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India's losing battle to save the holy Ganges

The polluted river is only the latest victim of the country's dysfunctional governments

| India
A man cleans garbage along the banks of the river Ganges in Kolkata in April.   © Reuters

Of all the formidable tasks facing Narendra Modi when he took office as India's prime minister in 2014, beginning the work of saving the holy river Ganges from pollution should have been the easiest. The plan was supported by more than a billion Hindus, had clear benefits for health and the economy, and was politically uncontroversial.

So the depressing news that very little has been achieved in the three and a half years since his election victory does not mean that Modi and Indian voters care nothing for their sacred river. On the contrary, it demonstrates how difficult it is to govern India, and how hard it is to get important things done in the country, even when everything seems to be working in the government's favor.

Saving the Ganges is a vital mission. It has always been the world's most important river because its waters and the fertile silt it brings to the densely populated agricultural lands of northern India and Bangladesh support more people than any other waterway in the world.

"If Ganga [the Ganges] thrives, India thrives," said Swami Chidanand Saraswati, a popular holy man who presides over an ashram (a religious retreat) on the banks of the upper Ganges. "The lives of 500 million people is not a small thing."

Modi therefore had -- and still has -- strong political, religious and economic incentives to save the Ganges from the untreated sewage, toxic waste and excessive water extraction that afflict it.

First, his government's plan to ensure that all waste water is treated before entering the river would create thousands of the desperately needed jobs that Modi promised to deliver to young Indians in his election campaign, whether in the construction of sewage plants and drainage systems or in garbage cleanup campaigns and beautification projects. There were even some ambitious announcements about building 2,000 ports along India's rivers and turning the Ganges into a thriving waterway for freight transport.

Second, better sanitation would drastically improve health in a country where as many as half a million children under five die unnecessarily each year from diarrhea, often because of tainted water supplies. At the start of his tenure, Modi disarmed his critics by emphasizing sanitation during his first Independence Day speech in 2014. "I don't know if people will appreciate my talking about dirt and toilets from the Red Fort but I come from a poor family," he said. "I have seen poverty and the attempt to give dignity to the poor starts from there." The Red Fort in New Delhi was once a residence for India's Mughal emperors.  

Third, the Ganges is worshipped as a goddess by Hindus -- Modi is a devout member of the faith who leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. He won instant support when he announced in Varanasi on the banks of the river during his election campaign that he had been called by God to save "Ma Ganga" -- Mother Ganges -- who was "screaming for help" to be delivered from the "filth" of pollution.

Institutional failures

What, then, went wrong with Modi's plan to save the Ganges?

Uma Bharti, Modi's first appointee as minister for the newly renamed Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, proved singularly ill-suited to managing such a complex task and achieved little. Nitin Gadkari, the new minister responsible, has a better track record of managing infrastructure projects, and is also the transport minister in charge of roads, although it was also he who earlier announced the unrealistic plan to turn the Ganges into a successful commercial waterway for freight.

On an institutional level, investors and policymakers who hoped back in 2014 that Modi would replicate at the national level his relatively successful record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat -- and so reform the Indian economy and revitalize the organs of government -- are now puzzled and disappointed by the slow progress thus far.

Everything from the structures of government to the methods for implementing policies are in urgent need of repair. Power is split between the central government in New Delhi and the 29 states, and in most places the municipal bodies essential for local management of issues such as sanitation and healthcare lack authority and revenues and barely function at all. Corruption is rife, and perhaps more seriously there is often an absence of rigor among bureaucrats when it comes to formulating and carrying out policies -- and very little accountability. The justice system does not help, with the highest courts repeatedly announcing edicts and pollution bans for the Ganges and other rivers that they are unable to enforce.

Many of the institutions that would be essential for saving the Ganges are dysfunctional, from the central and state pollution control boards responsible for monitoring water quality and regulating effluents to the companies that should be building and maintaining sewage treatment plants.

The result is that the billions of dollars from foreign donors and from India's own budget allocated to the Ganges either go undisbursed, because donors await viable projects on which to spend their money, or go to waste because of entrenched corruption and incompetence.

This array of problems appears to bode ill for the Ganges and for India as a whole, because such shortcomings are as serious for health and education and other sectors as they are for the environment.

But we should not lose hope. The great religious fairs organized regularly for millions of devotees on the banks of the Ganges demonstrate that even state governments such as those of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, both notorious for corruption, can successfully manage large infrastructure projects for the benefit of all when they are motivated to do so.

The Kumbh Mela religious gathering in Allahabad in 2013 was reputed to be the largest gathering of humans in history -- more than 70 million pilgrims attended -- and the authorities managed to build a temporary "pop-up megacity" complete with sanitation, health clinics, roads, electricity, food supplies, running water and an efficient police force.

The Ganges, furthermore, is not the first river in the world to need rescuing. Rivers have been sullied and turned black and pungent by human waste and manufacturing industries for centuries -- in Europe, the U.S., Japan and Southeast Asia. And they have -- like the Thames in London and the Rhine in continental Europe -- been cleaned and revived. Saving the Ganges may be difficult, but the experiences of other countries and of India's own sporadic anti-pollution efforts show that it is not impossible.

Victor Mallet is the Asia news editor of the Financial Times, and author of the newly published "River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India's Future."

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