My recent reading of an article detailing the amount of money squandered on the cleanup of the Ganges River prompted me to look into the conundrum. The Ganges is one of the most critical rivers in India – economically and culturally. It begins its journey in the Himalayas and ends up in the Bay of Bengal.
Along its over one and a half thousand miles long course, it serves as a source of irrigation for most of the farmland in the plains of North India, hosts large population centers, and draws in millions of religious Hindus and foreign tourists every year.
As expected with any major river supporting commerce, urban centers, and tourism, the Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world and has stubbornly maintained its notoriety for many decades.
According to one estimate around $735 million has been spent on the cleanup of the Ganges River since 1986. Narendra Modi’s appointment as the Prime Minister of India in 2014 saw a budgetary allocation of $3 billion towards bringing the much-revered river back to life. Over two years in, the cleanup operation is behind schedule and rudderless, while having utilized a billion dollars of the allocated money.
This comes as no surprise because that’s how government projects unfold. They are third party purchases where the government uses money it doesn’t own to buy goods and services that it doesn’t consume. Neither does it care about the price, nor does it obsess over the quality.
Bureaucrats burned over $65,000 (a significant sum in the Indian context) on holding a meeting to discuss the cleanup project. A large chunk of the sum was spent on paying for officials’ travel expenses. Floral decorations, an unnecessary fixture, cost 10 times what it would have cost on a first party purchase.
In an exhaustive article published in The New Yorker, George Black, meticulously walks the reader through the details of pollution, while weaving in the political and cultural forces that are intricately connected to the current morass.
The origins of the Ganges’ pollution can be traced back to four chief activities: waste (human and non-human) from religious rituals, crematory debris, industrial effluence, and raw sewage from urban population centers on the banks of the river.
The Ganges is the one of the most sacred elements of Hindu mythology. It’s no wonder that it is often apotheosized and is referred to as ‘mata,’ meaning mother. Hindus from all over the country descend upon the Ganges at specific points along its course (which happen to be major population centers) to pay homage and wash themselves (literally) off their sins. The result is heaps of paper, plastic, flower petals, and other materials that make up a standard religious offering, clustered at the banks, forming a thick layer on the water, disrupting the flow. Not to mention, people don’t hesitate to relieve themselves whilst standing in the water.
For a devout Hindu, being cremated on the banks of the Ganges is the most sublime farewell they can hope to get. Thus, the riverbank, at certain locations, is dotted with funeral fires with ashes flying around and settling on the water, giving the surface a matt grey appearance. Once the fire dies out, the leftovers – a mix of ash, un-burnt wood, and human remains – are thrown into the water.
The riverbanks are a perfect place for setting up industries and factories. With a large, unmonitored flowing body of water available to the factory owners, disposing of industrial waste is a breeze. The bustling city of Kanpur along the banks of the Ganges is famous for its leather tanneries – a multi-billion dollar export industry. But the tanning process is chemically intensive and heavily polluting. Only a third of the tanneries treat the waste before dumping it into the river. The others just let it run off untreated through open surface drains/gutters and sluiceways.
Varanasi (Benares) is a city of immense religious importance to Hindus. This city exemplifies the ‘Indian exotica’ that many tourists come over to visit. But built in ancient times, it’s full of narrow alleys that make up a Byzantine network. Due to structural impediments and a deeply corrupt and incompetent government, the city doesn’t have a sewer system and relies upon open surface drains, natural gradients, and sluiceways to direct untreated, raw sewage into the river.
In some ways, the Ganges suffers in a similar manner as did the River Thames in the mid-nineteenth century. And just like the inept British government at the time failed to clean up the Thames, so does the inherently corrupt, incompetent, and indolent present-day Indian governance flounders with the Ganges.
And just like a radical reform helped clean up the Thames, a similar profound change of gears might just revive the Ganges. I am speaking of using the principles of free markets and limited government to tackle this sticky and stinky problem.
The first major step will require ‘privatizing’ the Ganges. Although its sounds heretical, we need to be realistic and take note of the fact that places of worship under private management are often maintained in pristine condition.
The course of the river could be broken down into segments based on the purpose it serves and could be leased out to companies that specialize in clean up and management of natural resources. The bidding process should be accessible to both domestic and foreign competitors. Firms should be free to manage the allotted segments as they wish so long as they don’t hurt the environment, neighboring businesses, and people’s religious sentiments. The firms could generate revenues out of making access to the riverbanks a paid and gated affair. They should also be free to impose reasonable restrictions on activities that produce huge cleanup costs and untoward environmental consequences.
Thus, private firms will treat the land and water resource as business, attempting to reap profits out of managing them, and in turn achieving the desired environmental goals.
Segments that are utilized for irrigation and industrial setups should be leased off to appropriate contractors, perhaps in the waste management and irrigation solutions industries. The tanneries could be introduced to contractors in waste treatment to come up with mutually agreeable solutions to tackling waste dumping. Mandating tanneries to have their own treatment solutions could incentivize a cooperative effort between them and the waste treatment firms.
Using a private-public partnership model (PPP), a modern underground sewage system, including treatment plants, could be planned out for the numerous population centers that dot the banks of the Ganges.
Oversight of the above contracts and processes should be handled by environment watchdogs, comprised usually of concerned private individuals, or by professional private auditors. The overseers should report to the independent, constitutionally-sanctioned environmental watchdog and judicature – the National Green Tribunal (NGT).
The NGT, at present, doesn’t have the judicial prowess and reach of a court of law. With ambiguity surrounding the jurisdiction and judicial reach of the NGT, the legal framework for environmental crimes is fraught with loopholes and question marks.
Conferring the NGT with judicial legitimacy, clarifying its jurisdiction, and ordaining it as an environmental crimes’ special court will go a long way in ensuring compliance on the part of all actors in the marketplace.
Appointing a diverse jury of civil engineers, activists, environmental engineers, and scientists will help develop a well-rounded perspective on cases.
Big-box contractors should be introduced to startups, of which there are quite a few, to develop innovative solutions to commonplace problems like water surface litter management and leaching of industrial chemicals in the water amongst others.
While the free markets aren’t a panacea to all problems, they have shown to produce better results than central planning or the lip service of a politician occupying the bully pulpit. With the government failing to deliver results after over thirty years of different attempts at the hands of several administrations and bucket loads of money thrown down the drain, it’s about time to give the ‘invisible hand’ a try.