Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently reiterated his call for an “uncompromising mission-mode approach” to cleanse the polluted Ganga. This is the wrong way forward. We do not need the battering-ram approach of yet another government mission, but new institutions with long-term stamina.
The right way forward must include the empowerment of religious groups to help cleanse the Ganga.
Cleansing is not just an administrative or technocratic exercise. It also fires the Hindu imagination. Bureaucrats and local politicians have proved conclusively that they lack the motivation to succeed. The solution cannot be one more government appointed mission.
I am an atheist, but my mother was a sanyasin, and I appreciate the power of religious fervour. This can go in the wrong direction, as in the Babri Masjid’s destruction or jihadi rampage in the Middle East. But religious groups have also done a great job running schools, hospitals, mid-day meals and much else. Central Indian tribals are among the poorest in India, but north-eastern tribals have a higher per capita income than the India average, thanks to educational initiatives of Christian missions there.
Back in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi was outraged by the Ganga’s pollution, and provided a massive $200 million to clean the river. Several treatment plants were built, but so poorly maintained that they eventually shut down. Many other treatment plants came up along the Ganga to treat urban and industrial waste. In most cases these plants too became moribund. Meanwhile, urban and industrial growth spawned ever more sources of untreated muck.
Everybody agrees that the Ganga and other rivers should be clean. Everybody agrees that polluted rivers are terrible for health, drinking water, fishing, tourism, and much else. Why, then, is so little done about it?
The answer is institutional. When massive funds are proposed for sewage and industrial treatment plants, the typical neta-babu combine is enthusiastic. New treatment plants provide ample opportunities for kickbacks and favours to patronage networks. But once the treatment plants are complete, such opportunities fade away. The maintenance of treatment plants yields no revenue, no associated advantages.
Whenever a state or municipality suffers fiscal strains, the first spending cuts are typically on maintenance, including the maintenance of treatment plants. This tends to be a gradual process that draws little flak from voters, but leads to the erosion and eventual closure of facilities. Voters want clean rivers, but not strongly enough to launch agitations that will make politicians sit up and take note.
Many polluting factories should be closed according to the law. In practice local politicians are reluctant to close such factories, since this will hit both employment and contributions from the polluting industrialists. For the political class, these considerations are more important than keeping rivers clean.
In some cities, activists have persuaded the courts to intervene. The courts have repeatedly passed orders to close polluting tanneries in Kanpur and dyeing units in Tiruppur and Varanasi. Yet the very fact that the courts have to keep intervening repeatedly reveals a pathetic lack of interest of the neta-babu class in checking violations proactively.
How can religious fervour be brought in to rectify the situation? Even today religious groups are often represented in various committees and councils, but have no decisionmaking power. One first step can be to train religious groups in maintenance and then hand over treatment plants for them to run. Many will be very keen to do this if this gives them access to the holy Ganga shoreline, enabling them to build a ghat of their own.
Beyond that, how can we institutionalize the participation of unelected religious groups in municipal matters related to water pollution? Some lessons can be learned from the success of Akshaya Patra in providing mid-day meals to millions of children in several states. This has the characteristics of a maintenance programme, and entails budgetary and logistical coordination with the central and state governments.
The religious outfits running treatment plants must also have a say in inspecting and prosecuting polluting industries. Ideally, they should get maintenance fees from the city or central government that not only covers current costs but yields financial surpluses that can be ploughed into new treatment plants and urban sewage schemes, as required. The details of the new institutional structure cannot be one-size-fits-all. They must be allowed to evolve from place to place. But the starting point must be to recognize the important role that religious groups can play. The next step can be to hand over treatment plants to them. Beyond that lies institutional reform to improve their participation in urban matters affecting the Ganga. That’s a far better way of harnessing Hindu fervour than destroying mosques or launching “ghar wapsi” programmes.