Namami Gange

Murky waters

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Diving for coins and gold in the highly polluted waters of the Ganga in Allahabad after the Kumbh Mela festival on April 2, 2013. Photo: Sanjay Kanojia/AFP

Narendra Modi offers prayers with priests during the launch of Namami Gange in Varanasi in 2014. Photo: PTI

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, the chief priest of Sankat Mochan temple and professor of electronics at Benares Hindu University. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

A special CAG audit report reveals the abysmal failure in the implementation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flagship river clean-up programme, Namami Gange.

A DAY after the historic Lok Sabha election results in May 2014, Narendra Modi stood on a stage erected on the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi. Bathed in bright yellow lights and facing saffron flags attached to wooden arches near the stage on the riverfront, known for its evening “Ganga Aarti”, Modi was speaking for the first time after the election results.

Addressing a gathering of supporters who had arrived to witness his victory celebration, the soon-to-be Prime Minister said: “In his diary, Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon, wrote, ‘When I was going to the moon, I was an astronaut. But while I return, I do so as a small part of the universe, a human being.’ I, too, feel that when I was reaching Varanasi, I was coming as a candidate. But as soon as I filled my form as a candidate in this sacred land of Mother Ganga, on that same day, I became the son of this land. ‘Mother Ganga has called me’ [referring to his pronouncements on the day of filing nomination as a BJP candidate] were the words that came from deep inside me. Perhaps they were not even words but a verbal expression of a spiritual process inside me. And today, as I have come to the feet of Mother Ganga, I am experiencing it [spiritual process] in a deeper way.”

Further, he proclaimed, the job of cleaning the river was a job “decided by Mother Ganga” herself for him and one which he would do. Modi said: “Brothers and sisters, the results of these elections, your apparent and substantial love, Modi posters in alleys and colonies [of Varanasi], they cannot make me yours; Mother Ganga has made me yours. Perhaps these opportunities and good fortune do not come in the life of everyone. That is why I say that Mother Ganga has decided some tasks for me. And as Mother Ganga guides me, I will perform those tasks. Brothers and sisters, from her source to end, Mother Ganga is wailing, ‘Let any of my sons come and rescue me from this filth’.”

More than three years since that evening in Varanasi, the government presided over by Modi has seen two different Ministers and a new structure of government bodies at the State and Central levels tasked with the job of implementing an ambitious river clean-up programme called Namami Gange (Obeisance to the Ganga).

Drafted as a programme that integrates both old and new efforts to tackle pollution in the river, Namami Gange was cleared by the Cabinet in May 2015. A new body called the National Ganga Council (NGC), headed by Modi himself, was set up to plan and supervise the river clean-up effort in October 2016, replacing another body created by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

The council’s implementation arm is the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG).The flagship programme has been allocated a budget of Rs.20,000 crore for five years ending in 2020. This is a massive, fourfold jump from similar exercises in the past. According to an official statement, Rs.4,000 crore has been spent on cleaning the river since 1985 when the then Rajiv Gandhi government, for the first time, prepared a Central scheme.

Notwithstanding these efforts, evidence gathered by the government’s own auditor about Namami Gange’s implementation has confirmed what was known so far only by way of anecdotes. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) found that in the past three years the Modi government had failed miserably in implementing the clean-up plan on the ground. The CAG’s findings, presented in a comprehensive report, were placed in Parliament during the winter session.

The CAG’s key findings are broadly related to the following aspects of the Namami Gange programme: financial management, planning, pollution abatement, ghat development, rural sanitation, conservation of flora and fauna, maintenance of ecological flow, human resource management and monitoring and evaluation.

Poor financial management

The most significant aspect in the report concerns the poor record of utilisation of allocated funds by the NMCG, which is tasked with the implementation of the programme. This is critical because the Modi government, while announcing the programme, had emphasised the fourfold hike in the allocated budget.

But allocation of an impressive budget was not matched with good planning and execution. The report points to the “slow pace of execution of works during 2014-17 and hence low utilisation of funds”. Records cited in the report show that in 2014-15, the NMCG could spend only 8 per cent of the revised estimates of the budgeted sum, while for 2015-16 and 2016-17, the corresponding figures stood at 37 per cent and 63 per cent respectively.

By March 31, 2017, the NMCG had received Rs.3,633 crore from the government in three years although it was eligible to receive Rs.7,387 crore, and managed to utilise only Rs.1,836.4 crore. There are three different figures here because while the government planned a specific budgeted amount, it also set certain conditions for releasing the money to the NMCG. Funds were released depending on the NMCG’s ability to meet those conditions in the given time frame. Clearly, the NMCG fell short of meeting all the conditions for disbursal of the entire budgeted amount for three years.

Considering that these three financial years account for more than half of the programme’s total timespan, the record reflects poorly on the NMCG. In the report, the CAG said: “The low utilisation of funds indicates poor implementation of the programme.”

The genesis of this poor implementation lies in the absence of systematic planning as well as far-from-satisfactory monitoring of the works being implemented. The report noted that the NMCG “has not finalised the Ganga Rejuvenation Basin Management Plan for initiating long-term intervention on the Ganga. Approval of DPRs [detailed project reports] suffered from inordinate delays”. The basin management plan is essentially a detailed blueprint. The national auditor has recorded the fact that the government did not finalise the draft of an existing blueprint prepared by a consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) during the second UPA government.

The lack of monitoring of this state of affairs further compounded problems. The existing monitoring bodies, created by the UPA, did not meet as per desired frequency and the newly proposed “Ganga Monitoring Centres” (GMCs) were not functional. As the report records, the GMCs were “still in planning and conceptual stage”.

Worsening water quality

Worryingly, the report describes in some detail the worsening water quality in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, where the water was not clean enough even for “outdoor bathing”. In a comparative study of water quality for 2012-13 and 2016-17, the auditor found that in “six cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, DO [dissolved oxygen] declined from 2012-13 levels. BOD [biochemical oxygen demand] was higher than the prescribed limit in Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi. During 2016-17, TC [total coliform] levels in all the cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal were very high, ranging between six to 334 times higher than the prescribed levels. Thus, water quality in eight out of 10 towns (except Rishikesh and Haridwar) did not meet the standards for Class ‘B’ or outdoor bathing class on all parameters.”

While DO is a measure of the total oxygen dissolved in water, BOD measures the quantity of oxygen consumed by microorganisms. Total coliform denotes the quantity of bacteria formed in human and animal waste, soil and surface water. All the three are measured to get a sense of the biological health of a river. In the case of the Ganga, it appears from the records that its health is worsening in the above-mentioned stretches.

Experts with long years of experience in working on river rejuvenation broadly concur with the CAG’s findings and criticise the Modi government’s record in cleaning up the Ganga. One of them is Dr Rajendra Singh, who is known worldwide as the “Waterman of India” and who served as a member on the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), which was set up by the second UPA government and was replaced by the NGC in September 2016.

Speaking to Frontline, he said: “Until he [Modi] became Prime Minister, the Ganga was his priority. But after becoming Prime Minister, it is no longer a priority for him. Initially, with the setting up of a Ministry and allocation of significant funds, I thought there would be some work on cleaning up the river. But if it were a priority, three and a half years are enough to have something to show. They seem more interested in interlinking rivers than cleaning them. The previous Prime Minister spoke less but did more for cleaning the Ganga compared with the present one.”

Prof. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, chief priest of the Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi, was consulted by the CAG while preparing the audit report on Namami Gange because of his long-standing work on cleaning up the Ganga through the Sankat Mochan Foundation. He told Frontline that the condition of the Ganga in Varanasi continued to be worrisome. For instance, he pointed out: “At the Rajendra Prasad Ghat, where Shinzo Abe participated in a programme with Modiji recently, we found the faecal coliform [bacteria present inside warm-blooded animals] count to be 50,000 per 100 ml when the ideal standards say that it should be less than 500 per 100 ml.”

According to him, there is a lack of transparency in the implementation of Namami Gange. He cited the example of the refusal by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, the nodal body for implementing the scheme in Varanasi, to reveal what technology was being used for the sewage treatment plants being set up.

Responding to the criticisms made in the CAG report, NMCG Director General U.P. Singh told this correspondent that the momentum of project implementation had picked up in the current financial year. “The CAG report covers the period until March 2017. The momentum of implementation of Namami Gange has picked up after March 2017. I don’t think it is such a big issue because these are non-lapsable funds. A significant amount of funds have now been tied up,” he said.

While the government tries to play down the significance of the revelations made in the CAG report, it cannot escape responsibility for the fact that it will not be able to meet its own deadline of July 2018 for cleaning up the river to a significant extent. The five-year programme might have to be extended and the wailing of “Mother Ganga”, which Modi so eloquently described on that May 2014 evening in Varanasi, will continue for many more years.

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