Saving the Ganga will save us, all

Saving the Ganga will save us, all

With the detailed project report (DPR) released on the forestry interventions for Ganga the other day, the first tentative steps towards achieving the...

To achieve the objective of 'Namami Gange,’ it is imperative that one understands not just the longitudinal connectivity, but also the lateral connectivity (of river to the floodplains), vertical connectivity (to the underlying groundwater and aquifers) and the temporal connectivity (of river over time)

With the detailed project report (DPR) released on the forestry interventions for Ganga the other day, the first tentative steps towards achieving the goal of making it 'Aviral Dhaara, Nirmal Dhaara" have been taken. Yet, the gigantic task of making it a Nirmal Ganga is a challenge to every Indian and not just to the governments. This requires a certain grit, determination and an unquestionable commitment on part of every one in cleansing the great river which we systematically and steadfastly turned into a river of poison.

The Ganga river has immense geographical, environmental, socio-economic, cultural and religious significance in India and beyond. The national river of the country traverses five Indian States (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal) to flow into Bangladesh with a total stretch of 2,525 km. It forms one of the largest basins in the world, representing 26 per of the India's land mass and supports about 43 per cent of country's population.

It is a lifeline for millions of Indians who live along its course and depend on it for their daily needs. The river from its origin at Gaumukh in the Gangotri glacier and mouth in the Bay of Bengal is home to many threatened and sensitive ecosystems (glaciers, alpine meadows, diverse upland forests, terai grasslands and swamps, riparian forests, mangroves etc., along with a large variety of rare, endangered and threatened faunal species that inhabit them.

This includes the Gangetic River Dolphin, an indicator of river health and which has been designated the National Aquatic Animal, besides other species like snow trout, golden mahaseer, smooth coated otter, river shark and gharial etc).The river contributes immensely to the Indian economy as the country's agriculture sector is heavily dependent on the fertile plains of Ganga and its tributaries apart from its enormous hydro-potential.

This is a major navigation source too that facilitates commerce and transport. For the believers, more so in the North, the revered "Maa" is an eternal Goddess. When the government set in motion its 'Namami Gange' programme soon after it came to power, the only question that was asked was "can we do it?" The Phase-I is almost complete now and the implementation part begins soon. It was not an easy task so far anyway.

From project initiation, identification of stakeholders/academia/experts and NGOs and agencies along with executive consultations at the State and national levels are all over. Even the adversaries of the government have to acknowledge that the preparation of the DPR was clinically done.

But, till date the efforts were all political and bureaucratic, one could say, though the commitment was never in question. Here on, only a fierce personal commitment at every level matters. A merger of interests, laws and stipulations and personalities alone would revive Ganga. Just read this list of applicable Acts and Policies in this regard: Constitution of India, Environment (Protection Act), 1986, Environment Impact Assessment Notification, 2006, Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, Municipal Solid Waste Rules,

Coastal Regulation Zone Notification Rules, Indian Forest Act, Forest Conservation Act, Wildlife (Protection) Act, Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, Biological Diversity Act, National Forest Policy, National Water Policy, Guidelines on Sustainable Sand-Minding, Guidelines on felling and Transit Regulations for Tree Species Grown on Non-Forest Private Lands, Guidelines for Conservation, Development and Management of Urban Greens. Just these handful rules are involved! (Now you understand why preparing the DPR was not easy as it involved all the departments dealing with these laws).

A large number of these organisations work in isolation and it is difficult to develop a holistic understanding of intricate interrelationships which are vital for addressing the complex and dynamic river ecosystem. If this is a greater part of the challenge, yet another seemingly insurmountable issue is bringing together the geologists, meteorologists, climatologists, hydrologists, biologists, ecologists, foresters, social scientists, economists and conservationists. All this apart from the governments!

So far the work of the Union Water Resources Ministry with all its variants was confined to evolving an action plan. It is now confronted with a bigger challenge, a humongous one by any yardstick, in evolving a knowledge management centre alongside.

One cannot have a single policy or a particular time-period to cleanse Ganga as we are not talking of a bucketful of water or even a tank full. 'Namami Gange" means initiating the research and monitoring activities which are vital to develop the information base, setting goals and objectives and evolving strategies besides facilitating policy and decision making. No doubt, several agencies involved in monitoring activities (relevant to different dimensions of river ecology like glacial retreat,

water flow and quality, sedimentation, distribution and abundance of terrestrial and aquatic vegetation and fauna, forest resources and utilisation and demography by different international, national and State level government and non-government organizations and individuals) have contributed much valuable information thus far; nevertheless, there is an urgent need to improve, strengthen, augment and institutionalize these efforts in a more meaningful, effective and efficient manner.

The DPR rightly observed "regrettably, interrelationships and dynamic links between forested vegetation and forestry with hydrology and river ecology have been ignored in a vast country like ours wherein numerous rivers including Himalayan rivers, on the one hand, play an important role in the maintenance of natural ecology, while, on the other, contribute towards welfare and prosperity of masses.”

The observation is apt because, we have not developed appropriate use of bio-filters and appropriate tools or techniques such as bioremediation as this is a grossly neglected subject in the country. The project implementation, hence, involves, implementation of forestry interventions in the five states within the riverscape, strengthening knowledge management by enhancing national capacity for forestry interventions and conservation of riverscape, scaling up and replication of successful models of interventionary methods and national coordination.

That is Mission-mode. The total project cost is Rs 2,293.73 crore as is estimated. In all, 110 Forest Divisions will carry out various activities in these States. While, Uttarakhand is set to spend Rs 885.91 crore, UP will be spending Rs 224.71 crore and Bihar (Rs 333.67 crore), Jharkhand (Rs 72.17 crore and WB (Rs 547.55 crore). As pointed out earlier, only a fierce commitment on part of every individual involved would make us realize the goal.

Otherwise, it is just time and money literally going down the drain. To achieve the objective of 'Namami Gange,’ it is imperative that one understands not just the longitudinal connectivity, but also the lateral connectivity (of river to the floodplains), vertical connectivity (to the underlying groundwater and aquifers) and the temporal connectivity (of river over time).

The river has been exploited beyond a limit. The process of fragmentation by various physical barriers (dams, reservoirs, barrages and canals) and diversion of water, reduced environmental flows, deterioration due to over extraction, disposal of sewage from about 175 cities and towns located on the banks of Ganga and industrial effluents and degradation of surrounding lands along the course have stressed the river which remained neglected for a long time.

Rivers have been recognised as sentinels as they give early warning of the risks engendered by human activities. Society cannot ignore such risks or behave as if these risks did not exist. The world over, the degradation of rivers and riverine landscapes is increasingly being recognised as a crucial political issue with enormous socio-economic repercussions. The Himalayan rivers are no exception.

A river is much more than just the water and comprises several inter-dependent components and links and is influenced by the surrounding terrestrial ecosystems. They are the arteries of the catchment and the most fascinating complex and dynamic ecosystems. It is time we brace up to save Ganges, to save ourselves.

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