India steps up move to clean up Ganga

Hindu devotees on the banks of the river Ganga during a religious festival on Nov 17, 2015.
Hindu devotees on the banks of the river Ganga during a religious festival on Nov 17, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

Measures involve hundreds of soldiers, modernising laundries along the river

The government is trying to inject some momentum in efforts to clean up the Ganga river, going as far as to deploy an army battalion of 600 troops in one city for the operation, apart from finalising plans to modernise hundreds of "Dhobi Ghats" or open-air laundries along the river.

The soldiers, from the army's ecological task force, have been stationed since last month in Allahabad, one of the biggest cities on the 2,525km-long river.

Officials said the battalion, one of four that would eventually be deployed, would help plant trees while monitoring activity on the banks of the river and raising awareness among the people of the hazards of polluting the river.

"Ultimately, the purpose is for the public to become pro-active. It (river cleaning) can't be the responsibility of the government alone," said Mr Sanjay Sharma, an official in the federal water resources ministry. "There are many plans (in the pipeline). They are interlinked and it will all come together."

Other plans include the repair of inoperative sewage treatment plants, with work likely to start in six months, and a campaign to urge farmers who have land near the river to go organic.

The modernisation of the Dhobi Ghats is aimed at stopping pollution from the detergents used by people who wash clothes in the river.

"We are planning that the water (after washing) is taken to a plant for recycling instead of going into the river," said Mr Sharma. The plan is to connect the drainage in the ghats to recycling plants.

The Ganga, which originates in the Himalayas, is one of India's holiest rivers and is worshipped by Hindus as a living goddess. Yet 501 million litres of industrial waste and 3.54 billion litres of sewage water flow unchecked into the river each day. This is in addition to fertilisers that seep into the river through ground water.

Though efforts have been going on for decades to clean the river, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made it a key priority. He has even reached out to dozens of countries, including Singapore, to share their experience and technology for river cleaning.

The government has allocated over 200 billion rupees (S$4.3 billion) for the clean-up and asked cities to come up with action plans. Still, experts said a comprehensive plan has yet to emerge and that implementation would remain the biggest hurdle.

"Nothing is streamlined. All the cities are not on the same page. Some are active and have very ambitious plans; some are not very active," said Professor Vinod Kumar Sharma of the Indian Institute of Public Administration.

"The money is there. Now we need a concrete plan, For example, sewage treatment plants should be in every big or small city. The problem is there is no space in some old cities like Varanasi. These are the kinds of problems that are coming."

Others said there has been no change on the ground, and expressed scepticism about whether the government would be able to implement its plans. The river flows through five states, making coordination difficult, they noted.

Mr Rakesh Jaiswal of EcoFriends said: "Some piecemeal efforts are taking place. Some cleaners have been appointed to clean the ghats (on the riverbank). Even that is not being done well. The problem is so much of sewage is going into the river. That needs to be tackled fast."

EcoFriends is a non-profit group based in Kanpur, where there are 700 tanneries.

"But encouraging organic farming is a good idea," Mr Jaiswal added. "And if the taskforce can carry out planting activities, it is a good thing."

The courts have also become more pro-active. The National Green Tribunal last month banned the use of plastic for any purpose along a 140km stretch on the river from Feb 1 and has set a 5,000 rupee penalty for throwing municipal waste into the river.

While carrying all this out remains an issue, some are positive over the attempts. "This time it (Ganga cleaning efforts) is different, as much more is happening," said Prof S. Mukherjee of Jawaharlal Nehru University. "How much better it will be, we have to wait and watch."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 12, 2016, with the headline 'India steps up move to clean up Ganga'. Print Edition | Subscribe