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Sunday, 07 July 2024 | BKP SINHA and DR ARVIND K JHA


Rapid growth in human population and unchecked development have scarred the sacred river Ganga. Coupled with inflow of massive amount of pollutants, the river’s natural ability to cleanse itself is compromised, say BKP SINHA and DR ARVIND K JHA

The Ganga River, also known as the Ganges, is the longest river in India with the most populated basin, the home to 600 million people. Originating from the Gangotri glacier in Uttarakhand, it embarks on a journey of 2,525 kilometers, meandering through five states -

Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal before it merges with the

Bay of Bengal. It nourishes a variety of life forms, provides livelihoods to people, and contributes to country’s economy, trade, and commerce. The Ganga basin, spanning an area of 10.16 lakh square kilometers, contributes around 40% of the country’s GDP.

As per Hindu mythology, the river is believed to have descended from heaven when King Bhagiratha performed intense austerities for the river to descend to Earth. Considering river’s immense force, Lord Shiva received the celestial river in his matted locks releasing it in a controlled flow. The Ganga is revered as a goddess; its journey symbolizes purity, life, and redemption; and its water is believed to wash away sins and facilitate Moksha, the liberation from the cycle of life and death. The Ganga itself, however, is under severe threat today.

The rapid growth in human population and unchecked development have degraded its catchments. With obstruction and diversion of its flow coupled with inflow of massive amount of pollutants from industrial, human, and agricultural sources, its natural ability to cleanse itself is compromised. The polluted water in the changed flow regime poses serious threat to humans and river’s own biodiversity alike. While the future of 140 fish species and 90 amphibian species is threatened, Gharial and endangered Ganges River dolphin respectively are classified by IUCN as critically endangered and endangered. Severity of the issue that impacts the life, health and livelihoods of people and even undermines the

cultural and spiritual significance of the Ganga deserves to be realized in its entirety and tackled with promptitude.

Efforts have been made to clean and preserve the Ganga. During the late 1980s the Ganga Action Plan was implemented. This initiative led primarily to the construction of wastewater treatment facilities at selected places in addition to the closure of a number of polluting industrial plants along the river. In 2008, the Ganga was declared as the national river of India. Subsequently, in 2014, the Government of India initiated the Namami Gange project that aimed to rejuvenate and protect the Ganga River by addressing pollution sources and promoting sustainable practices for improving its biological richness. The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), popularly known as the Namami Gange Mission, was billed as a “scientific programme” by the Indian government that aimed to clean the river using advanced technologies at a project cost of INR 20,000 crores with the dual objectives of effective abatement of pollution and conservation and rejuvenation of the Ganga River.

The Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation (MWRRDGJ) issued a notification on 7th October 2016, defining the River Ganga to include the entire length of six head-streams in the State of Uttarakhand, namely, Rivers Alakananda, Dhauli Ganga, Nandakini, Pinder, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, as well as the main stem of the river up to Ganga Sagar, including all its tributaries up to Ganga Sagar.

The establishment of sewage treatment plants and sewerage networks with a primary focus on bioremediation figured predominantly in the Namami Gange project and accounted for

about 80 percent of the overall project outlay. On the conservation and rejuvenation front, the Detailed Project Report (DPR) prepared in 2016 by Forest Research Institute, ICFRE, Dehra Dun had a projected outlay of Rs. 2,293.73 crores. Investments were planned to begin from 2016-17 itself. The five-year plan considers riparian corridors, nature of channel morphology, and the dynamics of the river. A unique geographical area of 83,946 km² delineated as ‘Ganga riverscape’ along the Ganga has been identified for planning, assessment, and implementation of measures that include activities like reforestation or afforestation, managing vegetation to prevent soil erosion, and creating buffer zones to protect the river from pollutants.

Further, the Wildlife Institute of India prepared the ‘Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation’ plan with focus on development of local level ‘Ganga Prahari’ volunteers for playing a crucial role in conserving the ecological integrity of the Ganga and reducing the direct dependency of locals on the river. The projects of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) and the Uttar Pradesh State Forest Department targeted science-based aquatic species restoration.

The website of Namami Gange contains information on the progress of implementation till 2020 only. The recent audit report of the project by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, however, has noted deficiencies on various fronts viz. planning, financial management implementation and monitoring, and delays in achievement of milestones under the programme.

The current scenario warrants improvement not only on the above aspects but also introduction of innovative and effective approach. In this context, one can draw inspiration from an ancient text by Sage Kashyapa on agriculture. He outlined five principles for water resources development.

The first principle, Udhgamsthana, suggests that conservation should commence at the river’s source. This includes construction of temples for protection, management of upper catchments, and redirecting streams and rivulets to enrich river’s source. The second principle, Nyunatam Gati-avarodh, advocates for minimal disruption to the natural flows of water and air to maintain the hydrological cycle. The third principle, Golden Mean or Suvarna Madhya, emphasizes that water structures should prioritize “appropriateness” over “maximum” capacity indicating sustainable and responsible use of water resources. The fourth principle acknowledges the interdependence of natural resources like land, water, forest, and fauna suggesting integration of sacred groves, tanks, and bunds at key points to distribute water usage. The fifth and final principle, Sahabagh, Swabhava, and Sanskara, emphasizes the need for community participation that takes care of the needs of all stakeholders.

The concept of Rejuvenation defined as ‘restoring a living entity to a previously agreed state of health and wellness’ is most relevant in the context of the Ganga. Given the definition of Ganga by the MWRRDGJ, it’s high time that the rejuvenation approach for Ganga targets the entire riverscape in an integrated manner while drawing and utilizing funds from all concerned departments.

All the tributaries require treatment to ensure they remain clean and flowing and contribute to the flow of the Ganga. In order to foster larger community engagement in the rejuvenation mission, catchment areas of tributaries can be named after revered personalities or temples at their origin, followed by the suffix ‘Namami Gange Van’. For instance, the catchment of Ramganga, originating from the Doodhatoli ranges of Pauri in Uttarakhand, could be named ‘Veer Chandra Singh Gadwali: Namami Gange Van’. Similarly, as the Ghagra river converges with the Ganga after the confluence of Mahakali (Sharda) at Tanakpur housing the Purnagiri temple, the catchment could be named ‘Purnagiri: Namami Gange Van’. Likewise, the catchments of Gomati in Pilibhit could be named Vashishtha, that of Sai river meeting Gomti in Parsai village (Hardoi) as Adi-Ganga, that of Saryu and lower Ghagra as Ram, and those of Gandak, Kosi, and Budhi Gandak as Valmiki, Kausika, and Champakaranya respectively. The origin of Ganga’s tributary, the Sone River at Amarkantak could bear the name Sone, the catchment of Punpun river originating in Jharkhand as Punpun, and the Namami Gange Van of Damodar, Mayurakshi, Ajay, Bansloi, and Ghumani could respectively be prefixed with the names Sarhul, Trikut, Ajay, Venu, and Rajmahal. Restoration of suitable forest cover, construction of water conservation structures, keeping

river beds encroachment-free, prevention of water diversion, and curbing exploitative livelihood systems near the banks shall have to be prioritized in these areas as in the main stream of the Ganga.

The overarching strategy for rejuvenation must combine pollution prevention through stricter regulations and rigorous implementation in order to transform Ganga’s biological profile making it ‘NIRMAL’ and the restoration of status of its stream to ‘AVIRAL’. In 2017, the Uttarakhand High Court declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as ‘legal persons’ with all corresponding rights of a living person. Considering it together with the concepts of spiritual ecology and earth stewardship, one should come up with innovative strategies in the Indian context.

Standing on its banks, one is left with a profound sense of awe and a lingering question—what will the next chapter in the Ganga’s story be? The narratives connected with religious, mythical, political, historical, and the emergent ecological aspects sketch collectively a nuanced and multifaceted complex image of this emblematic river. Once considered the purest of all rivers, it has become one of the most polluted in the world. Today the Ganga flows with the stories of Gods but has the scars of development. It’s high time we reciprocate to the Ganga what it has generously provided us for centuries - survival and sustenance.

(The writers are Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, UP and Maharashtra; views expressed are personal)

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