The Clean Ganga or Namami Gange programme is, as the name suggests, a massive, central government-led initiative for the holiest of all holy rivers in India. One of the flagship programmes of the BJP government (even if it’s a continuation of previous efforts), this ‘integrated conservation mission’ was approved in June 2014 with a budget outlay of Rs 20,000 crore.

The stated objectives of this programme are:

  1. to ensure effective abatement of pollution and rejuvenation of the river Ganga by adopting a river-basin approach to promote inter-sectoral coordination for comprehensive planning and management, and
  2. to maintain minimum ecological flows in the river Ganga with the aim of ensuring water quality and environmentally sustainable development.

The long-winded statements essentially mean that pollution reduction and rejuvenation of the river are the twin goals. Till July 2016, an estimated Rs 2,958 crores ($460 million) was spent in various efforts to clean up the river. The Vision Ganga report explains the mission, challenges and plan for this programme.

History and current structure

The Ganga Action Plan was first launched on 14 January 1986 by the late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, with the main objectives of pollution abatement and improvement of water quality. After reviewing its effectiveness, the Mission Clean Ganga project was announced on 31 December 2009, with the stated aim that by 2020 no municipal sewage and industrial waste would be released in the river without treatment. Subsequently, the Rs 7,000-crore National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), chaired by the then prime minister, was established. In 2011, the World Bank sanctioned $1 billion towards the NGRBA and in 2012, the environment ministry commissioned a consortium of seven IITs to prepare a comprehensive River Basin Management Plan.

In 2014, the BJP government approved the Namami Gange programme, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was formed in 2016, and the NGRBA was duly dissolved. The National Council for Rejuvenation, Protection and Management of River Ganga (or National Ganga Council), constituted in 2016, is the supreme council that leads this mission and is chaired by the Prime Minister. The five-tier structure has an empowered task force (ETF) under the chairmanship of the union minister of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, the NMCG, and then state- and district-level committees. Eight states are covered under this programme, with the NMCG acting as the implementation arm.

NMCG has a two-tier management structure and comprises of a governing council and an executive committee. The latter has been authorised to give approvals for all proposals to make the 1,674 gram panchayats located by the river open defecation-free by 2022, at a cost of Rs 1,700 crore (central share).

Current status

NMCG has divided its implementation activities into three categories: entry-level activities that have immediate visible impact, medium-term activities to be implemented within a five- year time frame, and long-term projects to be implemented within 10 years.

The main activities taken up by the Namami Gange programme are:

  1. Sewerage-treatment capacity: 63 sewerage management projects are under implementation currently and 12 new projects have been launched.
  2. River-front development: 28 river-front development projects and 33 entry-level projects for construction, modernisation and renovation of 182 ghats and 118 crematoria have been initiated.
  3. River-surface cleaning: Collection of floating solid waste and its disposal are going on at 11 locations.
  4. Biodiversity conservation: Several such projects have been launched, such as fish and fishery conservation, Ganges river dolphin conservation education programme, five biodiversity centres, etc.
  5. Afforestation: Forestry interventions have been initiated for a period of 5 years (2016–2021) at a cost of Rs 2,300 crore.
  6. Industrial-effluent monitoring: Real-time effluent monitoring stations (EMS) have been installed in 572 out of 760 grossly polluting industries (GPIs).
  7. Ganga Gram: 1,674 gram panchayats situated on the river bank in five states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal) have been identified and Rs 578 crore released to ministry of drinking water and sanitation (MoDWS) for construction of toilets in these locations. 853,397 toilets have been constructed out of the targeted 1,527,105 units. (Data as of June 2018 from the NMCG portal)

The Ganga river basin plan, which spells out the long-term vision, involves the adoption of 65 villages by 13 IITs to be developed as model villages. UNDP is the executing agency for the rural sanitation programme and will develop Jharkhand as a model state at an estimated cost of Rs 127 crore.

The Union Cabinet gave its approval for setting up of the Clean Ganga Fund in September 2014 with the objective of using this fund for cleaning of the Ganga and various allied activities under the Namami Gange programme, including setting up waste-treatment plants, conservation of biotic diversity of the river, development of public amenities, ghat redevelopment, and R&D. This fund, managed by a trust headed by the finance minister, was set up to attract private, voluntary contributions from Indian residents and NRIs/PIOs. Similar to the Swachh Bharat Kosh, domestic donations to the fund are eligible for tax benefits. In 2014, the CSR Act was amended to include this programme in the list of permissible CSR activities.

The Clean Ganga website openly solicits participation from individuals, corporates and institutions in the Namami Gange programme by adopting ghats, piloting new technologies, conducting research, and creating awareness. Corporations also have the option of simply going to the NMCG website and selecting their desired CSR projects such as cleaning/construction of ghats, bio-remediation, developing model villages, awareness campaigns, river-surface cleaning, construction/modification of crematoria, solid-waste management, and tree planting. They may also devise their own project activities that can contribute towards the programme subject to NMCG approval. Detailed project proposals will be required.

How bad is the situation?

The main issues plaguing the Ganga are solid waste, untreated sewage, industrial waste, and rampant underground water withdrawals. NMCG’s own estimates suggest that more than three-quarters of the sewage generated in the towns and cities of the country’s northern plains flow untreated into the Ganges, all of which come out to about 4,800 million litres of sewage from 118 towns and cities every single day.

While industrial pollution accounts for about 20 per cent of the volume discharged into the river, its toxic and non-biodegradable nature has a disproportionately negative effect. The remaining 80 per cent of pollutants is from municipal sewage. Tanneries are also a major source of pollution – Kanpur alone had 402 registered tanneries in 2016. All of those discharge more than two-thirds of their waste into the river.

Then there are the bathing ghats, especially in Varanasi, which are some of the most polluted pockets of the Ganges. The faecal coliform count (a measure of water potability and suitability for consumption, it indicates that the water has been contaminated with the faecal material of humans or other animals) at Assi, the point where the Ganga enters Varanasi, is 60,000 but by the time it leaves the city, it goes up to 1.5 million. The two cremation grounds, Harish Chandra and Manikarnika ghats, dump 33,000 bodies, 300 tonnes of half-burnt bodies, and 16,000 tonnes of ash annually into the river.

And how worse can it get?

Despite the fanfare surrounding the programme and incentives, a 2017 CAG report was quite scathing in its assessment of the implementation, with special mention of the fact that less than a quarter of the funds earmarked for the project were spent in the previous two financial years. Out of the Rs 6,705 crore earmarked, NMCG spent only Rs 1,665.41 crore. Funds amounting to Rs 2,133.76 crore were lying with NMCG, Rs 422.13 crore with state programme management groups, and Rs 59.28 crore with executing agencies at the end of the financial year ending 2017. During the same period, the overall shortage of manpower ranged from 44 to 65 per cent—ironical in a country with high unemployment.

The report pointed out that lack of an action plan (despite the multiple studies, reports, and the IIT- authored river basin plan) led to non-utilisation of any amount from the Rs 198.14 crore in the Clean Ganga Fund, despite the many call to action to civil society by the government. Around the time of the report coming out, Nitin Gadkari, the minister for road transport and highways, shipping, water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, claimed that ‘we have a very good plan for Ganga and 20 tributaries of Ganga.’

Alarmingly, the auditor found multiple cases of excess construction of toilets and allotments of funds to same beneficiaries. Out of 46 sewage-treatment plants (STPs) and interception and diversion projects, there were delays in 26 projects costing Rs 2,710.14 crore. Monitoring the progress of cleaning work has been infrequent and cursory at best, with even the governing body, high-level task force and empowered task force failing to meet as per required frequency.

The findings should have been expected though – in February 2017, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) chided the government for wasting public money and ruled that ‘not a single drop of the Ganga has been cleaned so far.’

Plenty of other problems in implementation have been identified. Only 14 out of the 456 highly polluting tanneries in Uttar Pradesh (most of them in Kanpur) have been shut down. Of 182 ghats to be modernised, work has started in only 50, and of the 118 crematoria, 15 were being renovated as of 2017. Lack of coordination between the centre and state governments has been blamed for poor implementation, with even basic data like the number of major drains discharging pollutants being disputed. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) estimated the number at 30, but the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board claimed a much higher number of 150.

This has resulted in the government being forced to change its target year for a clean Ganga to 2019, with Gadkari claiming that results (conveniently) won’t show until the end of the current government’s tenure. Uma Bharati had boldly stated during her tenure as water minister that the river would be clean by 2018. Earlier that year, Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat had claimed that the Ganga would be clean till Haridwar by 2020. PM Modi himself is said to have intervened in this sorry state of affairs, perhaps after finally waking up to the fact that cleaning up the Ganga was one of the major promises of his 2014 campaign. After all, he fought the elections and won from Varanasi.

Even then, the government has sought to freely disseminate misleading data about the progress of the work. For instance, while presenting the 2018–19 budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley claimed that 47 projects had been completed under the Namami Gange programme. But NMCG’s own November 2017 newsletter showed that only 18 projects had been completed out of the 95 sanctioned. Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana and Delhi earned the dubious distinction of not a having single project completed.

Despite assurances by government officials, numbers don’t lie. Till March of 2018, about a fifth of the Rs 20,000 crore allotted for the programme was used – this is around the same proportion of the sanctioned money utilised the same time in the previous year. Of the Rs 20,601 crore approved for 193 projects, only Rs 4,254 crore has actually been utilised, with 24 of 64 entry-level schemes implemented. Currently, the capacity for sewage treatment is 4,000 MLD but only 1,000 MLD is functional. The total amount of sewage that goes into the river is 12,000 MLD from 11 states.

Clean Ganga: A pipe dream?

One can’t help but think: is cleaning the Ganga even possible? The Ganga is the longest river within India and while considered to be the holiest of all rivers, its treatment has been anything but pure (it is one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the world). The amount of sewage that goes into it is mindboggling and if the current status of the sewage-treatment plants is anything to go by, it will need a Herculean effort on the part of the centre and the state governments to bring down the pollution levels by a significant amount. Industrial pollution will need to be clamped down on and tanneries will have to install new systems to prevent unwanted discharges. All of these require new technology and techniques that have not yet been employed in the country, at least not on a large scale. Then there are the ghat and crematoria where hygienic standards will have to be enforced.

Cleaning a river also means maintaining it in that state; there’s no point achieving some semblance of success only to let it slide back into its former, polluted condition. Today, multiple dams and barrages strewn across the length of the river trap and divert the water while effluents and toxic substances continue to make their way to the river as it flows. Till Varanasi, there are 12 dams and reservoirs on its route, taking a heavy toll on the river. In fact, a 2010 study by the Ganga Lab and River Ecosystem Environment Management and Training Centre at BHU found that after the diversion at Narora, the river is totally bereft of the much-vaunted Ganga jal and only comprises surface water, drainage, and flow from other tributaries. Rejuvenation of the river will require these aspects to be taken into consideration.

And then the big question mark over the ability and commitment of the powers that be to actually do the needful to bring this gargantuan project to fruition. Coordinating among so many entities, states and stakeholders isn’t easy but right now there’s little to suggest that they are up to this task. It is fairly obvious that such a mammoth programme necessarily needs the buy-in and commitment from the various state governments if it is to be deemed even partially successful. Whether the appetite to make that happen exists is questionable.

While one is yet to see a comprehensive road map towards achieving a clean Ganga, shifting of goalposts and target dates have been frequent with the current government’s many officials committing the cardinal sin of over-promising and under-delivering. The CAG and NGT verdicts don’t inspire much confidence and with the 2019 elections looming ahead, one can expect more talk and little action. In the meantime, cleaning up the river seems destined to remain a dream.

Rejuvenating the Ganga (and the country’s many rivers) is a noble, essential task and deserves the nation’s attention and investment. Unfortunately, like with most of the government’s ambitious infrastructure programmes, this one too seems to be sliding down the slippery slope of poor planning, shoddy implementation, and inefficient management. And that is not fair to the nation, its people, and its precious resources. One hopes that a turnaround is round the corner but history and facts suggest that we shouldn’t get our hopes up.