India’s largest and most sacred river remains filthy this year on World Rivers Day, with activists citing little progress in ongoing efforts to clean the waterway up.
The cleaning of the Ganges has been a pet project of successive governments with little success. Experts say the latest mission to save the Ganges has failed to deliver on most of its promises.
“The biggest thing is that this government has got the entry of the private sector in the Ganges for the first time under the PPP (Public Private Partnership) model. Now the goal of saving the Ganges from pollution is not being fulfilled. But the river and the places surrounding it are being sold to the private sector and developed as tourism spots,” said Saurabh Singh from the Innnervoice Foundation, a group that works to restore polluted rivers.
Singh is fighting increasing pollution in the Ganges through his NGO in Banaras in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Initiatives to clean the Ganges started with the Ganga Action Plan in 1986 but the river has remained polluted and sluggish. There was new hope when the Namami Gange Mission, the national mission to clean the Ganges, was launched in June 2014 to accomplish twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of the river that had been reduced to a lethal concoction of noxious wastes, with tons of untreated toxic and non-biodegradable waste and effluents being dumped into it daily.
Top government officials at the Jal Shakti Ministry, formed in May 2019 with the merging of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation have yet to respond to Anadolu Agency's queries over the issue.
Singh said that the national mission was started so that the river water could be made potable. The Ganges is an object of faith for the people of India and not a commercial thing for them, he told Anadolu Agency.
“But, what the government is doing is that it is trying to beautify the places near the river so that people feel that the river is changing but in reality the pollution has not reduced,” he said.
"The government has sold six ghats (riverfront steps) out of 84 ghats in Banaras to the private sector. Art galleries and tent cities are being built on the banks of the Ganges,” he said. “All this cosmetic change is not going to benefit the Ganges. Many such experiments are being done by the private sector. All this will not reduce Ganges pollution.”
Religious, spiritual and political leaders, environmentalists and social activists have been campaigning for years in support of their demand to clean the Ganges.
In the early years of the mission, sewage and effluent treatment plants were established along the river to ensure that pollutants stopped flowing into it directly.
Sewerage infrastructure projects are coming up in states through which the river flows. But many critics say the mission became more about sewage and effluent management and a lot less about enhancing the quality or quantity of river flows across its length of 2,525 kilometers (1,569 miles).
Kanpur-based Ramji Tripathi, who is the national coordinator of the Ma Ganga Pradushan Mukti Abhiyan Samiti NGO told Anadolu Agency: “The condition of Ganges is the same as it was earlier. There is hardly any improvement in water quality. The water is not fit even for taking a bath. When I started the campaign to save the Ganges, at that time the filthy water of 21 drains of Kanpur was going directly into the river. But today the water of 27 drains is flowing into it.”
Kanpur is the city from where the maximum pollution is happening in the Ganges. Ramji Tripathi has been fighting pollution in Ganga since 2003.
The mission has yielded results with river water from Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand to Uluberia in West Bengal improving between 2014 and 2020, according to the data of India's Jal Shakti Ministry.
However, the progress is very slow.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the river sent chills down the spine of people, with pictures of floating and half-burned dead bodies. Bodies were seen floating in the river or washing up on the banks, particularly in towns in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar with disturbing regularity when the second wave of the virus hit India from March to June this year.
The half-burnt bodies flowing in the river, considered holy by India’s Hindu population, was a grim reminder of how ineffective the government's efforts to clean the river have been.