Connecting Rivers and People
Launched in 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Namami Gange programme has an integrated river rejuvenation approach, with multiple activities spanning 11 states of the Ganga river basin and creating a model programme for river
Launched in 2014 under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Namami Gange programme has an integrated river rejuvenation approach, with multiple activities spanning 11 states of the Ganga river basin and creating a model programme for river rejuvenation in India. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, Director General of National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), who has been responsible for policy level interventions, including the ecological flow notification of 2018 and completing multiple projects for Aviralta and Nirmalta of Ganga, shares his thoughts on Namami Gange with Ananda Banerjee. Excerpts from the interview
What differentiates Namami Gange from previous efforts of cleaning the Ganga such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP)?
When Namami Gange (NG) was conceptualised we looked intricately at various things which has worked and which hasn’t worked in the past, including the GAP. Today, NG’s entire mission goes beyond cleaning and pollution abatement with only construction of sewage treatment plants (STP). It is a river rejuvenation programme with a holistic approach of multiple interventions and connecting all stakeholders. The cleaning is an important part, no doubt, but we are going beyond that. We are using science and technology to do a profiling of the entire stretch of the river and its basin, also looking at all the cities, towns and villages by the river. For the first time we are looking at maintaining a healthy flow of water, looking at improving ecology, biodiversity and forest cover. This is the Mission’s endeavour towards Aviral Ganga.
Further, we are trying to bring a sense of ownership by connecting the people with the river. This is Jan Ganga. They are the most important stakeholders and if we don’t involve people, how will we change our habit of making our rivers dirty. Best way to clean is to resolve not to make it dirty. It is a journey of ‘Astha’ along with ‘Kartavya’. How much and how long can you keep cleaning the river? Here, we are trying to improve the experience of going to the river and converting faith into responsibility.
Does NG have annual targets and how do you audit funds invested?
Targets are project-oriented. There is a focus on creating new infrastructure and capacity building regarding STPs. Earlier, the main issue was the slow pace of construction in comparison to the rapid growth in population and urbanisation. So, whatever you built the gap kept widening. Further, on the basis of condition assessment, we found more than 50 per cent of infrastructure created earlier were defunct or sub-optimal. Today, we are looking at a 15-year requirement and build in an aggressive way so that the gap narrows.
We are considering long-term 15-year operation and maintenance (O&M) as part of the project, so as not to repeat past mistakes. Now we are also trying to bring in public-private partnership, on a hybrid annuity mode. We have taken over all pre-existing projects and giving them to a single agency. We only pay 40 per cent during construction and 60 per cent annuity is there. So, the major change is we are now paying for performance. Because, from previous years, we have learnt that only construction of STPs doesn’t help, it has to run properly in their full capacity. We have ensured enough risk mitigation else private partners won’t invest. But if the agency does not perform and does not meet standards, the agency’s investment may be lost. So, I think several of these things have happened for cleaning. It is a good thing in this NG programme that we got a comprehensive and assured budget.
You have made a key policy-level intervention with the ecological flow notification in 2018, which is an important issue for rejuvenating rivers. How do you ensure E-flow when so many dams are obstructing the natural course of the river?
Our notification of E-flow in 2018 is a path-breaking initiative. A river is not a river unless there is a good flow. This has been topmost priority. But it is not easy and takes long term approach. So, if you look at this notification, the idea is that all power plants or any other barrage has to release in different seasons a particular quantity of water so that minimum flow is maintained downstream. Most of the Hydropower projects in Uttarakhand have been releasing water and following our guidelines.
More crucial is the irrigation sector. We have inherited a system that normalised over-extraction of water through the Ganga canals. That is the real problem because the moment Ganga comes to Bhimgoda barrage in Haridwar, a huge quantity of water is drawn by Ganga Canal System, developed more than century back. So, in our E-flow notification, we have tried to highlight the demand-side management, which is important or you cannot maintain good flow in the river. We have to work towards both supply and demand sides. Micro-irrigation is being promoted to take care of the demand, but it takes time to change irrigation practices. Improving water-use efficiency in agriculture and bringing back even 5 per cent water that we can save by being efficient, will increase environmental substantially in the Ganga as well as in other rivers, without actually adversely affecting farming.
That apart, we are trying to protect wetlands along the river for improving the flow. The floodplains are important. We have enumerated wetlands on the floodplains and we have started demarcation of floodplains all along the main stem of the Ganga. We are now taking up a special programme for rejuvenation of these wetlands. It is an important area and often people don’t understand the importance of the floodplains that will bring water back into the river by storing rain water and recharging aquifers.
When can we see a clean Ganga?
We have to understand what you mean by clean Ganga or any clean river and we have to understand that Rivers are clean by itself. What are not clean are habitations along the river—cities, villages, people. Actually, it is the problem of waste management and disposal. Primarily, we have to understand that cleaning of the river is a continuous process. We have neglected the river and its health for a long time and hence this challenge.
Namami Gange is creating most of the required infrastructure in the next two years to keep the cities and villages on the banks clean. We are looking at urban planning and developing a water master plan for cities/towns. Further, we are focusing on constant monitoring and developing infrastructure for water quality management. Nature will take its time to rebound, but we have to understand that the best way to clean the river is to stop making it dirty.
Unlike previous efforts, Jan Bhagidari is central to this mission. Nirmal & Aviral Ganga is only possible with Jan Ganga. Cleaning of Ganga has the potential to bring about massive socio-economic transformation, improved livelihoods and health benefits to the vast population dependent on the river.
Students and youth can play an important role in establishing a sound and strong river-people connect. We have developed a cadre of community volunteers, building their capability, improving skills. We catalyse and motivate them with a series of activities, such as cleaning drives, plantation drives, Ganga runs, Ganga Yatra, rafting expeditions, cultural programme, Ganga Utsav, Quizzes and competitions.
I would specially mention Ganga Quest, an online quiz on Ganga and its ecosystem. It is an annual event and last year we had unprecedented response of more than one million people participating from every nook and corner of country and also from 10 international destinations as on pilot basis quiz was opened to selected countries. We are starting registration for Ganga Quest 2021 from 22nd March, the World Water Day and quiz starts from7thApril.The quiz goes global this year.It is a great opportunity to learn, enjoy and win prizes. I request you to go to www.gangaquest.com, take the quiz, spread the message and be a part of this national endeavour, this Jan Andolan.