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Issue 21

The Act of Cleaning Up: River Rejuvenations and Its Many Delusions

Biplob Kumar Das

The Ministry of Environment recently declared a plan to rejuvenate thirteen rivers across the country. Here is a look at how river rejuvenation projects in the past have panned out, and what lessons we can learn from them.

On March 14th, Union Environment Minister Bhupendar Yadav unveiled a plan to rejuvenate 13 rivers in the country. The rivers that have been chosen for the rejuvenation process are Cauvery, Krishna, Mahanadi, Godavari, Narmada, Luni, Brahmaputra, Yamuna, Sutlej, Beas, Ravi, Chenab, and Jhelum. The minister stated that the rejuvenation process for these thirteen rivers will follow the “successful implementation” of the Ganga model, and employ “forestry intervention” of afforesting the banks of the rivers as its primary approach. While implementation of such projects is vital to improving the conditions of the rivers, it is worth exploring the claimed “success” of past attempts at river rejuvenation, and what lessons could be learnt for future projects.  

In recent years, the most prominent attempt at river rejuvenation has been the Namami Gange project. In 2011 the Central Government had initiated the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the Jal Shakti Ministry. Following the Ganga Action Plans I and II, undertaken in the 1980s and 90s, the Namami Gange Programme was implemented under the NMCG in 2014 as an “Integrated Conservation Mission” with the vision to abate pollution, as well as rejuvenate the Ganga. The government website for the programme enlists its key achievements as ‘Creating Sewerage Treatment Capacity,’ ‘Creating River-Front Development’, ‘River Surface Cleaning,’ ‘Afforestation,’ ‘Industrial Effluent Monitoring.’

While the deadline that the NMCG had set itself for the successful implementation of the Namami Gange project was December 2020, many projects under the programmes still seem to be in progress. Of the 346 projects undertaken through the programme, only 158 have been completed, as reported by The Wire. Furthermore, in November 2021 the National Green Tribunal had pulled up the NMCG for not being accountable to their timelines while suggesting that structural changes in the functioning of the NMCG should be considered to fix the lack of accountability and to achieve targets on time. The problems that persist in cleaning up Ganga became embodied most tragically during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic when dead bodies were seen floating on the Ganga at several places.Apart from the Ganga, the attempt to rejuvenate the Sabarmati river through the Sabarmati Riverfront Project is also worthy of speculation. The project began in 1997 with the vision to provide the city of Ahmedabad with a more environmentally conducive waterfront and improve standards of living in the city. Yet despite a concerted effort that was spread out over two decades, the river continues to be polluted. In a report published after an investigation jointly carried out by the Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti (PSS) and Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) in 2019, the dismal condition of the river due to industrial effluents was discussed. The report mentioned; “Sabarmati River no longer has any freshwater when it enters the city of Ahmedabad. The

Sabarmati Riverfront has merely become a pool of polluted stagnant water while the river, downstream of the riverfront, has been reduced to a channel carrying effluents from industries… The drought-like condition of the Sabarmati river intensified by the Riverfront Development has resulted in poor groundwater recharge and increased dependency on the already ailing Narmada river.” The examples of the Namami Gange Programme and the Sabarmati Riverfront project remain far from inspiring confidence for future projects of river rejuvenation.

There are several lessons that the government can learn from these projects. Firstly, a common problem that prevails in both Ganga and Sabarmati is sewage concentration. The government may have invested infrastructurally in riverfront development and river surface cleaning, but unless better methods for sewage treatment are not arrived upon, the rivers will continue to be polluted and affect livelihoods. A report by scientist Sanjay Dwivedi found that untreated sewage accounts for 75% of Ganga’s filth. The PSS and GPCB report already establish how Sabarmati continues to be infused with industrial effluents. Forestry interventions or afforesting the banks can only create more viable biodiversity in and around the rivers. However, the flow of industrial effluents and sewage concentration more or less renders any forestry interventions futile. Rivers such as Sutlej, Beas, in Punjab and Cauvery in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu are extremely polluted and only forestry intervention methods will not resolve the magnanimity of the problem.

Secondly, consecutive governments and consecutive programmes have failed to immerse local communities in their projects to improve the rivers. The NMCG had initiated a plan to accord responsibilities to more than one thousand Gram Panchayats in the Ganga basin to create toilets and model villages. However, there has been no mechanism set up to involve the locals directly in the rejuvenation process. A more sustainable plan will not ignore the fact that local communities can become the most responsible executors of a rejuvenation programme if a central system of coordination system is facilitated for them. However, continuing to centralise and bureaucratise the process of rejuvenation without sufficient accountability and transparency only results in persisting hardships for locals around the rivers. No great river in the world was rejuvenated in a matter of a few years. Setting realistic timelines, prioritising scientific methods to prevent and treat sewage, and ascertaining full accountability, as suggested by the NGT, is the way to go for the impending rejuvenation of the thirteen rivers.

Biplob Kumar Das is a Graduate Student at Ashoka University currently pursuing an Advanced Major in Political Science and a Minor in Media Studies. He completed his undergraduate degree in Political Science and takes a keen interest in anything related to Indian politics, media, art and culture.

Picture Credits: Outlook

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