Recently, a news report cited extremely poor achievement of the ‘Namami Gange’ Project. Nitin Gadkari, Minister of State for Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation, had a counter response to it. The Minister has tried to demonstrate that work has been completed for numerous projects under this programme and many more have been recently tendered (hence progress will be visible later). However, the monthly status reports uploaded on the ministry’s website are testament to the extremely laggard progress.
I was in Varanasi, recently, and was pleasantly surprised to see the clean ghats on display. The government was running a free boat service to transport bodies to the two main burning ghats, as the practice of carrying dead bodies through the city is no longer allowed. So, yes, some part of the project has been implemented. City lanes (very narrow already) have been freed from the unnecessary hordes of cremation processions. Trash-skimmers have cleaned up river portions near some of the ghats. However, this was only some of the work carried out by the Mission, the rest unfortunately was delayed. Delayed primarily, I would guess, due to the fact that there was no concrete plan prepared for the procurement and implementation of the project.
A Programme Manager (probably a consultant of international repute) should have been hired to manage the entire project until completion. Moreover, agencies and state governments involved should have been hand-held through the procurement and implementation process. However, planning and implementation of this project has been almost like ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Eventually, it was left to the incumbent minister to now explain the reasons for delays in implementation.
Even while this was playing out, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has embarrassed the government further by asking them to issue a statutory warning that drinking or bathing in the Ganga’s water could be ‘injurious to health’. Such a sad state of affairs! Especially considering the fact that the project at hand was for the rejuvenation of one of the most important assets of the country—the river Ganga.
I have seen the majestic river near Uttarkashi. It is called the Bhagirathi at its origin, and named Ganga only after it reaches Devprayag and confluences with the Alaknanda. So very serene. A gorgeous river, dancing along the boulders in the river bed as it gushes down to the plains. Light green and so pure. It almost stays like this even as it enters Rishikesh. By the time it reaches Kanpur and Unnao, however, the colour of the river and its purity has taken a beating. Yes, some other rivers also drain into the Ganga, but it’s the people living in cities and towns along the river and successive governments (both central and state) that are responsible for the damage.
Devoid of its purity, beauty, and serenity, the river still provides life, employment opportunities, and economic benefits to the people who live along its (albeit choked) banks. Furthermore, the life of innumerable fish species and plant life, sustained by the river system, are on the endangered list, like the Gangetic Dolphin.
We have systematically destroyed this 2,500km river and have no one else to blame but ourselves. So what happened to this grandiose programme launched with much fanfare? I believe it’s the planning of the projects that went haywire. Dependence on Central Public Sector Undertakings (there were five of them chosen to take up some of the tasks) was a surprising move by the ministry. Most of the PSUs selected had never been involved with similar water or sanitation sector projects prior to the Namami Gange work. Evidently, it was to show immediate progress, which is definitely possible with PSUs. They are not bound by red-tape or procedural hassles, which bogs down the ministry and its organisations (like the National Clean Ganga Mission, in this case). However, while doing so, they should have been limited to buying equipment (like trash-skimmers) and doing smaller and definite sub-projects to prove themselves before awarding them larger projects. Instead, they were also tasked with getting a feasibility study and detailed design prepared.
This, despite knowing that the procurement method followed by these PSUs is detrimental to hiring the best resources. In fact, they have been known to be rather stingy. They usually hire the cheaper or low-quoting consultants and agencies to take up the entire work on a back-to-back basis. This results in delays and also in poor quality of work. The ministry needs to check if this indeed was a reason for failure (or for the imminent quality-related issues that may come up later) and take immediate steps to correct the same.
Sewage oozing from towns and cities can (and, post-implementation, will) be sent to sewage treatment plants (STPs) under construction. However, what about smaller settlements close to the river? Ditto for smaller towns without a functioning STP? Adoption of newer technologies—like an in-situ sewage treatment process before discharge in drains—are possible solutions for this issue. I hope the project has included this, and other contemporary technological processes and equipment, as an integral part of itself. Agreements with countries, especially those which have invested a good deal of research time in related fields, can be of much help.
Moreover, a systematic and comprehensive Information Education and Communication (IEC) campaign is desperately required. Our country has run many such successful campaigns for tiger conservation, HIV/AIDS and Polio awareness. For Namami Gange, these campaigns could be run by professional organisations or even by PSUs. Take for example the burning ghats along the Ganga. Throwing half burnt bodies in the river has become a norm. A relentless IEC campaign could help develop electric crematoriums, which will go a long way in solving the river pollution problem. Currently, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of buy-in for these new age crematoriums. This does have socio-political hues and probably the reason why politicians avoid taking up this issue. Which is exactly why a structured IEC can go a long way in this regard.
I’m sure the solutions offered by me (and many others) have been discussed and deliberated by the programme teams already, as well as many more solutions offered by Indian and international experts. However, I think that, considering the situation right now, the need of the hour is a concerted, planned, monitored programme with full support, involvement and assistance provided by the various government stakeholders.
I am sure that the agencies involved will not shatter the hopes of the people of India!