New Delhi: Former Ganga rejuvenation minister Uma Bharti was disappointed at the large amounts of money being spent on construction of river banks and crematoriums under the Namami Gange programme, documents accessed by The Wire show.
Nevertheless, the Narendra Modi government decided to allocate a huge sum for these projects under the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), according to the minutes of the meeting of the Empowered Task Force on River Ganga. A copy of the minutes was obtained by The Wire.
During an inspection, Bharti disapproved of the excessive amounts spent on the construction of crematoriums, particularly in Jharkhand.
The minutes of the second meeting of the task force, held on August 3, 2017, state, “Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Minister (Uma Bharti) said that she was extremely disappointed during her inspection visit in Jharkhand because a huge amount has been spent on the construction of crematoriums where locals do not have money to even purchase medicines.”
During this meeting, it also came to light that although the provision for the construction of cremation grounds under the Namami Gange programme was Rs 400 crore, more than Rs 1,150 crore was approved.
According to the minutes, “For several projects, the NOC was not issued for many reasons by the Forest Department, Irrigation Department, and local bodies. Even if the amount to be spent on construction of river banks and crematoriums is cut down, it will still be more than Rs 400 crore.”
Despite the disappointment expressed by Uma Bharti, the Modi government allocated more than Rs 400 crore for schemes related to river banks and cremation grounds.
On December 27, 2018, the minister of state for the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, Satyapal Singh told the Lok Sabha that around Rs 966 crore was allocated for schemes related to river banks and cremation grounds. Of this, Rs 204.39 crore was allocated to renovate 24 old ghats and cremation grounds and Rs 717.39 crore for 35 new ghats and crematoriums. Another Rs 43.87 crore was allocated for three projects to clean ghats.
However, Uma Bharti refused to comment on the matter. Speaking to The Wire, she said, “Since I am no longer the minister, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the matter.”
Activists also raise concern
Apart from Uma Bharti, several activists working towards the conservation of the Ganga have also expressed concern. According to social activist Rajendra Singh, popularly known as Jalpurush, the government is doling out millions of rupees to contractors under the pretext of rejuvenating the Ganga. The river will never get cleaned this way, he said.
Singh said, “The government has interrupted the flow of the river by constructing dams. It is causing the river to die. The river can only survive if can flow unhindered, not by constructing a riverfront and cremation grounds. In the garb of the Namami Gange project, the government is merely raking in the moolah and distributing it. It will not benefit the Ganga.”
The first meeting of the Empowered Task Force on River Ganga was held on February 8, 2017. It was presided over by Uma Bharti. The second meeting was on August 3, 2017. The task force has not met again till date. On September 3, a month after the second meeting, Bharti was removed as the Union minister for water resources.
The Centre launched the Namami Gange project in May 2015. To conserve the Ganga, the plans included treatment of sewage from cities, treatment of industrial pollution, river surface cleaning, rural sanitation, riverfront development, construction of river banks and cremation ghats, tree plantation and biodiversity conservation.
So far, 254 projects have been sanctioned under the programme at an estimated cost of Rs 24,672 crore. Till November 30, 2018, 131 projects of sewage treatment plants (105 on the Ganga and 26 on its tributaries) were sanctioned at a cost of Rs 19,772 crore. Of these, only 31 project have been completed.
Action against industries
In addition to opposing the large amounts of money allocated for construction of river banks, Uma Bharti also wanted stern action to be taken against industries polluting the Ganga. In the same meeting, Bharti said no industrial unit can release effluents into the river and said strict action should be taken against those who fail to comply.
Bharti added, “No industrial unit can release its waste in the river under the guise of providing employment because millions of others who fall sick due to it pay the price.”
It also came to light in the meeting that several states have not been provided adequate funds to carry out afforestation on the banks of the Ganga. A total of 16 afforestation projects have been approved under the Namami Gange, for which Rs 236.56 crore has been allocated.
Questions have also been raised on why money allocated under the project was not spent. During the task force’s meeting, the finance ministry’s representative expressed a concern that the rate of expenditure was not satisfactory and that it should be improved.
Council headed by PM hasn’t met once
Previously, The Wire reported that the National Ganga Council (NGC) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not met even once thus far. The NGC was formed in October 2016 to preserve, protect and manage the Ganga river waters. According to the regulations, the NGC is supposed to meet at least once every year.
While the Empowered Task Force on River Ganga has met only twice thus far, the regulations say it must meet every three months.
The fact that not a single meeting was convened despite concerns from both the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and the parliamentary committee headed by Murli Manohar Joshi raises questions about the Modi government’s commitment to clean the Ganga.
Translated from the Hindi original by Naushin Rehman.