Uma Bharti, Union water resource minister, on Thursday set the ball rolling in cleaning the Ganga.
She announced that a programme, Ganga Manthan, would be held in the first week of July, seeking the views and suggestions of experts, environmentalists, scientists, general people and saints and sadhus from across the country on how to clean the river.
The Ganga manthan will run parallel to the committee of secretaries and inter-ministerial group that is discussing the matter. She also announced the launching of a website, seeking suggestions from experts across the world, including those who have successfully rejuvenated and cleaned rivers.
More than Rs40,000 crore have been spent in the past three decades in cleaning the river but nothing has happened. The depth of the river has reduced and it continues to remain polluted throughout its 2,500-km journey from the Gangotri to the Bay of Bengal.
Experts believe a focused effort involving all stakeholders like state governments and general people, the river can be turned around within a few years. Almost everyone feels that the river needs to have proper ecological flow that means allowing a certain amount of fresh water to flow through it.
"There are several important factors... Water resource management, usage of water in agriculture and industry, pollution control mechanism are to name a few," leading water expert Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People told dna.
Thakkar suggested five steps that can bring about a sea change. "Firstly, ecological flow has to be ensured – that is allowing at least 50% of water to flow in the river. Then pollution from urban areas all along the river needs to be tackled. Industries should not be allowed to release untreated sewage into the river," he said. Also, better water practice in agriculture needs to be introduced and adopted. The agriculture sector consumes huge amount of water.
"We need to focus on rainwater harvesting... It should be the central focus of our water resource development. And one other major requirement is to have a bottoms up inclusive approach that includes people at every step ranging from decision-making, cleaning or compliance process," Thakkar said.
Vimal Bhai, who has been working on river conservation in Uttarakhand, said a strong political will is the foremost requirement. "First thing is intention and political will. Then the important issue is of big dams as they affect the ecological flow in rivers. Secondly, tackling and monitoring industry effluents is required," he said. "Those violating the law should be punished. If untreated sewage continue to fall in the Ganga, how will it ever be cleaned?"
The National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), set up by Manmohan Singh in 2009, remained ineffective because the Centre failed to take state governments on board and reach a consensus.
Chandra Bhushan of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said the most important requirement was to maintain the ecological flow in the river. "Secondly, we have to take a call on restrictions — how much water cities and industries can withdraw... If for instance, a river has 10 litres of water, then the discharge can be only a litre. Also, a credible deterrence for non-compliance of rules is an important requirement," Bhushan said.
The Rajiv Gandhi government took the first official step in 1985 to conserve the river by launching the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). The second phase was later merged with the centrally sponsored National River Conservation Plan.
Since then, Rs39,225.95 crore has been incurred on cleaning of the river under various schemes or projects, as per a 2012 parliamentary committee report. But pollution levels continue to rise.