Mr Nitin Gadkari has a deep challenge staring in his face as he takes over the reins of the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation.
The Ganga Action Plan was launched 30 years ago. Since then the strategy to clean the Ganga has been anchored on providing finances to the municipalities to set up Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs).
A number of STPs have been built even though their capacity is mostly less than the amount of municipal sewage that requires treatment.
Even these STPs are mostly non-functional because the municipalities have more pressing needs and are not interested in paying for the staff, electricity and chemicals required for running the plants.
The Ministry of Ganga Rejuvenation under Uma Bharati made a departure from this model. It has signed MOUs with private players to set up the STPs under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) mode.
The MOUs provide that the Government will reimburse the capital expenditures incurred by the private players in parts, that too only if the private player meets certain performance norms.
This is one step better than the past. But it leaves open a big window of leakage in determination whether the private player has met the performance norms or not.
For example, let us say a private player is not able to run the STP because the municipality has not paid the required charges.
Such situations will open up a grey area where the Ministry would end up paying the monies to the private players without the STPs working as expected.
The way forward for Mr Gadkari is to change the model altogether. The Ministry should buy treated water from the STPs set up by private players.
There is no need to provide capital subsidies since the banks are happy to extend loans to any viable project.
The banks are providing huge loans to power projects on the basis of the Power Purchase Agreements made by them with the State Electricity Boards.
They would similarly be happy to give loans to private players who have entered into a Treated Sewage Purchase Agreement with the Ministry.
The task before the Ministry is to set up the pipelines and canals to carry the treated water to the farmer’s fields. I hope that Mr Gadkari will do this with the same gusto that he has shown in making highways in the country.
There is a need for Mr Gadkari to rethink on the projects of hydropower, irrigation and navigation being promoted by the NDA Government on the Ganga otherwise these will undo his efforts to clean up the river.
Hydropower projects obstruct the path of the fishes, which help clean up the river. The fish eat up the debris such as twigs and animal carcasses that flow into the river.
The fish often migrate to lay eggs. The famed Golden Mahseer of Uttarakhand, for example, migrates from the plains to the hill stretches up to 200 kilometers upstream to lay eggs.
The hydropower projects of Chilla, Srinagar and Tehri have obstructed its path. In the result the Mahseer, which weighted up to 100 kilograms earlier, has now reduced to merely 5 kilograms.
Thus the water of the Ganga is no longer being cleaned by fishes as was being done earlier.
Mr Gadkari must push for other alternatives for the generation of electricity such as solar, and nuclear and thermal plants based on imported uranium and coal.
Irrigation projects in Uttar Pradesh extract almost, if not all, the water of the Ganga. The river has but a trickle of water after the Bhimgoda Barrage in Haridwar and the Narora Barrage in Bijnor.
The less amount of water reduces the ability of the river to clean itself. The river will itself clean herself if a bucket full of sewage is put into it.
In fact, small amounts of sewage provide nourishing food to the fishes just as small amount of poison injected during vaccinations creates immunity from the diseases.
The same bucket full of sewage becomes a curse when added to a petty stream carrying small amount of water. Thus it is necessary to reduce the abstraction of water from the Ganga for irrigation.
Here also alternatives are available. The rainfall in our country is concentrated in the three monsoon months of July, August and September.
Most of the rainwater flows into the sea. The rainwater can be trapped and used to recharge groundwater aquifers. Check dams and bunds are made in watershed programs to do this.
The need is to bring a legislation, provide subsidies, and launch a public awareness campaign to encourage the farmers to make bunds around their fields so that the rainwater percolates into the aquifers and can be extracted later for irrigation.
Then it will be possible to reduce the abstraction of water from the Ganga, increase the flow in the Ganga, and strengthen her ability to clean up the pollutants that do enter the river.
Mr Gadkari must reconsider the navigation project of the National Waterway-1 which is being pushed by him in his capacity as Minister of Surface Transport.
The plying of ships adds to the pollution of the river in the leakage of lubricants, in the increased absorption of carbon-di-oxide and nitrogenous emissions from the ships, and in the dumping of hazardous as well as non-hazardous materials during mishaps.
The present project requires huge amount of dredging to be done in the Ganga. Dredging disturbs the habitat of aquatic life like the turtles which lay their eggs in shallow waters.
Turtles in the Varanasi Turtle Sanctuary located downstream of Varanasi, for example, eat up the half-burnt carcasses that are dumped in the river.
The NDA Government intends to denotify the Turtle Sanctuary. That will lead to a drastically reduced population of turtles and reduce this natural cleansing taking place today.
It is also not clear whether the NW-1 project envisage building of barrages between Allahabad and Varanasi.
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The Government says that the NW-1 will extend from Haldia to Allahabad; and that no barrages will be made between Haldia and Varanasi.
That leaves open building of barrages between Varanasi and Allahabad. If built, these barrages will have a similar negative impact on the Ganga as hydropower projects.
Alternatives modes of transport such as railways are available. Certain documents indicate that water transport is cheaper than rail by a mere 25 paise per kilogram.
This calculation ignores the monetary cost of environmental impacts of ships on water quality and aquatic life. Water transport is uneconomic if these costs are taken on board.
A steep challenge faces Mr Gadkari. He must make payment to STPs on the basis of amount of water treated and push alternatives to hydropower, abstraction of water for irrigation, and navigation to make his mission a success.
*Dr. Bharat Jhunjhunwala was formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru. Views expressed are personal. .Author’s phone: 85278-29777