India: Why Ganges River cleanup is an ongoing struggle

Hindu devotees bathe and ‘purify’ themselves alongside accumulated trash on the banks of Ganges River. Source: Shutterstock

THE Ganges River is revered as one of the most sacred rivers to Hindus as many believe the river to represent the goddess of salvation, Ganga.

Devotees often flock to this trans-boundary river, which begins in the Himalayas and intersects India and Bangladesh, to drink the water which they believe can wash away one’s sins.

Hindus make up 80 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population, and call the river Ganga Mata, or Mother Ganga.

However, religious practices coupled with the millions of people who rely on it as well as poor industrial waste management has resulted in the river being severely polluted.

Raw sewage from 29 cities, industrial waste, religious idols, animal carcasses, an inordinate amount of trash and even cremated human remains end up in the 2,525km-long river.

Over a billion gallons of waste ends up in the Ganges River every day, three-quarters of which is raw sewage while the remainder is waste from sugar refineries, distilleries, paper mills and tanneries, The New Yorker reports.

This has spurred Prime Minister Narendra Modi to pledge US$3 billion to clean the holy river, simply the most recent attempt of many before. In fact, his winning the election, and ending the 30-year reign of the National Congress party, was based on, among others, a more holistic and steadfast approach in cleaning up the Ganges River.

Modi was quoted as saying by Bloomberg in a 2014 report:

“Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt and she’s chosen me to do the work.”

Two months into his election, Modi announced the Namami Ganga plan, but Reuters reported in April most of the US$3 billion has gone unspent.

The project, according to environmental site New Security Beat, was intended to start off by cleaning the river’s surface with the “skimming technology” as well as by “installing rural sewage drains and modernizing crematoria.”

The initiative was then intended to improve the efficacy of municipal wastewater plants before the longer-term goal of enhancing the country’s efficiency in water-use and overall groundwater irrigation.

However, little of that has been achieved as India’s government is faced with lingering customs and sluggish industrial reactions.

With a 2018 deadline for the clean-up looming, the report quoted an official from the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), the government body overseeing the project, as saying such an achievement was “impossible.”

“If we want to meet the 2018 deadline, we should have commissioned plants to treat half the sewage already,” he was quoted as saying on condition of anonymity.

“State administrations have struggled to find land for new treatment plants, while complex tendering processes have put bidders off pitching for new clean-up projects,” the report continued.

Since then, Modi has taken the helm in leading the initiative, in part due to the project being a core component of his electoral win and also because he would need something to show for his efforts come the 2019 election, the report stated.

“I have lost hope,” Reuters quoted Rakesh Jaiswal, head of a small Ganges-focused environmental group in the industrial city of Kanpur since 1993, as saying.

“There has been nothing on the ground.”

This comes after India’s top environmental court accused the government of wasting public funds, saying “not a single drop of the Ganga has been cleaned so far.”

Beyond the difficulty in acquiring land for treatment plants, the Modi administration has also been faced with the hundreds of tanneries channeling waste into the river as well as decades-long customs which see Hindu devotees bathe and throw cremated remains in its waters.

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While the government deals with various forms of gridlock, locally grown startups have begun offering innovative solutions to a problem that has been plaguing India for generations.

Help Us Green, for instance, is a company started by two 26-year-olds who collect as much as eight million metric tonnes of floral waste yearly from temples, mosques and gurdwaras before they end up in the river as waste. The company then composts it and turns them into incense sticks and fertilizers.

Omnipresent Robot Tech, a tech company from New Delhi, developed the Ro-Boat – a water surface vehicle which can collect, detect and get rid of floating waste, pollutants and even chemicals.

The unmanned device is powered by solar panels, producing zero emissions, and is capable of completely submerging itself in waste if necessary.

Similarly, a group of engineers created the Guided Ultrasonic Monitoring of Pipeline Systems, which alerts plants of potential oil and gas leaks. It has already been implemented in a large refinery in India.

Today, the Ganges river remains in squalid conditions however conditions seem optimistic with Modi personally leading the charge, coupled with flourishing innovations from India’s startups.