Varanasi 2014: Who will really clean up the Ganga?

While political parties at Varanasi are at war in vouching to clean up the Ganga, will anyone prove themselves capable of implementing the solutions?

Pic – jose pereira | Flickr

Varanasi’s elections are heating up – but so far it’s been a triumph of spin over substance.

This past week, Congress and BJP have been in a battle to the bottom – this time to show the other as incapable of cleaning up the Ganga. But the big question is who will prove themselves capable of implementing the solutions? While surely many of us welcome this as a priority election issue, after decades of empty promises it is hard to believe this latest war of words represents anything more at this stage than puffed up rhetoric to win votes.

What happens in Varanasi affects our entire nation; not only for the health and safety of 400 million Indians, or because the electorate has become a battleground for the centre, but also because, if we can get the Ganga cleaned up, we can replicate this success for other rivers across India.

Whoever is elected must answer: Why is it that 28 years after the proposed Ganga Action Plan (GAP), 825 crore litres of sewage continues to flow into the Ganga River and its tributaries each day?

Let me tell you why. Three primary reasons:

1. Poor design: Research done by the Sankat Mochan Foundation concludes that sewage treatment plants in Varanasi and elsewhere are ridiculously dysfunctional. They fail to remove disease-causing micro-organisms such as E. Coli, and irregular supply of electricity makes the treatment plants completely unreliable. Furthermore, dozens of key locations where the sewage enters the river are never captured for treatment in the first place.

2. Poor planning: The Ganga Action Plan I & II attempts to only address 3,750 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage along the Ganga. This is ludicrous considering the fact that more than 3 times that amount of sewage flows into the Ganga on a daily basis, and that number is only set to increase.

3. Poor governance: This has made a mockery of actually implementing any of this effectively. The central and state government allocate and restrict funds based on their knowledge and existing contractual relationships, while local bodies like the Varanasi Nagar Nigam are pushing for on-the-ground solutions. The reality is that the Centre and State fail to see eye to eye on the issue. So while little work gets done, thousands of more crores have been spent with minimal transparency or impact.

Pic – paolo mutti | Flickr

That’s why whoever is elected must design sewage treatment systems that:

• capture sewage from all the sources where it enters the river,

• work primarily on gravity, instead of electricity,

• remove all harmful bacteria present so that citizens don’t suffer from cholera, typhoid and various intestinal diseases – as well as

• reclaim water, precious nutrients and energy for re-use, and

• are up to the challenge of the volume of sewage we’re actually dealing with today, and anticipate into the foreseeable future.

As a person who cares about this river basin on which the well being of 400 million depends, I believe that we have accepted rhetoric over action from government after government for far too long. And what’s my stake in this debate? The same as yours—that of an ordinary Indian. I am also the Executive Director of Jhatkaa, a community organisation that holds politicians accountable for a fair, just, and more sustainable India. Along with Banaras based NGO Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF), I have fought for a clean Ganga for years now, and believe the time of reckoning has finally come.

Pic – Ryan | Flickr

So, on behalf of all those ordinary citizens who’ve felt frustrated by years of inaction, but who now see a real opportunity for change, I call on each candidate in Varanasi to come forward and participate in a live debate on this essential issue. You name the time and place of the debate and we’ll be there. Broadcast it on television or radio and we’ll watch it. There, you can tell us just how you will ensure a clean Ganga River in Varanasi within your next term of office. You can tell us what regular reporting you will offer, so we can not only cast an intelligent vote this election, but hold you accountable in time for the next one.


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