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A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT

When former Indian Institute of Technology professor G.D. Agrawal, or Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand as he is now known, went on a fast unto death to protest against the pollution and the building of new hydel projects on the river Ganga earlier this year, he did not call it off until Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stepped in with his assurances.

Singh later chaired a meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), which is empowered with the planning, financing, monitoring and co-ordinating of projects related to the Ganga and its river basin. Singh is the ex-officio chairman of the NGRBA.

The largest river basin in India, the Ganga basin is home to around 40 per cent of the country’s population. Yet this lifeline of sorts is also polluted beyond belief. According to a Government of India report, about three billion litres of sewage is discharged into the Ganga daily.

Not content with the efforts of the government to clean up and manage the river, Agrawal and other prominent environment lawyers and activists are now calling for a “paradigm shift” to save the Ganga. They are demanding that a new law be adopted — the National River Ganga Ji (Conservation & Management) Act, 2012.

Prepared by a committee of experts under the banner of the Ganga Mahasabha, the draft law proposes that the river be given the status of a national symbol. “Once you declare it the National River of India, people violating its sanctity would be liable under the same laws as those applicable to the violation of other national symbols. Currently anybody polluting the Ganga goes scot-free,” says Govind Sharma, general secretary of the Varanasi-based Ganga Mahasabha.

The draft not only proposes to set up an overarching body called the National River Ganga Authority (NRGA) to look into the upkeep of the Ganga, but also draws up a list of “prohibited activities” along the river. These include the “discharge of any untreated or treated sewage or industrial effluents, disposal by any means, including incineration or burning of any kind of solid wastes (not including ritual cremations), setting up of industrial units of any type involving the disposal of any pollutants, solid, liquid or gaseous and quarrying.”

So far government-driven programmes to clean up the Ganga have focused on the entire Ganga basin, including its numerous tributaries.

The Ganga Mahasabha expert committee says that the NGRBA should be disbanded and the NRGA put in its place. “NGRBA has failed miserably to implement its plans as there is too much on its plate. Moreover, the moment you give local bodies in various states the funds and the responsibility to execute the plans laid out by NGRBA, they are bound to fail,” says M.C. Mehta, an environment activist and Supreme Court lawyer.

In fact, Mehta alleges that several state governments have misused funds meant for cleaning up the Ganga. “Some states used the money for their cities and towns rather than spend it on checking the flow of effluents and sewage into the basin,” he says.

Mehta may have a point. In 2000, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India made a scathing indictment of the states that were responsible for implementing the cleaning up of the Ganga. It accused agencies in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal of having diverted crores of rupees meant for the establishment, operation and maintenance of waste treatment plants to the construction of government buildings, purchase of vehicles, computers, Xerox machines and so on.

The salient feature of the draft law proposed by the Ganga Mahasabha is to set up the NRGA on the same lines as the Indian Railways. “We want the NRGA to be similar to the Indian Railways. It may pass through various states, but one central authority should have the say about all its functions,” says Paritosh Tyagi, former chairman, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and a member of the drafting committee.

The NRGA would designate buffer zones all along the river which would be closely monitored for any waste disposal, and the tributaries that flow into Ganga would also be strictly monitored, although they wouldn’t be under the direct control of the authority.

“As the former chairman of the CPCB I saw the implementation of various programmes on the Ganga and other rivers from very close quarters. I am convinced that whatever has been done in the name of saving rivers has failed so far,” says Tyagi.

Indeed, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has not covered itself in glory insofar as cleaning up the Ganga is concerned. In 1985, it launched an ambitious programme called the Ganga Action Plan. But even after thousands of crores of rupees were spent on the programme — estimates put it at Rs 20,000 crore — the results have been minimal. The government now says that a further Rs 15,000 crore may have to be spent in the coming years to clean up the river basin by 2020. The World Bank too has pledged a loan of around $1 billion for the NGRBA project.

However, if the government’s efforts have been flawed, the Ganga Mahasabha draft law too has its detractors. Government officials say that it is too narrow and is “unimplementable” on the ground. “More than 60 per cent of the effluents flow into the Ganga from the tributaries. What these people are suggesting is not holistic. There is no model anywhere in the world similar to what these people are suggesting,” says an official of the MoEF.

Others oppose the move on the ground that it is unrealistic. “The government-led bodies have done enough damage by stopping development work such as hydel projects on the Ganga because of pressure from the group that is suggesting these measures. I am not sure if these have a scientific basis,” says Avadesh Kaushal, founder and chairperson, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun.

Sharma counters: “There may not be any other model, but even the government has achieved little following the tried and tested model. Let us think out of the box.” According to Sharma, the drafting committee, headed by Justice Giridhar Malviya, former chief justice of the Allahabad High Court, consulted technical experts to frame the bill.

But there are features in the draft law that have evoked ridicule from several quarters. For example, it proposes a “prominent Ganga Bhakta Saint nominated by the Prime Minister” to be the co-chairperson of the NRGA, with the Prime Minister as ex-officio chairperson.

Some say this proposal is a complete non-starter. “It looks like the proposal of the Hindu Taliban. What we need are experts,” says Kaushal.

But the Ganga Mahasabha is in no mood to give up its initiative. After a recent meeting in Delhi, it is now planning to approach all political parties with its draft law. Agrawal has also threatened to take to the streets if the draft is not taken up for discussion by the government. “We are not making unreasonable demands. All we want is a clean Ganga that every Indian can be proud of,” says Tyagi.

Clearly, Agrawal and company have opened yet another chapter in the murky history of the clean-up of a mighty — and mightily polluted — river.