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Indian government merges water issues under one ministry, in charge of the Ganges troubled waters

  • Indian government merges water issues under one ministry, in charge of the Ganges troubled waters

Fulfilling a campaign promise by Prime Minister Modi, recently sworn for his second term in office, the Indian government has formed a new ministry, known as 'Jal Shakti', merging the former ministries of Water Resources and Drinking Water and Sanitation. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat took office as the new minister last week, reports The Economic Times.

The minister has identified providing clean drinking water to everyone as a priority, also part of his party’s electoral promises. The responsibilities of the new ministry will include international and inter-state water disputes, as well as Modi’s flagship Namami Gange project to clean up the Ganges basin.

Modi moved the Namami Gange project from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to the Ministry of Water Resources during his first term in office, and injected funding into it. Contradicting claims that nothing has been done yet to clean up the Ganges, Minister Shekhawat said the river has been cleaned to a large extent, and now the priority is to clean its tributaries and sub-tributaries.

But how clean is the Ganges?

The Ganges or Ganga is the biggest river in the Indian subcontinent in terms of water flow. It originates in the western Himalayas, in the state of Uttarakhand, and flows 2,525 km to the Bay of Begal. It is a sacred river along every fragment of its course, where people drink and bathe in its waters. Pollution from industrial waste, sewage, and religious offerings wrapped in plastics are a cause of concern that threatens some 400 million people that live close to the river, according to India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

This government body monitors water quality at 86 monitoring stations along the river, and the results reveal that the water is unfit for drinking or bathing at most of them, reports NDTV news from India. The CPCB results indicate that the Ganges water from 7 out of 86 locations could be consumed after disinfection, while water at the remaining locations is unfit for this purpose. Also, water was found to be fit for bathing at only 18 of the locations. The CPCB reports high levels of coliform bacteria in the river.

Although efforts to clean up the Ganges date back to the 1980s, the launching of the Namami Gange initiative in 2015 by Modi’s government brought new hope. The authorities have said that industries are no longer discharging their waste into the river. Although the government’s efforts are ongoing, they are not enough to tackle the complex situation. Huge challenges remain concerning sewage treatment, open defecation, restoring the flow of the river, and governance issues. In an interview with NDTV news, Dr Jasper Wieck, a German diplomat in India, called for a holistic approach to this monumental task, involving all stakeholders, from government authorities, to industry and agriculture representatives, and individual households; he recalled that it took 30 years and 45 billion euros to clean the Rhine. Will the Ganges ever be clean? In spite of the Indian government’s plans to clean the river by 2020, the process may take many years.

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