Ganga revival in Varanasi: High on promises, low on action

Varanasi, Feb 1: Nearly nine months after the Narendra Modi government laid out an elaborate plan to revive the river Ganga here and clean up the ancient city, there appears a huge gap between his vision and visible reality even as environmentalists dub the entire plan as "over-ambitious".

In the prime minister's constituency, the local authorities have not yet woken up to Modi's vision for the beautification of the Ganga and the ghats (the steps leading to the river), which is why the problem remains intractable, said students from the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICA), who conducted a clean-up drive in the area.

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"The local authorities are not responsive to the Swachh Bharat call. There are very few bins. Where do we throw the garbage that we collect? There are no garbage collection vans either in the city," said 21-year-old Shubh Jindal, a participant in the Clean India drive near the Assi Ghat organised to generate awareness about keeping Varanasi clean.

"There is a gap between what Modiji said and what's being done on the ground. We are trying to motivate others," said another student.

While the locals remain upbeat and pin hopes on Modi for delivering his claims, experts seem little impressed with the moon that has been promised.

"It is a false plan developed by the government... I am not satisfied with the pollution control efforts so far because the government is ignoring the aviralta (continuous flow of water) aspect of cleaning the Ganga," Brahma Dutt Tripathi, professor of environmental engineering at the Benaras Hindu University (BHU), told IANS.

While it is important to stress on the problem of pollution, the focus must go beyond as the issue of the Ganga's resurgence is deeper than the contamination caused by floral waste, dead bodies and industrial effluents.

The issue of "nirmalta (clean water) vs avirlata" is at the core, said Tripathi, who is also a member of the National Ganges River Basin Authority (NGRBA).

Functioning under the water resources ministry, the NGRBA is the financing, planning, implementing, monitoring and coordinating authority for the Ganga.

"The Ganga is seriously suffering from the problem of reduced flow... due to construction of dams on the main stream and the Bhagirathi in Uattrakhand. When water is stored in dams, it leads to the problem of seepage, affecting the quantity of water (in the river)," Tripathi said.

The diversion of water for irrigation is another stress, he said. The healthy flow of water in the river is key to ensuring its self-cleansing potential, and "that's the main reason why we are not able to control pollution... Priority should be given to enhancing the flow of water and ensuring its continuous flow (aviralta). The clean water (nirmalta) aspect depends on that," the professor said.

Another case in point is the mismanagement of solid waste by the local authorities. The ghats being morphed into crematoriums only compounds the problem. Floral waste, plastic bags, coconuts, silt and other solid waste also dot the ghats.

"About 33,000 dead bodies are cremated on the Harish Chandra and Manikarnika. Moreover, about 3,000 dead bodies of humans and about 6,000 of animals are thrown into the Ganga in Varanasi every year," said Tripathi, who has been researching on the river since the 1970s.

Equally concerned, the Supreme Court asked the central government last month to spell out a time limit as no verifiable progress was evident despite the decades-old cleansing work.

The clarion call for reviving the Ganga, seen as a winning card for Modi from Varanasi, was at the core of the Bharatiya Janata Party's election manifesto for the April-May 2014 general elections. Under the public-private-partnership model, the Modi government set aside Rs. 80,000 crore for its plan for a "aviral aur nirmal (continuous and clean)" Ganga.

Also, the time frame committed to clean the 2,525-km river stretch from Gaumukh (Uttrakhand) to Ganga Sagar (West Bengal) cannot be accomplished within three years as promised by the government in its first phase of the action plan, say those who research the insidious factors responsible for a "dying Ganga".

Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar has assured the apex court that the government proposed to conclude the cleansing programme by 2018 and that municipalities and other authorities have been moved into action.

But BHU profressor A.S. Raghbanshi is not convinced. "If the government is saying 2018, it's not possible, at least in Varanasi. It's an over-ambitious plan," said Raghubanshi, who is director of BHU's Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development.

"The local authorities laid down the sewage line and almost 80 percent of that work is also over. But we are still struggling to get a sewage treatment plant (STP) established," Raghubanshi told IANS.

The local quantum of sewage, one of the primary pollutants, is 300 million litres a day (MLD). In contrast, the capacity of the current STPs in Dinapur and Bhagwanpur is about 90 MLD - when they work at full capacity.

Thus, about 200 MLD is still discharged untreated and "even if they start building STPs today, they would take about five years to complete," Raghubanshi said.

This would mean missing the claimed deadline of 2018.


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