Is Participative Governance the Answer to Cleaning the Ganga?

According to activist Himanshu Thakkar, merely transferring powers within the government won't be enough – power must be given to the people whose lives depend on the river.

New Delhi: The union cabinet, under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has approved the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016, giving the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) more powers to take action against polluting industries, which till now lay with only the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). However, experts believe a mere transfer or delegation of powers will not make a difference unless the process is made more participative, with the involvement of those whose lives and well-being directly depend on the river.

“Participatory management is the key. In the management of the whole water pollution issue and environment issues, there has to be presence of non-government people, particularly representatives of people whose lives depend on the river. If the river is cleaned or not, if the river flows or not, there are people whose livelihood depends on that. Today, the people who are there in the Ministry of Water Resources, the NMCG, the pollution control boards – their lives does not depend on whether the river is cleaned or not. They continue to get their salaries and promotions,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asian Network for Dams, Rivers and People.

The Centre’s decision, however, does not make any mention of such participative governance. The order has simply empowered the NMCG to function in an independent and accountable manner.

As per a government note on the issue, the order envisages the creation of a National Council for River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) as an authority with the prime minister as chairperson, in place of the existing National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) to look over pollution prevention and rejuvenation of the Ganga basin.

It also provides for setting up of an empowered task force chaired by the water minister to ensure that the ministries, departments and state governments have action plans and timelines for protection of the river, a mechanism for monitoring its implementation and one for ensuring that there is coordination among them for implementing the plan in a time-bound manner.

Under the order, the NMCG has also been declared an authority with powers to issue directions and also to exercise the powers under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. It would now comply with the decisions and directions of the National Ganga Council and implement the Ganga Basin Management Plan.

It has also been stated that the main purpose of the order was to “give more teeth to the NMCG” as that would “ensure proper co-ordination with the local bodies and compliance with the directions of NMCG for pollution abatement of the river Ganga”. NMCG will, however, act only when required action is not taken by CPCB, which would be required to act jointly with NMCG under the provisions of Act.

The order also lays special focus on maintaining “required ecological flows in the river Ganga with the aim of ensuring water quality and environmentally sustainable development”.

Terming the order, “a revolutionary step”, water resources minister Uma Bharti stated that it would empower the ministry to take action against polluters. She said her ministry had “got the Ganga but the CPCB had remained with the environment ministry” and this had impacted taking of action against the polluters.

“For the last one and a half years, we were asking for corresponding powers under the Environment Protection Act, 1986 to proceed against the polluters. And now it has been ordered that the NMCG as an authority will have powers under section 5 of the Act to proceed.”

The decision, she said, would greatly benefit the water resources ministry since there are 22 drains which discharge 90% of the load of industrial and sewage waste into the Ganga and the ministry has identified 11 priority town to curb this pollution.

The minister said the order had also delegated financial and administrative powers to NMCG to accelerate the process of project implementation for Ganga rejuvenation. She said for taking up fast track creation of sewerage treatment infrastructure in the Ganga basin, an innovative model based on hybrid annuity has also been approved. “This will ensure that the infrastructure created under the project is operational on a sustainable basis.”

However, her exuberance is not shared by Thakkar, who cautioned that like similar announcements of giving more powers to authorities and redesignating them, this one too may fade into oblivion.

“I think this decision has happened partly because Prime Minister Modi was putting pressure to make the Ganga authority more independent. But, grapevine has it, that there was a lot of resistance to the idea,” he said.

A history of failures

Pointing to the resistance from within which has plagued similar efforts to clean up rivers and water bodies in the past, Thakkar said: “If you look at the history of water pollution and environment protection and the functioning of the bureaucracy and the CPCP and state PCBs, there is no success story. It has been 42 years since the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act was enacted in 1974, but have you heard of any success story where the bureaucracy has really cleaned up any river or stream anywhere?”

And the reason for these repeated failures, he said, “is the way the bureaucracy and these organisations function, they way they are constituted. There is no transparency, there is no accountability, there is no participatory management. Now it is these things which need to be brought into the mechanism.”

Need for participative approach, transparency and accountability

Suggesting a bottom-up approach in the management of the pollution in the rivers and their flow, Thakkar said, “That doesn’t exist firstly. Along with that there have to be transparent functioning norms. Along with these two, there have to be some clearly defined norms that can lead to accountability. But if these elements are not there in the governance then the grant of powers, which were with somebody, to somebody else will not suffice. We also have to see if that other body is functioning in some other desired way. In this context, it is not, at least as of now.”

Recalling his meeting with a senior official of the NMCG last week, Thakkar said the interaction revealed that while the mission was working on the issues of pollution, the participatory management was just not there. “The official said we have MoUs with so many Nehru Yuva Kendras and gram sabhas and so on, so they can inform if they see some pollution. He said they have also put online monitors after identifying hundreds of polluting industries and they have put monitors wherever there are the outlets of water as also in the rivers to check pollution levels. These monitors feed information directly to the SPCBs, CPCB, Ministry of Environment, but also NMCG and the chief secretary. So the data is available to them online, instantaneously.”

Thakkar said when he asked the official if they also had any mechanism to check polluters when they don’t go by the normal route and pump the water straight into the acquifers, even though that is a criminal act, the latter had no answer. “He had no answer because while they have signed MoUs with gram sabhas and Nehru Yuva Kendras, these have not been given any role in the management of the pollution issue”.

The NMCG official, the rights activist said, also accepted that pollution control is not happening because the people who were supposed to be responsible are clearly hand-in-glove with the polluters. “Now how are you going to break this nexus, of which politicians and bureaucrats are a part. That nexus cannot be broken by technology or money or infrastructure, for that you need better governance norms.”

Faith in money, not people

While Modi had made big promises about cleaning the Ganga and other rivers while campaigning for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, the situation on the ground hardly shows any improvement.

Thakkar said while the new government “has a lot of faith in technology, in the building of infrastructure and money, they are throwing a lot of money at this – Rs 20,000 crores over five years – but they have zero faith in the people, in governance, in democratic governance.”

Elaborating on the issue, he said, “What they are missing is that they need to bring in independent governance, independent voices into the governance. They need people who have no axe to grind, who have an impeccable track record, those kind of people are required for governance. If you have these voices, it will bring participatory governance. And since these people are not going to be silent spectators, it will also bring in a great deal of transparency in the functioning.”

Further, Thakkar said, “as these people will also ask questions when things don’t happen the way they are supposed to happen, and hold people accountable when they are responsible, then it will also bring in accountability. So this is the way forward.”

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