ECO TALK
 

Dr Vandana Asthana is the Head of the Political Science Department and Environmental Studies Unit, Christ Church College, Kanpur. Her area of specialization has been Environmental Politics and Security. She recently completed a Project on India’s Water Resources and Implications for National Security. She developed a course on WATER SECURITY in SOUTH ASIA. She is presently at the Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences Department at UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, Urbana-Champaign, engaged in research on water conflicts and security with special reference to corporatization and commodification of water. Dr. Vandana has co-authored a book “Ganga – The Water Marvel”. Dr. Vandana, the founder General Secretary of Eco- Friends, expressed her views on Ganga and Ganga Action Plan freely while talking to Rakesh K. Jaiswal, Executive Secretary, Eco-Friends.

You were born and brought up in Kanpur. What changes have you witnessed in environment of Kanpur over the years?

The city of Kanpur, known as the Manchester of India has witnessed a downfall, unprecedented in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Known for its textile mills and industries, the city over the period of time has lost its industrial glamour. Power shortages and poor infrastructural facilities have compelled industries to shift to belts of better facilities. The urban population is bearing the brunt of air and water pollution. The city today is known as the hub of tuberculosis. The environment of Kanpur has definitely deteriorated. Urbanization and migration has added to the growth of population and pollution.

You must have seen Ganga in Kanpur from very close quarters during your childhood. What changes have you noticed over the years?

I lived on the banks of the Ganga in the Cantonment area near Gola Ghat and remember taking evening walks with my parents during childhood to enjoy the beauty of the pristine and pure Ganga that flowed by the ghat. The river nurtured me and always evoked a sense of sacredness in me. Today as I reflect back, my evening walks stopped as I saw the river turn into a drain, smelling of toxic wastes and flowing with industrial and municipal sewage.

Have you got accustomed to live in the most polluted city in India?

Both personal and professional compulsions enhance one’s adaptability to change. Bonds of culture, community cohesion as well as professional duties have made me accustomed to living in Kanpur. However, there are areas, still urbanizing and have the space for a clean environment as long as development and populations do not increase in those areas.

You keep travelling abroad quite often, how do you compare Kanpur with other towns abroad ?

Kanpur is developing like any metro city in India. I do not think it is appropriate to compare it with towns in other parts of the world. It is better than many Latin American and African cities but it cannot compete with towns of the Western World. While the consumer culture is rising here too, it is yet to attain the levels reached in the West. Problems of power outages, water crisis, urban air quality are major issues. While most of these problems do not seem to exist in Western towns, these are worse in many parts of the developing and under-developed world. Inspite of the revolution in communications, technology and development projects, the city of Kanpur is not free from its share of problems.

How do you feel after being back to Kanpur ?

Depends where I am coming from. But one thing is for sure that there is nothing like home. So being home is always a pleasure in spite of the discomforts of the city.

What is the status of Ganga today ?

It is said that as Ganga descends from heaven, she is a sacred bridge to the Divine. Divinity apart, it did not only possess the ecological resilience but modern bacteriological researches have confirmed that the cholera germs died in three to five hours in the waters of the Ganga. It is no wonder that Ganga is dear to the Hindus for peace after death but also the lifeline of prosperity to the people. Today the Ganga has been reduced to a drain. Municipal and industrial waste, partially cremated bodies, unburnt human carcasses, chemical fertilizers of agricultural runoffs have depleted the quality of the river as it travels from Rishikesh over a 2000 km stretch before emptying itself into the sea. The area from Kanpur to Allahabad is the worst affected.

Would you mind taking a dip and aachaman (mouthful) in Ganga?

As the Ganga traverses from Gaumukh to Rishikesh, its water is relatively cleaner. Disposal of sewage starts mainly from Rishikesh. As a child I do remember taking aachman and a dip in Gangotri and Rishikesh decades ago. But as I witnessed increasing river pollution and degraded water quality, taking a dip or aachman even at Rishikesh seems impossible.

Any idea about governmental efforts to depollute Ganga?

I have followed the policy implications of the Ganga Action Plan -- a pioneer effort of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to depollute the Ganga. But what theoretically appeared a sincere effort on part of the Government did not turn out to be practically feasible due to problems of implementation, enforcement gaps, red tapism, corruption, cultural values and inadequate water regulations for small, medium and large scale industrial pollution. Water being state subject, governments manipulate water quality levels to attract industrial investment and development projects in the state. While the center has set up a minimum standard, enforcement of these standards varies from state to state.

Have you been associated with GAP somehow ?

Not in governmental plans but indirectly through civil society organizations.

What is your perception about GAP?

GAP may seem to be a good initiative on the part of the government of India as a first systematic effort to monitor and control pollution of the river but reports and personal observations say that there is little achieved. GAP is modelled on the Thames Water Authority. But Thames is too small a river ecosystem, while the Ganga arises in a tropical ecosystem which is highly productive and yet highly sensitive to human interference. Apart from these dissimilarities, plans alone cannot depollute the Ganga. Along with the reasons mentioned above, a lack of coordination among agencies even at local and state levels, as well as lack of public awareness to promote active participation of people in the pollution control programs. The Government of India failed to encourage local efforts to ensure effective functioning, more control in design and implementation of project and based the plan on the culture of scientific expertise and engineering mindsets rather than local knowledge. The GAP was not designed as a participatory project despite claims about it being a people’s program

Are enough efforts being made to restore Ganga?

The Phase II is on, but the discourse on participation needs to recognize and accommodate a realistic assessment of the possible. While some measure of state intervention is imperative with respect to water pollution control programs, a more bottom up approach is needed instead of top down approach that does not tend to yield results. Participation from the bottom has to be a process of empowerment and community building for cleaning the Ganga but also not overlooking the specific demands of those affected by it to formulate a more articulated sense of the common good.

What is your vision for Ganga? What kind of Ganga do you visualise?

Visualisng a totally pristine and pure Ganga in a country of 1 billion plus population would be vying for an utopian goal. The Ganga I visualize is one that is not only clean to the level B (Outdoor Bathing Standards) but also caters to the needs of the population affected by it in the quest for a more egalitarian distribution of its resources for sustainable development.

What would you do, if you are given authority to restore Ganga? How would you do it? Is it possible to restore Ganga in the existing socio-economic and political situation? Any hope !

Human population is increasing and pressure on the river would naturally start taking its toll. The challenge for sustainable development of the Ganga basin, as much as it being technical and economic is also institutional - allowing a plurality of interests to function and discourage those setups that allow a dominant mode of thought and action to dominate while marginalizing and excluding other participatory discourses. There is a need for wisdom even in the given socio-economic environment and slower progress is better than no progress at all. We need to start thinking and acting on these lines.

What do you have to say about the polluting social practices like dumping of worship materials, dead bodies etc. in river Ganga?

The Ganga is the pathway to Moksha – the attainment of heaven after death. This is evident in the ritual of immersing the ashes of the dead, the unburnt bodies of saints and sages. These are religious beliefs embedded in our cultural values. Changing these beliefs is not an easy task. Politicians would not dare raise the issue for electoral reasons but NGOs and religious leaders can definitely play a major role in trying to create public awareness for the cause of cleaning the revered river.

Do river worshipping people of India care for the health of the rivers? What could be the role of religious institutions / leaders in Ganga depollution efforts?

The river to the Hindus is a Tirtha – a place of divine worship. The people worship it for their own salvation and to the path of heaven, as faith has it that dip in the Ganga absolves you of all your sins. People take dips even in a highly polluted Ganga based on this faith regularly and on auspicious occasions. The sacredness of the river does not permit them to think of it as a riverine ecosystem needing ecological health. To the worshippers, even the dirty polluted Ganga is pristine pure, washing away their sins and taking them to heaven so they are completely oblivious to the idea of Ganga ecosystem health. Religious leaders can create the public awareness needed for the common people, as it is faith that is also a part of the polluting process. The ecological resilience of the river needs to be maintained to provide for the space in heaven.

What kind of role do you envisage for the civil society in Ganga restoration?

The role of civil society has been growing and the revival of community theory, based on bonds of cohesion and shared experiences will help to conserve water resources better than state’s appropriation of these resources to private hands. These Public-Private partnerships as envisaged even in the New Water Policy and implemented in many states is leading to a growing commodification of water. The role of civil society has to be one of a vigilant watchdog and prevent such decisions, whether by persuasion or resistance movements. The point has to be driven - people’s power should have a role to play in the maintenance of the water resources as the resources belong to them and not to the state.

Your comments (feasibility, viability and practicality) on the much debated interlinking project?

The interlinking of rivers project was announced as a political decision and water being a much sensitive issue appealed to all parties alike. The idea of integrated river basin management may sound very appealing but has serious repercussions of peace and security for the country. While rivers form no hydrological boundaries, political boundaries of intra and inter-state often impinge on river waters creating issues of conflict. Managing such a mega project will have intra basin as well as inter basin implications of security not only within India but also transnational. Besides, interfering with natural ecosystems have grave and uncertain effects of ecological risk. The contested terrain of development vis-a -vis human rights in resettlement and rehabilitation is yet to be solved in other mega dam building projects and this will add to the complications. Economically, India alone cannot sustain the project and involvement of global capital, transnational corporations will lead to colonization of our rivers. The technical feasibility is also much debated in terms of canals, pumping and lifting and tunneling of these waters. Can tailor made devices of the engineering mindset solve the problem of water scarcity and security? I don’t think so. We need more water conservation projects at local levels, appropriating the local resources to the community, water harvesting projects, demand driven programmes rather than such mega projects as interlinking rivers.

Should people be charged for using the river waters (direct or indirect)?

Pricing of water is very much debated. There is also a growing understanding of the misuse of water resources that needs to be curbed and pricing may offer a solution to that. However, pricing of water cannot be made generally applicable. There are categories where pricing seems a necessity and not an option. There are also categories where pricing will be denying the people their basic needs. There needs to be a reasonable assessment and in certain categories like industries, agriculture etc. pricing will prevent wastage and misuse of water, while subsidizing in other categories will ensure equitable distribution and easy access to the poor.

What would you like to appeal to the people?

Today the quest for water is becoming an impending water crisis. We as citizens of this country need to look into alternatives for better water management, as India is not all that water scarce. This scarcity is a social construct to provide for supply side development projects in face of small, local water conservation schemes. People should join hands in the quest for sustainability in water resources so that access to water is equal and equitable.

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