Clean Ganges remains an elusive promise

Laws alone are not enough to tackle the issue. It needs public participation

A boy runs past a pile of garbage along the river Ganges in Mirzapur, India, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui  SEARCH "SIDDIQUI GANGES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
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A promise to clean the Ganges, India’s holiest river, figured prominently in prime minister Narendra Modi’s 2014 election campaign. Soon after coming to power, he created a ministry for water resources, river development and Ganges rejuvenation, indicating that the project would be a priority. The government then announced “Namami Gange,” (which in Sanskrit means “obeisance to the Ganges”), an integrated development project and allocated about $3 billion (Dh11bn) for it.

Three years later, Mr Modi’s “clean Ganges” campaign has yet to bring about that expected rejuvenation of the river. Naturally, there are mutterings of discontent from environmentalists and the hundreds of millions of Indians who live in the river’s catchment area and depend on its increasingly filthy waters.

However, to the relief of many, India's top environmental authority, the National Green Tribunal, last week issued strict regulations aimed at reviving the project. This may sound encouraging, especially because in the absence of firm legislation, people have been dumping all kinds hazardous substances into the river, but the ruling is only the latest in a series of judicial decrees that have gone unheeded, as Rakesh Jaiswal, a clean-up campaigner, told The National.

Nothing reflects the failures of government and problems in India better than the rejuvenation of the Ganges. The former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi vowed almost 30 years ago to clean it up. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted on his Ganga Action Plan, with no discernible results.

That said, the cleaning of the river is a collective responsibility that requires the participation and understanding of the public. What Indians do today will determine their tomorrow.