There can be nothing wrong with a serious programme to clean up the Ganga. But what was a little strange was the presence of spiritual leaders among academics, environmentalists, planners and politicians at the ‘Ganga Manthan’, the daylong discussion arranged by the Narendra Modi government on plans to make the Ganga clean and free-flowing. Freeing the Ganga of pollution has been on the agenda of successive governments, especially since the mid-1980s. Many crores of rupees later, there has been little noticeable improvement. Obviously the measures that the United Progressive Alliance governments have taken before this, including sewage treatment plants for big cities and identification of polluting industries, have not been enough. With the National Democratic Alliance government laying stress on cleaning up the Ganga, with a ministry under Uma Bharti to look after it, maybe the new plans will be tighter, more focused, better coordinated between the states and the Centre, and driven in a more cohesive way.
That is the hope, but this is where questions begin to pop up. The NDA government promises there will be no lack of funds for the project — the Union budget validated that — which is all to the good. But what is the Ganga being cleaned up for? The repetition of the phrase, “from Gangotri to Ganga Sagar”, causes the same discomfort as does the presence of spiritual leaders. Is the Ganga being cleaned up because it is ‘holy’ or for ecological and environmental reasons? If the latter, then certain decisions will have to be thought through. Free flow together with a gain in water resources can be achieved only if objective expertise is employed to plan it in detail, along with rigorous programmes of removing all polluting industries from the banks and building enough sewage treatment plants that can sift out nutrients, manure and water for reuse while making sure that not a drop of sewage gets in the river. Raising user consciousness would also be necessary. Will the river be used for travel? For tourism? Each requirement would have to be factored in and plans so made that the focus remains on a clean, free-flowing river. And why just the Ganga? There may be an unfortunate connection between holiness and pollution, but many of India’s other rivers are in a bad way too. How can they be rescued and water resources utilized to the fullest? A few more manthans would not be a bad thing.