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Harness Hindu religious fervour to cleanse Ganga

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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.

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.

Harness Hindu religious fervour to cleanse Ganga - TOI Blogs
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