The Telegraph
Friday , September 5 , 2014
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Ideas, and not funds, make or unmake big programmes. If successive governments’ plans to clean up the Ganga have yielded little, it has nothing to do with the shortage of funds. The Supreme Court’s directive to the Centre to come up with a realistic plan and not a ‘long-term bureaucratic approach’ to the cleaning up of the river makes much the same point. The apex court’s comments revive the memory of a long history of failure. In 1985, the Rajiv Gandhi government launched the Ganga Action Plan. After almost three decades, during which about Rs 20,000 crore was spent, the river today is perhaps even more polluted than it was at the start of the programme. Narendra Modi’s new government has not only made another promise but has also given it a new dimension by creating a ministry under Uma Bharti to look after the task. Mr Modi himself gave the agenda a special significance when he decided to contest the last Lok Sabha elections from Varanasi, the ‘holy city’ by India’s ‘holiest’ river. The importance of Varanasi in his scheme of things was underscored by it being designated the ‘sister city’ of Kyoto during his recent trip to Japan. If Varanasi is to become the ‘smart city’ that Mr Modi wants to make it, the beginning has to be made with the cleaning up of the Ganga.

However, the river and the city share a problem. They are both seen as ‘religious’ symbols, not just by the devout but also by official planners. That probably explains why officially-sponsored discussions on the clean-up of the Ganga have spiritual leaders sharing the platform with experts, bureaucrats and politicians. How the government and the people of a country deal with a religious symbol is a complicated matter. But that should have little to do with the very real problems of cleaning up a river or modernizing a city. Ridding the Ganga of pollution is a serious matter that would require realistic approaches to several related issues. This clearly is the burden of the Supreme Court’s directive to the government. Cleaning up a river involves setting up sewage treatment plans in cities and towns along its banks, removing polluting industries and enforcing environmental safeguards for urbanization schemes. Just as crucial is the necessity to arouse public awareness. A clean Ganga, not just in Varanasi but all along its course, is a big dream. But a bureaucratic approach can only kill it.