty not for paucity of funds, but due to a lack of understanding of the river system per se, and to poor implementation and governance of initiatives. Proceeding without fixing these is a recipe for disaster.

To restore the river will require action on many fronts, and a more bottoms up approach. Participation and transparency will have greater chances of projects being implemented properly as well as being effectively governed. Initiatives need to take into account reasonable cultural and religious needs of people. Changes in the riverbed for transport, or along its banks as riverfront development, can only lead to other disasters upstream or downstream in the form of flooding, water logging, inundation, marine life disruption, etc., and need to be avoided. The river’s network of tributaries and wetlands needs to be part of the river’s regeneration initiative, as these cannot be a bin for the city’s waste deposits or industrial effluents. Finally, Gangetic flows are intimately connected to glacial flows from the Himalayas. Disruptions of weather patterns and of the monsoons owing to climate change will affect its ecological flows, and cannot be ignored when dams and barrages are being considered.

However, when one hears from our engineers and politicians that they will not allow any river water to be ‘wasted’ in the sea, one wonders how deep their understanding goes. Rivers form a fundamental water system on the planet and a reductionist understanding of them seems to be a sign of the times we are living in, as we seem to be chopping the branch we are sitting on. In many ways the Ganga needs to flow free!

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For the second time in post-Independence India, priority is being given to the cause of the Ganga at the highest level, through the Prime Minister. The first time was when PM Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in June 1986 from Varanasi. Interestingly, it is from the same place that India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared his priority for the Ganga. Modi has chosen to call his initiative ‘Ganga Rejuvenation’. The new government has also renamed the Union Water Resources Ministry as Ministry of River Development, Ganga Rejuvenation & Water Resources and transferred the staff and projects of GAP to the new ministry. Its charge was given to Sushri Uma Bharti, someone who is known to have worked in the past for the cause of the Ganga. All this sounds fine and eminently welcome, but, so far, it essentially remains in the realm of symbolism.

First, we need to understand what exactly the Ganga River Rejuvenation would involve. It appears that a river is basically seen as a channel carrying water and no more than that, by our governments, politicians and the governing agencies. Such a mindset misses the various characteristics, functions and roles that the rivers perform from their birth in the head reaches, to the flood plains, to the sea. A river carries sediments, nutrients and a biological diversity in addition to water. It has a three-dimensional connectivity and is a dynamic entity across various time scales. The Ganga floodplain and the delta have been created through the sediment deposition and other dynamic activities of the river over millennia. The river also has a role to play at the delta and when it meets the sea, a role that even affects the monsoon rains! The river plays a role in shaping the biodiversity, geology, hydrology, groundwater, floodplain, and numerous other aspects of the basin. Besides providing water, fertility to the flood plain, stability to the delta and recharge for groundwater, the river also provides direct livelihood to a very large number of people, like the fisherfolk, the boats people, the riverbed cultivators and the local sand miners, to list only a few. And our talks of the river should also include the tributaries. The Ganga is not just 2525 km long, as most official handouts will tell us, but much longer, and the Ganga cannot be rejuvenated without a rejuvenation of the tributaries as well.

Jairam Ramesh, arguably our most literate politician in environment matters, would probably respond that the Ganga is not just a river – it is much more for millions of Indians! True, but any cultural value of the river will not be vitalised if the Ganga is not indeed rejuvenated, first and fundamentally as a river. In fact, Ramesh recognised on the floor of the Parliament that, beyond GAP, even the Water Pollution Control Act of 1974, 40 years ago, which had led to the setting up of the Central and State Pollution Control Boards, did not fetch the expected results. The Supreme Court of India rightly observed on 29 October 2014 that this pollution control mechanism is a story of “failure, frustration and disaster”.

The IIT Consortium:
an excessively technological approach?

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Does the NDA government have confidence to inspire a roadmap for Ganga rejuvenation? Does the NDA government have a credible plan to even clean up the river, possibly the first step of many steps in achieving a rejuvenated river? From whatever I have seen in terms of what is available in public domain and what I could gather from the few officials that I have interacted with, the answer to both questions is no. The NDA government is progressing on the same path as the UPA and earlier governments. The same centralised, costly, resource intensive and infrastructure heavy options are being chosen by the new government without any break from the past. Even for future plans, the NDA government is waiting for the release of the Ganga Basin Management Plan from IIT Consortium, likely to be submitted in December 2014. But when the IITC was commissioned to do this plan in 2011 during the UPA regime, many critical observers had pointed out that IITC’s expertise is essentially technological and is not equipped to prepare such a plan as the Ganga Rejuvenation is not just a technological issue. Noticing how we have not been able to learn from our failures so far, the apex court rightly remarked that going by this government’s plans, the Ganga will not be clean even after 200 years. And this is only about cleaning the river—the rejuvenation of the river will need so much more than that.

So, the NDA government has played a lot of lip service to the cause of the Ganga Rejuvenation, but no active and reassuring steps towards it. However, the government has declared or taken a number of steps that would certainly worsen the state of the river. Sushri Uma Bharti’s weekly assertions about a river-linking plan is one, as under this plan, Ganga is a both a recipient (in monsoon, when it floods) and a donor basin. Mr Nitin Gadkari’s announcement of the government’s decision to build barrages every 100 km along the 1600 km long river stretch between Allahabad and Haldia is another. There is just one barrage now, the Farakka, and it has created so much adverse impacts both in the upstream and downstream, that even otherwise conservative Members of Parliament had demanded on the floor last year that the barrage should be decommissioned. The third example is the mindless pushing of hydropower projects in head reaches of the river, both by the current Union government and the state government of Uttarakhand, not learning any lessons from the Uttarakhand disaster of June 2013. Trying to sell the Sabarmati Riverfront development as a model for urban rivers is another false solution that this government is trying to push. Just a stretch of 10.4 km of the river, across Ahmedabad, is seen to be flowing with freshwater, but that water is in fact coming from the Narmada river. And, advocating Renuka Dam for Delhi is also far from a smart move for the city!

The public image of the Sabarmati Riverfront

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What, then, is required to achieve the Ganga Rejuvenation? First, we need to make an honest attempt at understanding why we have not succeeded in 40 years of water pollution control work and 28 years of GAP work. The fundamental mistake was to choose a centralised, top down, non-transparent, unaccountable, non-participatory governance path. A river touches and affects lives and livelihoods of very vast numbers of people in the basin and beyond. None of them have any role in the river governance model we have chosen. And the lives of those who have a role in it remain unaffected, irrespective of the fate of the river. This dichotomy has to be broken through a radically different model of river governance, pervading all its elements. It is neither impractical nor untried. Achieving river rejuvenation would also involve reviewing our water resources development and management, as well as including agriculture and crops, urban development, hydropower plans and policies into a larger environmental governance vision. The current government has not shown the will to move towards this direction; on the contrary it has attempted to dilute and weaken the already weak environmental governance. The state of Ganga is likely to worsen before it improves.

Ravi Agarwal is a photography artist, environmental activist, writer and curator, and an engineer by training. He has pursued an art practice integrally with his other pursuits. He is the founder of NGO Toxics Link, and he writes extensively on ecological issues. His work has received awards from around the world and it has been presented in several international shows including Documenta XI (Kassel, 2002), Horn Please (Berne, 2007) Indian Highway (Herning, 2009), Sharjah Biennial (Sarjah, 2013) as well as several national shows and solo shows.
Himanshu Thakkar is currently the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP) and editor of the journal Dams, Rivers & People. He has been associated in the past with the work of Narmada Bachao Andolan, the World Commission on Dams, and the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi. He is an engineer from IIT Mumbai.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Nomadruss | Gangapedia | Arvind Iyer | Weaver Technologies | Namo PM

Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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