During the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been presented with an ‘image’ by media and officials at the Ministry of Jal Shakti. The image is of clean rivers, especially the Ganga, with credits given to the nationwide lockdown that PM Modi announced on 24 March and then extended it twice until 17 May. Some of these pictures, which have been widely shared on social media and family WhatsApp groups, are clearly photoshopped.
But while the photographs reaching Modi may not be entirely true, the PM does have a chance to put out the correct image of river Ganga, which he has been very vocal about, even making it a personal mission to clean the holy river.
First of all, PM Modi must stop trusting the images he is being shown. There is a difference between the Ganga river being clean and looking clean.
Consider this. A glass of water with four teaspoons of sugar will look the same as before but taste sweeter than a glass of water with a teaspoon of Rooh Afza, which will look completely different but won’t be as sweet. The same is happening with the Ganga too.
The contribution of domestic sewage in Ganga’s pollution is bigger than the darker and more visible industrial waste that is released into the river. During the lockdown, the amount of industrial effluents discharged into the river has declined by almost 90 per cent but the domestic sewage continues to pollute Ganga in the same manner as before.
That’s why the Ganga only looks clean. The water quality hasn’t improved.
It’s true that water flowing in the upper streams of the Ganga has become drinkable at some places; but the reason behind this is the temporary ban on the Char Dham Yatra. It has nothing to do with the industrial production being shut because there are not many industries on the hills anyway. The ashrams and dharamshalas along the Ganga are mostly vacant at the moment. This is the time for the Modi government to stop the sewage flowing out from these ashrams from being released directly into the Ganga.
Uniform data, shifting factories
PM Modi should next ask various government agencies to collaborate on research so that everyone has the same data. Currently, government agencies even differ on the number of drains discharging waste into the Ganga river. Having accurate and uniform data will help in drafting better and informed policies. During the lockdown, both National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) and Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) have been collecting samples. If they share their data with each other, then right action can be taken on the factors responsible for the river’s pollution.
One of the ways to change the image of the Ganga permanently is to shut down factories that discharge waste directly into the river. This will require political will. The lockdown has given the Modi government an opportunity to shift these factories elsewhere. Their share in the Ganga’s pollution may not be much, but these factories must be shifted from the sake of ‘Nirmal Ganga’. The workers employed in these factories can be provided temporary relief from the Namami Gange corpus. The project gives lakhs of rupees to factories just for the maintenance of skimmers, which have been non-operational for the past few months due to the lockdown. This budget can be better used to shift some factories and make their employees self-sufficient.
At present, even the hydroelectric power companies are not under much pressure. It is being estimated that the demand for electricity will continue to be low for some time. If the companies, which usually open the dam gates during the monsoon season, are asked to release the water now, there won’t be much technical and economic inconvenience, and the Ganga will be in a self-purification mode whose benefits will be seen long after the lockdown. Yes, the hydroelectric power companies can argue that they have to maintain a certain level of water in the catchment area to keep the turbines operating. However, as of now, electricity production is not at full capacity, so it won’t be right to wait until the onset of the monsoon season to open the dam gates.
When Prime Minister Modi had proposed a nine-minute blackout across the country, there were some apprehensions that power grids might fail due to sudden fall in electricity demand. At that time, some hydroelectric power companies in Uttarakhand had halted their turbines. Therefore, any reason to procrastinate from releasing water is nothing more than an excuse.
Last chance of achieving a true picture
Currently, industrial production across India is almost shut and this sector is exploring possibilities for itself in the Rs 20 lakh crore economic package. In the initial phases, industries will mostly focus on producing FMCG goods such as oil, soap to meet the immediate demand. This is the time when the Modi government can stop these companies from producing goods in small sachets. This is important because it’s largely the small packets of oil, soap, shampoo etc. that flow into the windpipes of the rivers, choking them. They are easily available at the ghats of river Ganga, which people use and throw in the river. The everyday number would be in lakhs.
If Prime Minister Modi sees the Ganga now, he will be able to spot fishes in its waters. Pollution and excessive fishing had meant there were very few fishes left in the Ganga. But the scene has reversed due to large scale ban on fishing. The Modi government can now ask fishing entities to use a fixed-size net so that fishes weighing less than half a kilogram are not caught in the net and the ecology of the Ganga remains intact. In the past, this measure had worked wonderfully in West Bengal in preserving Hilsa. In order to improve the economic situation of people involved in fishing, more attention can be paid to the swampy areas of Ganga-Saryu belt of Bihar to increase the number of fish, help recharge the ground water level and make the Ganga appear less sick during the summer.
The bureaucracy might not like these ideas because these suggestions do not require huge amount of funds. But this might be the last chance for Prime Minister Modi to ensure a true and permanent picture of Clean Ganga.
Abhay Mishra is an author and environmental expert. Views are personal.
This article has been translated from Hindi.