What's Ailing the Ganga?

Let us not give up on cleaning the Ganga, however skeptical one may be of the record of previous clean-ups starting from Rajiv Gandhi’s time – and we need only take two simple steps.

When G. D. Agarwal, a well-known crusader for the Ganga who embraced religious sentiments in his quest for saving the river, died after a prolonged fast, it brought a crucial question to the fore, one that the journalist Victor Mallet had asked in his 2017 book: how can the Ganga be worshiped by so many Indians and simultaneously abused by the same people? The irony of simultaneous acts of worship and defilement of an object considered holy by millions is stupendous. However, there is no denying that in a traditional society like India’s, the question of a religiously motivated cleanup is of great practical importance, and the Ganga has a special significance for a Hindu as a life-giving force and as a soul-purifying medium.

It is possible that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an invocation to Ma Ganga when he declared his mission to clean the river up, he expected to receive the support of devout Hindus. But interestingly, it was similarly devout Hindus that formed the frontline to protest an anti-pollution ruling by the Allahabad high court; it banned immersion of idols in the river.

Overt religiosity has multiplied the quantity of idols and offerings dumped in the river over the years, generating even more toxic waste in the waterbody. Despite the civilisational attachment to the river goddess, Indians have now ended up dirtying its waters, finding themselves almost at a point of no return. The Ganga, which Jawaharlal Nehru in his will called ‘a hope and symbol of India’, has now lost so much of its vigour and purpose, thanks to the dams located up-steam, unremitting pollution from industries lined up on its banks and untreated sewage, together with natural factors.

Need to maintain minimum flow

The natural cycles upon which the Indian civilisation is predicated are changing as a result of climbing of greenhouse gas emissions. The Himalaya – the source of the Ganga – is also drying up. More than scientific reports, assessments from climbers, guides and naturalists who have scaled peaks of the range repeatedly make the prognosis more convincing. Some of the glaciers are receding fast. Some scientists have also flagged the retreat of glaciers in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. Gangotri, a district in north Uttarakhand used to report four feet of snow in winter; now, it has reportedly declined to one and a half feet.

Also read: Forget Countdowns – Climate Catastrophe Has Started in the High Mountains of Asia

The melting of the Himalayan glaciers is impacting flows that convert the river into stagnant ponds, interspersed with massive seasonal flooding.

Tehri dam in Uttarakhand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Tehri dam in Uttarakhand straddles the Bhagirathi river, a part of the Ganga. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Government of India recently issued a notification declaring stipulations for environmental (e-) flow. It stated: “The compliance of minimum environmental flow is applicable to all existing, under-construction and future projects and the existing projects which currently do not meet the norms will have to ensure that the desired environmental flow norms are complied with within a period of three years.”

However, this will be a very difficult task, and is one major reason why environmentalists like Agarwal are against the construction of dams far upstream in the Himalaya, which they fear will reduce the downstream flow. Diverting water through the Ganga canal near Roorkee (constructed in the 1870s) and the post-independent Narora barrage further downstream also have strong adverse impacts on the general availability of water at major religious centres on the Gangetic plains. Interestingly, at the Narora barrage, some 90% of the water is diverted inland and only a tenth or so is allowed to flow downstream. So much for ‘surplus water’ in the Ganga to be diverted to southern rivers in the inter-linking project!

Lack of monitoring

As we come down to the plains, the issues are mostly related to pollution. It doesn’t suffice to simply install the proper effluent monitoring systems at the identified locations but to also constantly monitor them to make sure they are working efficiently. We need to move fast enough to establish green technology in the urban centres, including cities like Varanasi that include sewage and waste treatment plants. Such alternative technologies also promise employment opportunities.

Like the tanneries of Kanpur, other sources of toxic waste are cropping up along the banks of the Ganga. Soil sampled from the banks of the Ramganga revealed, upon analyses, very high levels of heavy metals. This simply reflects how the application of environmental laws within the river basin is notoriously lax. Like so many sprawling towns across the Ganga basin, such places emit strong, unpleasant odours from untreated garbage and pollutants.

As we once passed these locales en route to Delhi, a travel companion from Australia said in jest that the general happiness index drops several notches, sometimes dipping into the negative regime. Carcinogenic industrial chemicals and pesticides and sewage from factories, farms and nearby towns find their way into the food chain. In the lower reaches of the Ganga, there is a massive accumulation of arsenic due to natural sedimentation from waters impacted by unnatural groundwater extraction, which experts have called ‘the biggest case of mass poisoning in history’. For example, despite declarations from the concerned ministries, Kanpur’s tanneries have not been upgraded to current generation waste management systems capable of stoppering their toxic wastes.

Also read: How Did Arsenic Get Into Bengal’s Groundwater?

Thus, it is no surprise that the faecal coliform bacterial counts from many locations along the river are way higher than the recommended limit. This is because most drains in cities flush their waste directly into the river despite having spent crores of rupees. The biggest task is to improve basic sanitation in population centres in the river plains and build treatment plants to clean the waste that now flow unchecked into water systems. More fundamentally, we need to address uncontrolled population growth and thus the increased pressure on the rivers. The government should be proactive in addressing this important issue – most relevant in the over-crowded and resource-depleted states of the Ganga catchment area.

A grave water crisis is enveloping India thanks to the depletion of surface and ground-water, compounded by factors like increase in temperature, melting of glaciers and population growth. But it is also rooted in human greed and carelessness, disregard of conservation practices, unsustainable agriculture methodologies and the manner in which rivers are being misused, including unsustainable religious practices followed in the hope of pleasing the gods. Our misplaced belief in engineering techniques originated in Europe of the 19th and 20th centuries as a solution to an Indian problem can be seen in the enthusiasm with which the national river-linking project was relaunched. China is making the same mistake: of building super-dams and creating severe water shortages downstream, but we take umbrage at their attempts to build a dam across the Brahmaputra in the headwater region.

Let us not give up on cleaning the Ganga, however skeptical one may be of the record of previous clean-ups starting from Rajiv Gandhi’s time. And we need only take two simple steps: stop pollutants from entering the river and ensure minimum flow. To realise this, we need a highly goal-oriented implementation mechanism. The Ganga is supports one third of humanity and the success of its rejuvenation program will determine the future of India. But this lifeline is now in its death throes. This is what G.D. Agarwal wanted to tell us through his activism, and he had to give up his life to send that message strong and clear.

C.P. Rajendran is a professor of geodynamics at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru.