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Many reasons for Ganga's plight: Experts

The pollution of Ganga is a complex issue that needs a multi-pronged approach to address. Along with the failure of Ganga Action Plan (GAP), other factors like religious faith that holy Ganga can never be polluted, citizens' apathy and lack of political will are also responsible for the plight of Ganga, feel experts.

A model case study on prevention of river pollution by urban sewage conducted by the consortium of seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) highlighted the factors responsible for the pollution of Ganga. The ministry of environment and forests has assigned the responsibility of preparing Ganga River Basin: Environment Management Plan (GRB EMP) to the consortium of seven IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Roorkee).

In its study, the consortium found that there is a widespread belief that Ganga is a holy river and can never get polluted. The popular belief that the holy river Ganga can be dirty but never be polluted is an expression of a deep cultural belief of a large religious community. This concept of being 'dirty' and being 'polluted' carry significantly different meanings altogether, which reinforces another perception that Ganga has self-cleansing capacity'. These perceptions shall perpetuate the ignorance about the 'pollution' of the river and, thus, breed apathy in the minds of the local people about pollution abatement works.

Complementing to it an expert member of 
National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) and environmental scientist of Banaras Hindu University (BHU) BD Tripathi said, "It is absolutely true that there is no place of any question in matters of religious faith. But scientific approach speaks about analysis based on given facts." He further says that it is the need of the hour to popularize scientific outlook in the society on issues particularly related to pollution of Ganga. "The human mind works in pressure, hence there should be some pressures like reward, award and penalty to motivate people," he said.

The report highlighting the role of pujaris/pandits says that the pujaris who help the pilgrims to perform religious rites and rituals are dependent on the belief that makes the river Ganga an eternally holy river. If the pilgrims find Ganga polluted, they would stop coming and the livelihood of the Pujari community will be in trouble. Hence, this community, in order to ensure the continuity of their business and livelihood, always try to maintain the belief that 'the river Ganga can never be polluted' by vigorous proclamations. However, it is observed by many that this belief effectively alienate citizens from the efforts for cleaning pollution in river Ganga.

Sewage is an important source of pollution and accounts for about 75% of the total pollution from all point-sources. Urban settlements of different sizes, contribute most of the sewage related pollution in the river Ganga. Further, the sewage problem continues to aggravate despite the considerable emphasis by the Ganga Action Plan (GAP I and GAP II) on diversion and treatment of urban sewage.

The report says that despite significant failure of the GAPs, there has not been any strong disapproval on the part of the citizens, their representatives from the urban areas on the banks of the river and her tributaries. The failures are rooted in lack of effective extraction of accountability of the governing agencies. However, the problem is not restricted only to lack of appropriate mechanisms for extraction of accountability. The problem also lies in general apathy of the urban citizens and their representatives who are unwilling to extract accountability. This apathy seems to be rooted in perception of remoteness and lack of attachment that common urban citizen harbor toward the river. As a result of this apathy in urban citizens, the political parties do not find the issue of pollution in Ganga worth investing their time and resources as there is no political dividend to gain.

On the role of political parties, the report says that popular support is the principal source of power for them. Hence as part of electoral politics, political parties are always sensitive and supportive of perceptions of the dominant sections of the electorate. The proposals to raise taxes or impose new fees on the services is part of the reforms attempt to ensure financial viability of the operations. However, ruling political parties always show reluctance to raise taxes, fearing loss of votes in the next elections. Opposition parties also show a lot of political opportunism and campaign against the ruling parties, if they propose to raise taxes or user-fees. This affects the revenue and perpetuates the problems of paucity of funds for operation and maintenance.

Referring the example of Kanpur, the report says that this is the situation around the issue of payment of O&M costs by Kanpur Nagar Nigam to UP Jal Nigam, as per the court guidelines. According to the orders issued by the Supreme Court, KNN is expected to collect user-charges and pay for operation and maintenance of the assets created under GAP I and II. However, since the KNN has not been successful in imposing and collecting user-fees and always short of money otherwise, it has never been consistent in paying the required amount to UPJN. In the end, the UP state government started sending the money directly to UPJN, by cutting the amount from the KNN's share in grants from the state government, which are actually meant for creating new and much required infrastructure for improving other basic services.

Tripathi too says that no political party is really interested in Ganga as it does not promise votes to them. "In a democratic set up of governance it is impossible to clean the river unless there is a strong political willingness," said Tripathi adding that people should also ask political parties to include Ganga in their political agenda.

The study also observes that the urban local bodies (ULBs) are neither capable nor motivated enough in matters related to Ganga pollution. Various experts and academics often champion the cause of decentralization of funds, functions, and functionaries to the urban local bodies. This, according to some of them, is the panacea for improving governance of municipal public services. However, there is an increasing perception that the ULBs are neither capable nor motivated to take-over and discharge the governing functions - in efficient, effective, and timely manner - especially those related to the sewage and solid waste management.

Regarding the behaviour of business community, the study gives the example of Kanpur that has a large business community of owners of small units such as tanneries, textile units, and textile dyeing units. According to report, apart from the big tanneries, the other small informal units do not treat their effluent. Even bigger tanneries do not treat their effluents in order to cut down their costs as far as they could. With strong backing from political and criminal elements, these sections try either to co-opt the functionaries of pollution control agency through enticements or pressure, or create barriers to their efforts to monitor and enforce regulations. Lack of adequate capacities and resources with the pollution control agency and lack of effective mechanisms to ensure its autonomy and accountability are the factors that allow this interference. Thus, the misalignment of interests of the business community, and the lacunas in the policy instruments, together, creates serious threats to the efforts to curtail pollution in river Ganga.

In its concluding remarks of 56-page report, the study says that the chronic problem of pollution in the river Ganga requires a comprehensive range of solutions that are synergistically supportive of each other. It needs to be noted that the problem essentially is rooted in the governance crisis and no amount of inputs for technical, financial, or capability / knowledge enhancing will be able to reduce these core governance maladies. This is not to deny the need or utility of the technical, financial or knowledge inputs, but to warn against naivete that prompts a search for simplistic solutions that often serve the vested interests rather than the cause of clean river Ganga. This has been amply demonstrated by the fate that GAP and other previous projects met with. The limitations of the policy and governance solutions (or 'fixes') are also acknowledged and reiterated here, especially in the face of the 'political bottom-line'. But, the conscious understanding of this bottom-line, coupled with the efforts to create spaces for influencing the bottom-line would help achieve some success in addressing the chronic problem of cleaning up Ganga.

The Times of India (05-12-2013)