India getting ex-army officials for river cleanup

India getting ex-army officials for river cleanup
Hindu devotees gathering on the banks of the river Ganga to take a “holy dip” in Allahabad on Feb 3. Every day, thousands of devotees take a bath in the river in a ritual that is supposed to cleanse sins but the waterway is one of India’s most polluted.

The Indian government is working to launch an "army" of retired army personnel and other volunteers to help clean the river Ganga, a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has vowed to clean India's holiest but badly polluted river within four years.

However, experts are sceptical that measures planned so far can do the job within the set time.

The 2,500km-long Ganga, which runs through 50 major cities, excites strong cultural and religious sentiments in India where it is worshipped by Hindus as a goddess.

Every day, thousands of devotees take a bath in it in a ritual that is supposed to cleanse sins.

The river also provides water for drinking and irrigation to 40 per cent of India's population of 1.25 billion, but is also among its most polluted rivers.

Millions of tonnes of industrial effluents and sewage from hundreds of towns and cities flow unchecked into the river, apart from fertilisers and pesticides from cultivated land.

Now the government intends to set up a "Ganga Vahini" or army with initially 200 retired army personnel, activists and other volunteers for the six Ganga states.

Their role: to assist in all efforts such as creating public awareness for keeping the river and its surroundings clear of litter and monitoring pollution.

"This is the government's idea to basically involve ex-army officials, who will bring discipline to the effort and we can utilise their experience. The army actually does a lot of environment work," said Professor Vinod Kumar Sharma of the Indian Institute of Public Administration, who is involved with the project.

There is no date for when the "army" will be up and running.

The government is also in the process of finalising agreements, which include river cleaning action plans, with the municipal bodies of the holy Hindu cities of Varanasi, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Garhmukteshwar apart from the industrial town of Kanpur, all on the banks of the river.

The plans for some of the most polluted stretches include creating a 500m litter-free perimeter along the river, stopping the dumping of solid waste and creating public outreach activities to sensitise the public about cleaning the river.

The government hopes to follow up with similar plans for 111 other municipal bodies.

"There are many issues related to cleaning Ganga, whether it is maintaining the ecology of the river banks or containing pollution in urban areas... But you have to start somewhere even if they are small steps," said Prof Sharma.

Efforts to clean the river have been on for three decades and have cost billions of rupees but with little impact due to poor planning and piecemeal measures.

Since coming to power last May, Mr Modi has renamed the Ministry of Water Resources as the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and has allocated 21 billion rupees (S$439 million) for cleaning the river.

He has also reached out to a host of countries, including Singapore, which has said it would be happy to share its experience, as have others like Germany.

Nearly a year has gone by since but a comprehensive plan has yet to emerge, say experts.

"The government has yet to take a single step that can effectively improve the state of the river," said Mr Himanshu Thakkar of the non-profit South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People.

Others said there was nothing different from earlier cleanup efforts.

Mr Rakesh Jaiswal of the Kanpur-based non-governmental group EcoFriends said: "Whatever was being carried out under the Ganga Action Plan previously, the same things are in the pipeline like intercepting sewage and managing industrial waste water."

Even Mr Modi indicated at a meeting last month with state chiefs that he was not satisfied with the pace at which his pet project is progressing.

But officials maintain that things are now moving. Industrial units along the river, for instance, have until June to put in effluent discharge meters to monitor pollution or face closure.

"Things are going in the right direction," said Mr J.S. Yadav of the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board.

Even so, while the Modi government hopes to clean the river by the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019, experts believe it is not possible.

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on April 27, 2015.
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