Following his election win on Friday, Indian Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi reiterated his commitment to restoring the Ganges River. Heavily polluted from industrial waste, raw sewage and religious items, the Ganges rejuvenation was used successfully as a symbol of Indian nationalism during Modi’s election campaign.
The Ganges River was at the centre of pre-election promises in India this month, with a number of candidates promising to tackle the river’s pollution problems ahead of polling last week. Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi was amongst those promising to tackle pollution and clean up the Ganges in the city of Varanasi. Due to be sworn into office this week Modi will have a number of key challenges ahead of him, none more so than fulfilling the promise of restoring health to the Ganges.
Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi is facing a challenge as great as the Ganges River itself in restoring the health of the river. Following his election success last week and the promise of tackling pollution in the Ganges River, Modi now faces the difficult task of following through on restoring the river’s health.
The Ganges River is India’s largest river system and supports over 450 million people. Sacred to millions of Hindus, the river’s religious status has done little to prevent the dumping of industrial waste and sewage leading to severe degradation. According to the National Ganges River Basin Authority (NGRBA) an estimated 300 to 500 million litres of sewage is dumped into the river daily.
A key challenge in reducing the sewage is the capacity of treatment facilities, which are only capable of treating 100 million litres of sewage per day. Out-dated and inefficient treatment technology exacerbates the problem limiting the effectiveness of plants and the quality of treated water.
The social and religious significance of the river will prove Modi’s greatest challenge. Even if he successfully reduces the amount of sewage and industrial waste dumped daily into the river, the religious aspect will be harder to address. The NGRBA estimates 32,000 bodies are cremated on the Ghats in accordance with Hindu tradition, accounting for as much as 300 tonnes of ash and 200 tonnes of half-burnt human flesh polluting the river. A recent survey also estimates a further 3,000 bodies are decomposing in the river.
Modi is not the first to attempt a clean-up of the Ganges River. The Ganges Action Plan was initiated in 1985 and is currently in its second phase of projects. Millions of dollars invested in restoring the Ganges have produced few results and pollution has steadily worsened over the past forty years. Addressing mismanagement and assessing why investment and projects have failed will be crucial in developing an effective strategy.
There are also concerns, particularly from the Boatmen of Varanasi, that Modi’s restoration plan will focus more on developing the city and waterfront as a tourist site rather than the river itself. The Sabarmati Water Front Project is the model Modi has used as the success story of his ability to restore rivers. Critics argue that project failed to address the health of the river and focused on the physical development of the waterfront and nearby facilities.
The severity of water pollution in the Ganges River will not be reversed over the short term. River management in India has historically failed to take into account environmental sustainability. Modi has publicised his desire to turn Varanasi into a world heritage site and develop infrastructure and facilities to encourage tourism. His strategy will likely be one of aesthetic design rather than in-stream river health. Ultimately Modi’s ability to restore and develop Varanasi and the Ganges River will depend on the support of his cabinet and how his plans align with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s policies.
Acting Research Manager
Global Food and Water Security Research Programme