Ganga not an electoral issue in Uttarakhand this time - Hindustan Times

Ganga not an electoral issue in Uttarakhand this time

Apr 20, 2024 09:27 AM IST

Cleaning the Ganga has been a political issue for decades. Leaders cutting across the political spectrum had promised to clean the river

On the left bank of ‘Har Ki Paudi’ in Haridwar, Uttarakhand tourism minister Satpal Maharaj organised a two-day ‘Sadbhavna Sammelan’. Thousands of people assembled for conclave on April 13 and 14, when Maharaj spoke on spirituality and importance of the Ganga for Hindus. On Saturday evening, many who attended the function bathed in the river flowing with plastic, flowers and debris.

Devotees gather at 'Har Ki Paudi' to take a holy dip in the Ganges River in Haridwar. (PTI File Photo)
Devotees gather at 'Har Ki Paudi' to take a holy dip in the Ganges River in Haridwar. (PTI File Photo)

A man standing on the banks, who identified himself as Satinder Singh from Hoshiarpur in Punjab, was unwilling to take a dip. “See, the Ganga is so dirty,” he said, while picking up a plastic packet from the river. A regular visitor to Haridwar, Singh said he has not seen any visible improvement in Ganga’s water quality in the past many years.

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Unlike the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls, pollution in the Ganga is not a big poll issue in Uttarakhand, where the river originates at Gangotri glacier in Uttarkashi district’s Gaumukh. It was in Uttarakhand in 2014 that Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised to clean one of the world’s dirtiest river. In 2015, the central government launched the Namami Gange scheme to clean the river by 2020 at a cost of over 30,000 crore .

On February 13, 2024, Union minister of state for Jal Shakti (water resources), Vishweshwar Tudu, told Parliament the Namami Gange scheme, a diverse set of interventions to clean and rejuvenate the river, has reduced the “pollution load” in the river. Since 2014, the Centre had taken up 409 projects with a budget outlay of 32,912.4 crore to clean up the river, he said. the ministry said the polluted river stretches were being rejuvenated through approved action plans to achieve the target of outdoor bathing criteria as notified by the environment ministry.

“The river is as polluted as it was before the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party ) came to power,” said Swami Shivanand Saraswati, head of Matre Sadan, an ashram on the banks of the Ganga in Haridwar, which has been fighting for a clean Ganga since 1986.

Former IIT professor G D Agarwal, who died in October 2018 while on a fast for over 112 days to protect the Ganga from mining and pollution, was a member of ashram. In 2011, Swami Njgmanand had died on the 115th day of his fast on the same issue. Saraswati said the ashram had fought a long battle to save the Ganga, but no political party wanted to take firm action on river cleaning and prohibit mining in the river.

What anguishes him is despite sacrifices made by Matre Sadan members was that the river was not an electoral issue for the people. “People have faith in Ganga but will not vote for its health. Beautification of river ghats with concrete is not cleaning the river,” he said, holding both the Congress and BJP responsible for the decay of the country’s most sacred river.

Cleaning the Ganga has been a poll plank for the BJP, said Sunil Sharma, a journalist based in Haridwar. “The BJP had promised ‘nirmal and aviral dhara’ (clean and free flowing) Ganga. Both has not happened,” he said. An expert committee on Ganga set up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2010 had recommended 50% ecological flow of river water for natural cleansing and supporting aquatic life.

Flowing for over 2,600 km across northern and eastern India, the Ganga is considered a goddess and a focus of religious devotion for Hindus. The river is source of drinking water for more than 40% of India’s 1.4 billion population living in the Gangetic river basin spread across six states and a union territory between Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

Around three million litres of sewage is emptied into the Ganga everyday and only about half of that is treated, according to Jal Shakti ministry data. Apart from sewage, untreated waste from tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills and even hospitals is dumped into the river. In the holy city of Varanasi alone, it is estimated that 4,000 bodies are burnt on the banks of the river everyday. Money was being provided to municipalities to install incinerators for cremation of bodies along the river, a government official aware of the development said, declining to be named.

Dams in Uttarakhand blocks the river flow, turning the river into a stream at several places during the summer months. The hydropower projects in the state are mostly run of the river (ROR), except the Tehri Dam Project, which is a storage project for hydropower development and augments the non-monsoon river flows, an Uttarakhand government official said, seeking anonymity.

Cleaning the Ganga has been a political issue for decades. Leaders cutting across the political spectrum had promised to clean the river. After winning 2014 general election, Modi had said, “Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt and she has chosen me for the job.”

Despite spending crores, the faecal coliform in the river was above the permissible level at 70% of the locations in January 2023, according to the Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) testing of samples of 59 of the 97 water quality monitoring stations along the river. Faecal coliform is a group of bacteria found in the gut and faeces of warm-blooded animals and its contamination indicates presence of human faecal matter. Its permissible limit 2,500 MPN (most probable number) per 100 millilitres, while the desirable level is 500 MPN. Its high presence shows that untreated sewage is being discharged into the river.

The CPCB water quality data dashboard for Ganga in February showed that the river water was fit for drinking at Rishikesh “after disinfection”. However, at Har-Ki-Paudi in Haridwar, CPCB data showed the water was unfit for drinking without treatment, like at majority of other monitoring stations downstream.

However, at Rishikesh and Har-Ki-Paudi, the CPCB claimed the water is fit for bathing. Clearly, the CPCB data showed quality of water deteriorates downstream of Haridwar as industrial effluents are discharged into the river.

On Saturday in Haridwar, former Uttarakhand chief minister and BJP candidate Trivendra Singh Rawat claimed that the Ganga water was fit for drinking directly from the river in Haridwar. “We had committed that one would be able to drink water directly from Ganga. We have fulfilled that promise,” he said in Haridwar during his election campaign.

Rawat claimed that the quality of Ganga water has improved since Modi has taken over and it would take some time to clean the entire river. “Cleaning the Ganga was our promise and we have delivered on it,” he said.

Saraswati disagreed with him. “In 1986, when I started the ashram, I used to bathe in the Ganga. Now, I get skin infection if I bathe, leave alone drinking,” he said.

Singh, the pilgrim who attended the conclave in April, said he did not understand the data on the quality of Ganga water. “To me, Ganga does not look like a clean river.”

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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