The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Aam Aadmi Party have both promised the moon for the Varanasi Parliamentary constituency, including a world heritage site status and cleaning of the Ganga river. But the river is no stranger to poll promises, and remains dirty even after thousands of crores of rupees have been spent on its clean-up.
Various governments have spent nearly Rs 40,000 crore over three decades to clean the river. The first official government effort for Ganga conservation was started by former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, whose government launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). Its first phase started in 1985. Later, its second phase and other river schemes in the country were merged under the centrally sponsored National River Conservation Plan. And yet, the river remains filthy.
So it is no wonder then that both the high-profile candidates from Varanasi, BJP's PM nominee Narendra Modi and AAP's Arvind Kejriwal have put the river clean up effort on their agenda to woo voters. Both have even made symbolic statements, perhaps to show their commitment to the cause.
While Modi referred to the river as his "Mata (mother)," when saying that his coming to Varanasi is akin to "a child going to his mother," Kejriwal, in his first visit to the constituency, sent shutterbugs in a tizzy as he took a shirtless dip into the river at ghats.
As per a 2012 Parliamentary committee report, Rs 39,225.95 crore have been spent on cleaning the river since 1985 under various schemes or projects. According to rough estimates, around Rs 1,223 crore were spent on river conservation works during the BJP-led NDA government (1998-2004). The Congress-led UPA government spent Rs 3612.98 crore since taking over in 2004. Another estimated investment of Rs 15,000 crore is envisaged by 2020 for creating the necessary treatment and sewerage infrastructure to keep the river clean. But those tracking the river's upkeep speak of politicians' apathy irrespective of which party they come from.
"The only serious work to clean the Ganga took place when Rajiv Gandhi was PM," senior lawyer Vijay Panjwani told dna. Panjwani is involved in a 15-year-old Supreme Court case over the river's cleaning. "In the last 15 years, neither NDA leader AB Vajpayee did anything nor did the UPA government move an inch."
Ironically, Modi made the same observation. "Ganga is the lifeline of Varanasi and is at the core of our identity. She is our mother. Unfortunately, governments have not been able to devote the attention that should have been given to Ganga. In 1986, the government of the day brought the Ganga Action Plan but it merely remained a plan, the action was missing. Budgets were allocated but the money was never used for the intended purpose," Modi wrote in his blog a few days ago, while promising to restore the river to its original glory.
AAP too has vowed in its Varanasi manifesto to put in place a mechanism to clean up the Ganga.
But whether the self-proclaimed 'Gangaputra' (Ganga's son) Modi or AAP's Kerjiwal change the fate of the river is something that only time will tell.