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The Ganges: All Plan, No Action

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SOUTH ASIA, September 28, 2012 (Asia Times): River Ganga, or the Ganges — the most sacred river for Hindus and India’s national river — remains filthy despite whopping sums being pumped into the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) for the last 26 years, a damning report has revealed. “Since 1986, there is not even a 1% improvement in the river’s condition despite millions being spent under the GAP,” concludes the study by Dr. Sandeep Kumar Behera, associate director (river basins and biodiversity), World Wildlife Fund (India).

According to the scholar, who is also a member of the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh-led National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), the problem has only worsened over the years. Over 50 drains today carry sewage to the Ganga and Yamuna rivers at northern Allahabad compared to 13 before 1986, states the report. In addition, the 84 bathing ghats (banks) sandwiched between two tributaries — Assi and Varuna — are now “huge sewage drains.”

GAP, an environmental initiative to clean up the Ganges fully sponsored by the central government, is based on a comprehensive survey conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board on the state of the river in 1979. It was approved by the cabinet in April 1985 and launched by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi with a promise “to clean the river in five years.” The action plan included 261 schemes spread over 25 towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. GAP Phase I was completed in March 2000 at a cost of about US$90 million.

GAP Phase II was initiated in 1993 and covered 59 towns located along the river in the five states of Uttarakhand, UP, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. Of the 319 schemes undertaken under the plan, 200 have been completed. GAP Phase II was expanded into the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) in 2009 after the Ganga was declared the “national river.” Phase II, which was to be completed in 2001, was extended by seven years to 2008 due to constant delays and inefficiency on the part of Central, state Governments and contractors.

Over the years, the action plan has come in for flak from environmentalists and dubbed “a colossal failure.” Corruption, lack of technical expertise and a lack of environmental planning amongst the myriad government agencies handling the scheme are the primary reasons cited for this. After an audit in 2006, exactly 20 years after GAP’s adoption, it was discovered that the project had met “only 39 per cent of its target of sewage treatment.” In short, the GAP remains all plan, no action.

Originating in the Himalayas, the Ganges travels across 2,250 kilometers through India to the Bay of Bengal before merging with the Indian Ocean. It is ranked among the top five most polluted rivers of the world with its pollution threatening not only humans, but also more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the endangered Ganges River Dolphin. The magnitude of the problem can be gauged from the fact that the Ganga Basin, amongst the world’s most densely populated regions, hosts over 400 million people. Over 2 million people ritually swim and bathe in the river daily.
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