One of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s core promises when he swept to power in 2014 was a clean-up of the Ganges.
India’s main river, sacred to Hindus and therefore to the heartland of Modi’s support, is in places little more than an open sewer, polluted with human and industrial waste — and often with the half-burnt bodies from some of the least efficient ghats, or crematoriums, that line its banks.
The problem has been too tough for many past Governments, but Modi, with a can-do reputation as the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, claimed he would succeed where others had failed.
After deciding that the previous National Ganga River Basin Authority was not up to the task, he replaced it with a new high-powered agency, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMGC).
But there it has seemed to rest and before long critics were describing the NMGC as just another ineffective bureaucracy. Now, with Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just 18 months away from the next General Election action is sorely needed.
In fact work has been progressing, and sewage treatment plants at Haridwar and Varanasi have been approved and are under way, but these large-scale projects take time and will probably not come on line until 2020.
Work has progressed at a painfully slow pace as officials found land for the plants and then negotiated with local constructors.
The same problems have arisen with the ghats on the banks of the river where the bodies of the faithful are burned and their ashes delivered to the holy river. So far only a fraction have been converted into modern crematoria.
For the casual observer raw sewage continues to flow into the Ganges and its tributaries, and the stink is as bad as ever.
Earlier this year Modi was reportedly outraged when told that more than three quarters of the sewage dumped into the river was still untreated.
Which is why the NMGC has turned to a new project which it hopes will produce short term results — bacterial bioremediation, or to put it simply, sewage-eating microbes.
In pilot projects in India and other places around the globe this method has attacked raw sewage in watercourses and significantly reduced stench.
The NMGC says bioremediation is significantly less costly and shows clear results six to eight months after the microbes are released into polluted water.
“Implementing these techniques prevents degraded quality of water from flowing directly into the Ganga and its tributaries,” the agency said.
Maybe, but at best this is a face-saving exercise that may give the BJP some breathing space on the issue as it ramps up its re-election campaign in 2019. Modi’s much vaunted declaration that the Ganges will “flow pristine from the mountains to the sea” is still a long way from reality.
For the moment large stretches of the river still run a sullen black, interspersed with bobbing plastic and other waste that make it a rich breeding ground for millions of mosquitoes
Should Modi get another five years in which to fulfil his pledge a great deal more will have to be done.