Pollution of the Ganga River: Death Threat to a Life-Line

Although the Ganga is considered a living deity, today she lays in the most abysmal state one can imagine. Quite a contrast to the image one would have of a goddess a nation worships.

Background

The river Ganga traversing over 2500 km is the longest river in India and in 2008 was recognized as the National River of India. Originating from the glacial melt of the Gangotri in the Himalayas, she meanders through north India, and finally meets the Bay of Bengal. The river basin covers parts of China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Apart from the religious importance – The Ganga’s economic and environmental significance is almost immeasurable. 

Religious and Cultural Significance

The Ganga has a unique element of cultural, religious and historical significance attached to it. During the Kumbh mela, a mass Hindu pilgrimage, she is home to millions of devotees seeking to purify their sins with her holy water. The religious and cultural attention received is however a major cause of deterioration. Religious offerings, funeral pyres along its banks, half decayed bodies dumped into its waters, and devotees bringing the ashes of their kin to the river’s holy waters in hope of nirvana to the deceased soul – all these factors contribute to the appalling condition of the river today.

Economic Significance

The river’s course is dotted with densely populated cities, towns and villages. A host of industries are heavily dependent on it for their fresh water requirements. The Ganga and its tributaries are also extensively used for irrigation purposes – a crucial element to the agricultural sector. However the very cradle of these integral elements of development has now been reduced to a dump yard with the extensive sewage dump from the cities, and toxic effluents from the various industries.

Environmental Significance

The drainage basin of the Ganga is one of the largest in the world, second only to the Amazon basin. In addition to a unique ecosystem by itself, the river also supports the biodiversity of other ecosystems that are dependent on it. Therefore pollution in its waters not only affects the life forms within it but it will severely affect the other ecosystems that are connected to it. In addition to the danger posed to human health and life – the biodiversity of the region is at risk.

Pollution Mitigation Efforts

The Indian government’s first effort of mitigating the pollution crisis was in 1985 with the Ganga Action Plan. It was initiated on a grand scale – consequently its failure too, was reported with equal grandeur.

The multitude of reasons for the failure of the Ganga Action Plan was studied and the government created the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) in 2009 as a reboot to the mitigation efforts.

The same year World Bank extended its support to the National Ganga River Basin Project. A $1.556 billion Project, with $1 billion in financing from the World Bank Group, including $199 million interest-free IDA credit and $801 million low-interest IBRD loan, was approved by the Bank's Board of Executive Directors on 31 May 2011 to be implemented over eight years. It is aimed at assisting the NGBRA in developing a multi-sectoral program and support its nascent operational level institutions to manage the long term conservation and clean-up program.

Most recently on 14 August 2012, during the session of the Upper House (Rajya Sabha) of the Indian Parliament, the Minister for Environment and Forest, Ms. Jayanthi Natarajan in response to a question raised, confirmed that the state of affairs with regard to pollution mitigation of the Ganga River has not improved. Bacterial contamination exceeds the permissible limits; industrial effluents and untreated domestic sewage are indeed killing the river. The lack of co-ordination between authorities and implementation hiccups are cited as reasons for the poor performance and impending failure of the project.

Like its predecessor the Ganga Action Plan, this project too stares at imminent failure. Bureaucracy, corruption, lack of co-ordination between the central and respective state governments and above all a lack of public participation can drive the project to absolute failure.

Why is it Relevant?

The international interest in the situation is brewing. The World Bank support can be credited to have created a global audience to the issue. The environmental impact of damage to the Ganga affects not only India but also its neighbours. With India mired in corruption scams the failure and inefficiency of the ruling party and its plans are on the spotlight – this might turn out to be one more significant addition to the growing list.

Being a developing economy, India requires stable activity and output from its States; many parts of northern India are almost entirely dependent on this river for its industries, agriculture and even day-to-day lives of its people. The nation risks its development and growth.

The further deterioration of the condition of the Ganga and the failure of its pollution mitigation efforts can have cascading effects on the India and its growth story. 

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