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?
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?
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.
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.
keep travelling abroad quite often, how do you compare Kanpur
with other towns abroad ?
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 ?
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 ?
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?
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
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
What is your perception about 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?
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 !
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?
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
What kind of role do you envisage for the civil society in Ganga
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.
people be charged for using the river waters (direct or indirect)?
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.
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.