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UP Polls: Disappearing Water of the Ganges

“If waste is falling into the river, then you can plug drains or you can build sewage treatment plants to keep the pollution in check. But what if there is no water in the river?” questioned Siddharth Agrawal, an environmentalist.
UP Polls

Image for representational purpose. Credit: The Financial Express

After filing his nomination from Varanasi as the Lok Sabha election candidate in 2014, Narendra Modi, in a choked voice, had said, “Na mujhe kisi ne bheja hai, na main yahan aaya hoon… Mujhe to maa Ganga ne bulaya hai. (No one has sent me here, nor have I come on my own. It is mother Ganga who has called me.)”

While aspiring to become the prime minister, Modi had invoked the name of the Ganga, a river considered holy by Hindus. It was expected that after becoming the prime minister, Modi would do what is required to revive the river. And indeed, he did launch a project. But experts say, eight years after Modi became the prime minister, the result amounts to nothing. The continued pollution of the river is, no doubt, a grave issue. The graver problem, according to environmentalists, is that water has vanished from the river.

Siddharth Agrawal, 31, is a graduate from IIT, Kharagpur. His specialisation was in aerospace engineering, but he is now an environmentalist. In 2016, the Kolkata resident decided to trek along the whole length of the river Ganga, from Ganga Sagar in West Bengal, where the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal, to its point of origin, Gangotri in Uttarakhand. The river is 2,500 kilometres long and it took Agrawal six months to cover its length.

He found the river polluted at many places. But what struck him most was the absence of water in the riverbed – right from the foothills of the Himalayas to Bihar.

“Pollution of the Ganga is discussed widely; this issue is raised on many platforms and of course, pollution is an issue. But the bigger issue is lack of water in the river. The flow is missing,” said Siddharth.

“The river has been dammed at several places and the water is being diverted for domestic use in urban areas, irrigation and to power plants. A river can take care of its pollution if there is sufficient water. Unfortunately, even an adequate flow is absent in the river Ganga and that, according to me, is the biggest problem,” he added.

As the river Ganga rises from Gomukh, the first dam is just 60 kilometres downstream at Maneri. “The river is in its natural form only between Gomukh and Maneri. There are several dams along the flow after Maneri and after Haridwar, you will hardly find water in the river,” said Siddharth. “At Narora, you will come across a good flow because some rivers join Ganga around there. But after the Narora barrage, right up till Bihar, the river bed is almost dry.”

The river Yamuna peters out into Ganga at Allahabad; more rivers drain out into the Ganga as she flows towards Bihar.

“It's finally at Bhagalpur that you finally see a mighty, swollen, sparkling, rippling Ganga – as she should be throughout her course,” said Siddharth.

He advised that rather than depending on river water, people should harvest rainwater and farmers should be encouraged to grow crops that require less water. 

“If waste is falling into the river, then you can plug drains or you can build sewage treatment plants to keep the pollution in check. But what if there is no water in the river?” questioned Agrawal.

The central government in 2014 launched the Namami Gange Project to clean the river. The primary aim of the project was to check flow of untreated human and industrial waste into the river. But environmentalists say the project has not delivered the desired results.

Ramji Tripathi, who runs a non-profit in Kanpur to clean the river, told NewsClick: “Successive governments launched projects to clean the river Ganga. But the end result is zero. The river is as polluted as it was, say, 40 years earlier.”

He also said the river was not fit for people to bathe in; drinking its water does not seem possible in the near future.

Tripathi set up the non-profit, Ma Ganga Pradushan Mukti Abhiyan Samiti, in 2003. “At that time, 21 drains spewed their untreated contents into Ganga in Kanpur. Now, 27 drains open into the river,” he said, alleging further that no government has made concerted efforts, but have just put in measures half-heartedly.

Environmentalist Saurabh Singh from Varanasi said, “Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, is on the banks of the Ganga. The prime minister represents the city in Parliament. Yogi Adityanath is the chief minister. Both campaigned in Varanasi for the ongoing elections and are leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party. But neither mentioned Ganga or her pollution in their speeches.”

Singh runs Inner Voice Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on the quality of water in the Gangetic belt. He was recently in Hyderabad to address a seminar on rivers that was jointly organised by the Indian Himalayan River Council and the Telangana government.

One of the parameters of testing the level of pollution in water is biochemical oxygen demand and it should not exceed three milligrams in a litre of water.

“Varanasi generates 450 million litres of sewage per day and of this, only 25% is treated. The rest 75% fall into the Ganga without having been treated. The BOD level in Ganga in Varanasi is more than 55 milligram at present. How can the government claim that the river Ganga is no longer polluted?” asked Singh. “The government now wants people to believe that the river has been cleaned and nothing more needs to be done.”  

He told NewsClick the government, having given an impression to the people that Ganga has been cleaned, now aims to commercialise the river for the benefit of a couple of corporate houses that have already acquired airports and are now eyeing the waterways.

According to him, the government was aiming to make the river navigable from Haldia in West Bengal to Delhi because some corporate houses wanted so.

Varanasi has 84 ghats and six have already been given to private bodies.

Singh said, “Now, in the name of reviving the river, ghats are being privatised and beautified; helipads and restaurants are being constructed on the banks. aAn expressway is being built along the river Ganga in Varanasi. All this despite the fact the water is still highly toxic. Is this how you revive a river?"

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh.

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