The last Sunday of September is observed as World Rivers Day.
It is not a coincidence that the Union government chose to rename the water resource ministry to the “Ministry of Jal Shakti” with divisions like the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.
The departmental groupings and name modifications each have their own importance, purpose, results, and effects. In fact, the ministry’s mission has been clarified by the new name, which also specifies that its primary goal going forward will be to analyse the value and power of water and will thus be administratively distinct from river management.
Another significant distinction is that the government has preserved the department’s name as the Department of River Development rather than renaming it as the River Basin Development. Here, the obvious goal is to draw attention to the fact that the development and preservation of the river herself is important and is, administratively, an independent activity.
In India, where rivers are revered and treated as religious entities, such understanding cannot be subject to surprise.
The religious significance of rivers in India goes back centuries – Hindu priests have bathed in rivers like Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati and offered prayers along their banks. Given their religious significance, it is difficult to imagine that today these rivers are losing their famed purity. The fact has been highlighted multiple times by the Central Pollution Board.
In July 2023, the board reported that 46% of Indian rivers are polluted. It has identified 311 polluted river stretches (PRS) on 279 different rivers in 28 different states and 8 union territories. The board confirmed that Ganga is the most polluted river among all the others. In January 2023, dangerous amounts of faecal coliform were recorded by at least 71% of the Ganga’s monitoring stations.
The United Nations concurs, listing Ganga as one of the world’s most contaminated rivers. The saddest part is that this is the case even though the Union government has promised to “work hard” to purify the Ganga through the ‘Namami Gange’ project, and even though the Union has, since 2014, taken on 409 projects with a budget outlay of Rs 32,912.40 crore to clean up the river, as the Jal Shakti ministry confirmed in February 2023.
The reports released by different institutions confirm that reality does not reflect the “priority commitment” made to Ganga Mata (mother Ganga). Open drains allow untreated sewage and other sorts of garbage to flow into the Ganga, turning the river crimson in some places and producing clouds of deadly foam floating on the river’s surface in others. This happens in spite of all the ministry’s efforts and pledges.
Corruption, excessive bureaucracy, and the union government’s inability to utilise the entire sum allocated for development initiatives are frequently cited as the key causes of the project’s ineffective performance. The argument is well-known, but curiously, the two most recent cases that the National Green Tribunal heard add to the narrative and reveal that the nature of the problem is more complex than it appears.
In a case titled Subhas Datta vs. State of West Bengal & Others it was revealed that the hotels and restaurants close to Howrah Railway Station were polluting the river Ganga with their liquid and solid waste. These constructions were allegedly illegal, according to the complaint. In another case, Manoj Kumar Rai vs. State of Uttar Pradesh, the tribunal named local governments as being in charge of the Ganga’s pollution.
The tribunal declared that the state administration failed to hold negligent personnel accountable for the misappropriation of public funds and for failing to avoid harm to the Ganga river. The tribunal has taken seriously the discharge of about 20 million litres/day (MLD) of untreated sewage into the Ganga by various parties.
These two cases demonstrate that a project’s failure is also because of the negligence of the private sector combined with the state administration’s failure. The two cases. and several more like them, show that in a federal structure, it is inappropriate to label every failure as that of the Union government. Additionally, it is difficult to identify individuals, groups and communities who contaminated the Ganga because Ganga’s waters flow through so many different states. Indeed, there are several parties responsible for the contamination of the river, and each has to be held accountable. However, regrettably, in India, politics is the sole lens used to observe and assess issues.
While it is true that industrialisation is the primary cause of pollution, it is also true that religious and cultural ideals have not effectively promoted the concept and practice of revitalising the Ganga. Religious sentiments appreciate and support the Ganga as a living entity, but in reality, things work the other way around.
There should be no hesitation in admitting that other than industrialisation, one of the reasons for its contamination is related to its religious significance – immature and obscene ceremonies performed in the name of religion contribute to the issue.
The project’s goals have not been met because the river’s water quality is constantly harmed by the immersion of idols and other religious objects during various festivals. Devotees, while commemorating Ganga’s sacredness, rarely follow the guidelines outlined as part of the action plan for reviving Ganga. It is absolutely necessary in this situation to reinterpret ritualistic practices in order to encourage each Indian to see beyond themselves and safeguard the river from contamination.
Seeking to preserve the Ganga just because of her importance and utility is a widespread practice, however, it merely exemplifies human selfishness which compromise the identity of the river. This, unfortunately, further implies that Ganga should endure till it is beneficial to people. It is time that we went beyond self-serving motives and act collectively to save our rivers.
Dr. Deepti Acharya is working as senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science, The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara and author of the Book Water and Public Polices in India, Routledge, New York and London, 2021.