BJP leader Narendra Modi had been pulling out many cards from up his sleeve in the frenetic run for the prime minister’s post. The last of the aces were pulled up in the holy city of Varanasi, where he played the Ganga card. The rhetoric was construed as a clarion call, and now all hearts are bleeding red for the river that has been polluted and damned by one and all. But like his contentious ‘Gujarat model of development’, this one needs closer scrutiny. Whether the man can indeed cleanse the Ganga will depend on what needs to be done, and whether his impassioned cry is in tune with his party’s policies. Modi needs to understand that this is not a socio-political-cultural issue — it is about environment, rivers. Here’s where the man and his party will falter. For starters, the National Ganga River Basin Project, that is already in place to support the ineffective and non-transparent National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), cannot possibly work at cross-purposes with the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP). The NRCP, in turn, cannot do much if the ministry of water resources keeps breathing down its neck with its environmentally-damaging notions of managing rivers.
This might well ring true if a Modi-led BJP government that’s a die-hard advocate for the inter-linking of rivers (ILR) comes to power. The party manifesto had played down ILR, but had also underlined, “BJP commits to ensure the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority.” Like Modi did later at Varanasi, the party manifesto had thought it better not to elaborate its Ganga plan. After all, the threats to the Ganga are the same that other rivers are faced with: dams and hydropower projects, urban and industrial pollution, and encroachment. You cannot rejuvenate rivers without handling core issues. And assuming that Modi would want to clean up only the Ganga and no other river, he would have to start from the source. Often, if you want to clean up something you need to start from the top – in this case, the Himalayas. He will have to start with dams high up in the hills. For a party that clamours for hydel power, this would be difficult to do.
At the end of the day, Modi might have to inflict his Gujarat model on Varanasi. The Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad might look inviting to tourists, but for others the river is dead both upstream and downstream.
The water itself does not belong to the Sabarmati — it is Narmada water. Already farmers of Saurashtra, for whom the Narmada waters were diverted in, are filing FIRs and fighting cases. RTI responses indicate that the Sardar Sarovar Dam suffered serious damage in 2011 and had not been repaired till even a month back. The Gujarat model of managing rivers does not work on the national front. In any case, Modi is not talking anything new. Phase I of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was initiated in 1985, completed in 2000. The second phase is still on. Projects amounting to Rs2589 crore have been sanctioned under the NGRBA programme. This includes a pollution abatement project at Varanasi worth Rs496.90 crore. So, what Modi will instead need to assess and address is why GAP has been an abject failure. The day he realises that the answer lies in “unbridled development”, you will know which turn he will take.