All hands on the deck for Namami Gange

Several initiatives in India have taken off due to collective action and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, especially in rural pockets. Ganga needs Sabka Prayas to flow well
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

I have always been intrigued by the Kashi Ganga Prasadini Sabha. There are stray references, but not much has been written about this initiative. This Sabha was formed in 1886 by concerned citizens to reduce contamination of Ganga in Kashi. Evidently, it undertook some projects, like drainage, completed in 1892. The point is Sabka Prayas and citizen initiatives. Old gazetteers describe the state of water bodies such as wells, tanks and stepwells. These seem to have been around and vibrant till the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century. Conservation and maintenance was partly because of kings, but it was also partly due to communities. Something went wrong thereafter and there was abdication by citizens. One can perhaps ascribe it to the Morley-Minto reforms and the Government of India Act, 1919. It is for historians to explore a cause, explaining retreat by citizens and capture of commanding heights (of everything) by the State.

There is something known as an environmental Kuznets curve. Stated simply, as per capita income increases, environmental quality declines. As per capita income increases further, environmental quality starts to improve. This is a factual and empirical proposition. I hasten to add that even as an empirical proposition, for a single country over time, or cross-country, the empirical stuff is dodgy. Assuming it is true, which is a big if, there is the question of causation, even more dodgy. As economies grow and develop, perhaps citizens become more conscious about protecting the environment. Sounds plausible, even if the economic empirical backing is dodgy.

From studies, that cutoff seems to be somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 of per capita income. Today, we are at something like $2,200, but leading up to 2047, that per capita income is expected to increase quite a bit. Behavioural change is complicated stuff and there are those who specialise in nudge theory. The Swachh Bharat Mission is a good counter-example to a per capita income argument alone. Much of what has happened, especially in rural India, is because of citizen participation.

While taking a bath, many Indians recite a shloka: “O Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu, Kaveri! Please be present in this water.” Like other countries, once there was settled agriculture, cities and habitations developed along rivers. While other rivers are also important, Ganga and its tributaries cut across a large swathe of India, from Gangotri and other glaciers, down to Sundarbans or Gangasagar (the Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal in Sagar island).

Varanasi is believed to be the oldest inhabited city in the world. But there are other old cities along that stretch—Badrinath, Haridwar, New Delhi, Agra, Prayagraj, Kanpur, Jaunpur, Mathura, Mirzapur, Auraiya, Etawah, Farrukhabad, Fatehgarh, Kannauj, Gorakhpur, Lucknow, Bhagalpur, Patna, Gaya, Munger, Baranagar, Kolkata, Murshidabad, and many more. The Ganga basin, an area of 860,000 sq km, is spread across eleven states. Six hundred million people live in this basin, and 40 percent of India’s gross domestic product is estimated to originate from here. These are staggering numbers and even without assessments from the Central Pollution Control Board, we know all is not well with the Ganga.

This brings me to Namami Gange. Launched in 2014, it is an expansion of earlier interventions such as the Ganga Action Plan. It has five pillars: (1) Nirmal Ganga (2) Aviral Ganga (3) Arth Ganga (4) Jan Ganga and (5) Gyan Ganga. The names more or less indicate what these pillars are about. I will skip numbers. Those are easily available on the website dashboard.

I think most people will agree that these pillars represent an increasing order of difficulty, except the fifth one. The first is the easiest. As the name suggests, nirmal means ‘clean’, and Nirmal Ganga is about reducing pollution in the Ganga and its tributaries. Dashboards have abundant information about sewage treatment, river-front development, ghats, crematoria and solid waste management across states (this is hybrid-annuity driven, not exclusively government-driven). Across stretches particularly polluted and therefore monitored, river water quality and biodiversity indicators have improved (Gangetic dolphins seem to know this). Aviral means ‘continuous’, and the pillar is about ecology and managing the flow. Understandably, it is much more complicated, with longer time-frames. Hence, we have initiatives like afforestation and biodiversity conservation, much less tangible. Arth means ‘wealth’, so we are talking about livelihood opportunities for people along the banks—natural farming, monetisation of sludge and wastewater, markets along ghats, cultural heritage and tourism.

There has to be quite a bit of Sabka Prayas in this, which of course is Jan Ganga. As things stand, this pillar has primarily been about public participation in improving ghats and crematoria. Jan Ganga, in its broader sense, is a prerequisite for Arth Ganga to happen, but Arth Ganga requires a whole lot of other changes, including governance in urban local bodies. Something like the MV Ganga Vilas cruise will obviously sell, but that’s a thin, though extremely visible, slice of Arth Ganga. Arth Ganga requires transformations that Namami Gange cannot bring about on its own.

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Many years ago, I went to a village near Dhordo in Kutch. It benefited from positive externalities associated with the ‘Rann Utsav’. The tent city in the white desert lasts only for as long as the Rann Utsav (November to February) does. There are tourists who come outside the duration of the tent city (operated by the government). Rather remarkably, Thikariyado village near Dhordo decided to set up a village resort with traditional huts and royal tents. These do quite well. As far as I could make out, the decision was taken by the sarpanch and the panchayat, and they operate these.

At that time, many years ago, there was a solar-powered State Bank of India ATM with fingerprint recognition and solar-powered street lights. Despite positive externalities, in anticipating a possible demand, Thikariyado village exhibited a considerable degree of entrepreneurial talent. I am sceptical about that entrepreneurship existing throughout the country and the region traversed by Ganga and its tributaries. However, for Arth Ganga to flower, we need that entrepreneurship. This leaves Gyan Ganga. Since gyan means ‘knowledge’, this is about research. No doubt that research will be done. To the extent that Namami Gange has increased awareness, it should be applauded. Beyond the applause, we need to move on to Sabka Prayas.

Bibek Debroy

Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister

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