New Delhi: There has not been even a single meeting of the National Ganga Council (NGC) headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi thus far, a Right to Information query filed by The Wire has revealed. According to the regulations, the NGC is supposed to meet at least once every year.
The NGC was formed in October 2016. Its purpose is to preserve, protect and manage the Ganga river waters. On October 7, 2016, a notification issued by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation stated that the NGC should hold one or more meetings every year, at its discretion.
However, information obtained from the National Clean Ganga Mission, an organisation under the water ministry, has revealed that more than two years since its formation, the NGC has not held a single meeting. The NGC is perhaps the largest committee overseeing work being done towards cleaning the Ganga.
With the formation of the NGC, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was dissolved. The functioning of the NGRBA was similar to the NGC, and the prime minister was the chairman of the NGRBA as well.
The NGRBA was formed after the Congress-led UPA government came to power in 2009. Its first meeting was held on October 5, 2009, under the chairmanship of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
From 2009 to 2012, there were three meetings of the NGRBA which Manmohan Singh presided over. After this, there were three meetings between 2014 and 2016, out of which two meetings were presided over by then water minister Uma Bharti. The March 26, 2015 meeting of the Authority was chaired by Modi.
Environmentalist Ravi Chopra, who has worked on Ganga cleanliness, said that this shows how much importance the prime minister gives to the river. “This is the final deciding body on the Ganga. It should have had at least two meetings in a year. If the prime minister is not able to convene even a single meeting, then the question arises if this is indeed a decisive body or just a copy.”
The water resources, river development and Ganga conservation minister is the vice-president of the NGC. Apart from this, the chief ministers of five states – Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, the Union environment minister, finance minister and urban development minister are its members.
In a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) audit report on the National Clean Ganga Mission (NMCG) released in December 2017, the government was reprimanded. The report highlighted the delay in river cleaning, installation of sewage treatment plants and construction of toilets in houses.
At the same time, the parliamentary estimates committee presided over by BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi expressed great disappointment in the government’s efforts regarding Ganga cleaning.
In response, the government had claimed that for cleaning the Ganga, the water ministry had prepared a five-level mechanism at the national, state and district levels. The NGC is the most prominent of these mechanisms. The fact that not a single meeting was convened despite concerns from both the CAG and the parliamentary committee raises questions about the Modi government’s seriousness about cleaning the Ganga.
In its report, the estates’ committee had said that pollution in the Ganga has been increasing rapidly for many years due to urbanisation, industrialisation and an increase in population. The river’s flow is hampered as water is diverted for irrigation, industrial purposes, drinking water and so on.
The committee further said, “Not only the mainstream of Ganga, but there is a huge shortage of sewage treatment (cleaning) capacity in the entire Ganga basin which passes through 11 states. On the mainstream of the Ganga, 7,301 million litres per day (MLD) sewage is created in five states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal), but facilities exist to treat only 2,126 MLD sewage.”
The estimates committee said that a sewage treatment plant is under construction to clear sewage up to 1,188 MLD. According to this, there is no arrangement for cleaning 3,987 MLD water every day, even after a sewage treatment plant is built.
Apart from this, the committee had said that seven IITs had jointly prepared the Ganga River Basin Management Plan, which states that in the 11 states, 12,051 MLD sewage is created daily, but only 5,717 MLD is treated. Given that, 6,334 MLD sewage falls into the river or other water resources without having been cleaned.
The parliamentary committee had said, “It is a matter of great concern that the Ganga has become one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world. Due to unchecked urbanisation, excessive hazardous waste and domestic sewage in the river, the cleanliness of the Ganges has suffered huge losses. Regarding the lack of effective coordination between the plurality of institutions and stakeholders at the Centre and state level, the committee suggests that a comprehensive and empowered authority should be created for cleaning the river.”
After this recommendation, the government formed the NGC. But since it hasn’t met, the government’s seriousness may be called into question.
A member of the disbanded NGRBA and social worker Rajendra Singh, known as Jalpurush, expressed disappointment and said that Modi is only showing off, and instead of saving the Ganga is only lying to the people of this country.
He said, “The Ganga river has a heart disease, but a dentist is treating it. The government has stopped the flow of the river by making a dam. The government is making ghats, a riverfront and waterways just anywhere. Under the Char Dham project, the entire Himalaya is being cut and deposited into the Ganga. This is a way to end the river’s life; the Ganga will never be cleaned.”
The Centre had approved the Namami Gange programme in May 2015 for the protection of the river. Under this, guidelines were created to clean the Ganga. This includes the treatment of sewage from the cities and industrial pollution, cleaning the river surface, rural sanitation, riverfront development, construction of ghats and cremation grounds, tree plantation and biodiversity conservation.
So far, a total of 254 projects have been approved for this programme, with an estimated cost of Rs 24,672 crore. Out of this, as of November 30, 2018, 131 (105 on the Ganga and 26 on tributaries) were sewage treatment projects at a cost of 19,772 crore. Only 31 of these projects had been completed.
For the rest of the Rs 4,930 crore, 123 projects have been allocated for riverfront development, constructing ghats and cremation grounds, cleaning the river surface, tree planting, rural cleaning, etc.
The Ganga projects launched by Modi have seen controversy before. The late environmentalist G.D. Agarwal had been writing letters to the prime minister, saying that the projects approved by the government for cleaning the Ganga are only benefitting the corporate sector and business houses.
Agrawal, who was on a hunger strike for 112 days, wrote three letters to Modi about the Ganga before he died. They all went unanswered.
Rajendra Singh said, “When we were in the NGBRA, our voice was always heard. If there were any problems, then the prime minister would call us and talk to us. But the prime minister of the day does not think it necessary to talk to experts. Now, nobody is consulting the people who speak genuinely for the Ganga. Thousands of rupees were distributed in the name of the Ganga, but the required work was not done.”
In October last year, The Wire had reported that the Ganga is not cleaner than before in any region, but in fact, has become more contaminated in many places in comparison to 2013. Between 2014 and June 2018, Rs 5,523 crore was released for cleaning the Ganga, out of which Rs 3,867 crore was spent.
Apart from this, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, has found in its study that of the 39 places that the Ganga passes through, the river was clean in only one region after the monsoon in 2018.
Following the instructions of the Supreme Court, the CPCB issued a report titled ‘Ganga River Biological Water Quality Assessment (2017-18)’ which stated that in 37 of the 41 places the Ganga passes through, water pollution was in the medium-severe category prior to the monsoon.