Re-routing the path towards a renewed Ganga

By Kriti Jain

Common pool resources may be owned by national, regional or local government as public goods, by communal groups as common property resources or by private individuals or corporations as private goods. When they aren’t owned by anyone they are used as open access resources. It’s widely recognized that size and characteristics of such goods make it costly to exclude potential beneficiaries. Unlike private goods, common pool resources face problems of congestion or over-use because they belong to everyone yet owned by none. Having observed a number of common pool resources, we focus on national rivers as common pool resources. Unlike other resources, a free-flowing river serves multiple purposes. If we consider rivers as quantity of water flowing past people’s land, we can devise rules for ownership of water. But it is difficult to formulate rules for other roles of a river (recreational purposes, canoeing, swimming or scenic beauty of riverside). Some of these aspects can become specific types of property but it’s still difficult to parcel every function of river and define it as a property. Moreover, they cover large areas hence it may be geographically possible to exclude some people. Having said that it can be argued that to some degree the river is a common property resource.


“I chatter, chatter, as I flow

to join the brimming river,

for men may come and men may go,

but I go on for ever.”

The above lines convey a fact, ‘rivers never die’. They are vital element in any country’s geography. They drain the land, sustain agriculture and to some extent industrial development, provide hydroelectric power and are recreational sources. But we evidently find human interventions have damaged and disrupted the rivers sufficiently enough and there is urgent need to save the ailing river. The plight of Indian rivers is no exception. The rivers here enjoy the status of gods and goddesses and are ingrained in the traditions of India. The water is used for traditional worshiping, people especially come to Ganga for cleaning their sins and impurity.


Ganga being the most populous river basin in the world, presents both great opportunities and challenges for its inhabitants. It has massive potential for hydropower, agriculture and navigation among other uses. Since independence, India has witnessed rapid urbanization, industrialization and intensification of agriculture which affected the river in different ways. Hundreds of multi-purpose reservoirs for water supply, irrigation, hydro-power and fisheries have been constructed. Several floodplains have been cut out by rivers and the land is subjected to intensive agriculture and grazing pastures. Human settlements, deforestation, mining, dumping of industrial effluents and domestic waste into rivers have degraded the river catchment and increased sediments loads of rivers. In a country where rivers have an economic, cultural, social and religious importance, Ganga faces a bleak future due to excessive obstruction of river course, over-extraction, and uncontrolled pollution. Reduction in natural flow coupled with severe pollutants has made water unfit for not just drinking but for bathing purposes.


Conversation and restorations of rivers has become a priority today because of increasing water scarcity, growing urbanisation, increasing climate uncertainty and competition of water between different states. However, until recently, this conservation has been limited to cleaning the surface of rivers.


Since 1985, a multitude of projects have been implemented by the government to improve water quality to acceptable standards by preventing the pollution loads from rivers. There have not been significant improvements over the past 30 years. The projects implemented till date have been ambitious and covered various aspects such as sewage treatment infrastructure, river-front development, river surface cleaning, conserving biodiversity, industrial effluents monitoring, creating public awareness and building Ganga gram. One of the deficiency in the Ganga Action Plan was that it centred around Ganga in the mid-plains (Allahabad to Patna). The plan focused on pollution and not on flow strength. All the plans were within the territory of stark engineering and ignored the urban planning aspect. The primary action that had been planned was the installation of effluent treatment plants and sewage treatment plants along the river, especially from Kanpur downwards. This saw some improvement in water quality. The estuarine area was not given enough consideration, where heavier silt deposition created complex problems. The GAP phase 1 was not as effective as one hoped for. Over the period, multiple project for renovating the rivers especially Ganga have been implemented. One of the most modernizing policy of the current government has been the “Namami Gange project”. The action plan for Ganga rejuvenation has been developed by the convergence of different ministries. The earlier Ministry of water Resources has now expanded to include River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. Likewise, drinking water and Sanitation, which was a department under the Ministry of Rural Development, is now a full-fledged ministry.


The paradox here is despite available international help, free flow of funds, adequate technology and ambitious policies and programs, the river has hardly experienced any significant improvement. Hence rejuvenation of rivers per se is more about management than about technology. There is urgent need to focus on other aspects like social mobilisation, management of information and conflict of interest between involved parties.


The rivers in India attract thousands of pilgrims from across the country to perform religious rituals at the Ghats, especially Varanasi and Haridwar. Urban and industrial waste waters are major source of pollution at the Kanpur and Allahabad Ghats. Agriculture, solid wastes and garbage also comprise as the main source of pollution. Hence, each ghat has a unique characteristic, locational advantage and different Industrial development. In such scenarios, it’s less efficient to have a uniform or universal policy. The need of the hour is to propose tailored strategies to combat problem of over-exploitation and simultaneously conserve river. One-size-fits-all recommendations have produced mismanagement and failures.

Re-imaging and dividinng the river basin into sub basins since every geographical location in each basin has a unique catchment area can achieve this. Moreover, location and political environment plays an essential role in governing the quality of rivers. Some of the southern rivers experience water scarcity while the northern and eastern rivers are often perceived as having surplus water.


Additionally, we need a mixture of decentralized and centralized policies to expedite the rejuvenation of Ganga. One major weakness of the system is overlap in jurisdiction. Disorganized regulation and lack of empowerment along with unaddressed conflict issues and absence of an effective institutional arrangement between central and state government affected the implementation phase. The district level governing bodies are better informed about the conditions than the central government and hence planning, monitoring and enforcement can be better handled. Major coordination issues such as conflicting and duplicating functions and varying interests of different tiers of government have complicated the efforts to clean the rivers. To revive the coordination, it is crucial to allocate power, demarcate areas address the asymmetry of interest and create sufficient incentive structure for different sectors and states to comply and coordinate together for the effectiveness of the framework. Decentralization to the lowest appropriate level implies harnessing local initiatives and creating coalitions for development. The present situation illustrates that the center may be unable to successfully bridge the gap between policy making and implementation partially due to asymmetry of information among other reasons. But it is often argued that local bodies don’t have adequate technology and sufficient funds to achieve the targets. The proposal is for restrictive decentralization whereby the central government supplies funds and prioritizes the area of interest and the local governing bodies design the mechanism. The rationale to empower the local bodies is to include river into the livelihood of people. The river can be rejuvenated and its economic value can be restored if we are able to create jobs out of it.


Corruption and rent seeking has been a major reason that disallowed cooperation between different agencies and department to work towards restoring the lost glory of Ganga. We need to question what needs to be done to make them work together? Under the existing framework, the jurisdiction of any department or governing body were not explicitly described. Multiplicity of projects is not the issue but over and under regulation is. As guided by other theory, rent seeking adds to transaction cost which prevents a bargaining deal between involved parties. By defining the political, economic and legal boundary for every ministry may improve transparency and kill incentive to delay a project.  Alternatively, increase in private sector participation can be beneficial. Clean water is a public good and as guided by our theory the provision is most optimal when done by the government. Given the multiple objectives of “Namami Gange”, private sector can be incentivized to clean the surface of Ganga. Similar short-term targets can be assigned to private sector. Another probable solution is to increase participation of people. The current policy initiative has acknowledged the presence of non-profit organization but have overlooked the role of civic society. Analyses on clean-up effort are neck-deep in tales of bureaucratic inefficiencies, political tussles and religious sentiments. A sustainable rejuvenating effort can start through agent setting theory where people can be made aware of current state. In addition to employing sophisticated technology through partnership with private sector, it’s essential to encourage people to participate voluntarily.  Furthermore, to ensure a long-term commitment by the community, we need to shape the political, economic and social landscape of the country by evoking the ethical values and educating the masses particularly the youth about the environment issues. Ethical values can be used as a tool to strengthen the environmental consciousness of people and preserve the rivers for generations to come.


Apart from these, efforts to encourage organic farming especially along the river banks, convince people to use electric crematorium and develop separate holy bathing ponds are needed now when Ganga enjoys equivalent human rights.


One of the most disappointing aspect of these program is that rivers are cleaned and rejuvenated for further human use. Each and every project implemented till date has proposed for more projects on rivers. Evidently, the management of rivers is intended for man and not for rivers per se. Less attention has been given to the natural ability of rivers to clean itself from pollutant. Excessive technological use may not be good to the true essence of the river. The addition of words River development to name of ministry indicates the intention to build more projects on river. The idea has been to construct more dams, barrages and reservoirs which disrupt free-flowing river. There are further talks of using Ganga for transportation and navigation purposes. Again, human intervention will harm the river and its aquatic life. Does this account for rejuvenation? It is well appreciated that rivers must be harnessed for wider national needs. A better way to achieve rejuvenation is to allocate the river water more efficiently such that part of it is allocated to nature. Despite the above-mentioned challenges, India is actively working to achieve a pristine status for its most sacred river.



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