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Ganga: Seeking 'paradigm shift' in order to implement decision, initiate discourses

By Mansee Bal Bhargava*, Proshakha Maitra** 

India is blessed with a network of rivers that can accommodate the country's heavy water needs, making it wealthy in water resources. In addition, the literature on water wisdom is blissful from the writings in the Vedas to all the religious-spiritual writings on water and conversation and management of water resources. However, India is still among the worst water crisis hit countries in the world. A country rich with water wisdom if suffers from water woes must really call for a paradigm shift in the way water discourses and decisions are initiated and implemented.
At WforW Foundation, we aim to popularize the water conservations towards water conservation. The idea is to make ‘water everybody’s business’ so that the public governance can be initiated towards interactive and integrated water conversation and management. Since antiquity, Ganga or fondly called ‘Ma Ganga’ has been everybody’s matter in the country, be it philosophy, perception and pollution.
The word ‘Ganga’ means more than a river in India, it is the life-giver, the mother, and the Goddess. Different people/communities/religions revere it in different ways throughout the year. Apart from being India’s longest, Ganga and her tributaries, called the Ganga Basin, traverse eleven states covering one-third of India's surface water and includes the country's largest irrigated area. It provides shelter to 40 percent of India's population and livelihood to nearly 43 percent people yet, ironically it also has country's two-third of the poor, co-living in those 100 cities, 50 towns, and thousands of villages of the basin. Over 40 percent of India's GDP is generated in the Ganga Basin.
Despite being so special, the exploitation of Ganga for urban development has pushed the mighty holy river to serious level of pollution with its ecology and flow endangered. It is among the world’s topmost polluted rivers sitting alongside Citarum River in Indonesia and Yangtze River in China.
Despite being a crucial social-ecological resource as well as philosophically, morally, religiously connected to the lives of the people, Ganga could not escape the negative consequences of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and rising water demand. Unsustainable infrastructures along its vast flow and anthropological activities along every nook and corner banks have polluted the river’s water beyond tolerable measures, making it unsuitable for many uses.
Ma Ganga is crying for its clean and flowing nature alias, Aviralta and Nirmalta according to the laureates like, rishis and scientists besides according to the stats. Well, while we spend most of the country’s money assigned for rivers on the Ganga, its state of affairs is representative of most of the rivers in the country. The country's population and urbanization growth have increased the need to supply more water for irrigation, domestic and industrial purposes exhausting the existing water resources in quantity with equally considerable decline in the water quality (Joshi, Kumar, & Agrawal, 2009).
The irony is that the river’s cry alias pollution had been an old and continuous process in the river and can be referred from the continuous efforts made to clean it in parts or full in the last 100+ years. For example, from Ganga Mahasabha founded by Madan Mohan Malaviya in 1905; Ganga Action Plan (GAP) launched by Rajiv Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, in 1986; National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) established in 2009; Namami Gange Programme in 2014; to the current Namami Gange Mission-II to continue till 2026.
As part of the Namami Gange programme, a Clean Ganga Fund was created in 2014. The National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) was formed as the implementation wing of the National Ganga Council which was set up in October 2016 under the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities order 2016. The flagship programme of this is the, Namami Gange, with twin objective of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of Ganga.
Rajiv Ranjan Mishra (an Indian Administrative Officer of the 1987 batch) as a Mission Director and then as the Director-General of the NMCG has closely studied Ganga as well as structured the NMCG towards a comprehensive discourse on Ganga rejuvenation and its long-term sustenance. During his leadership at NMCG, he advocated expansion of the scope of the Mission to include the entire ecosystem of the river, its basin and the clean-up of its tributaries, and other pollutants that have been defiling the river.
Rajiv along with Puskal Upadhyay, a civil engineer-turned-civil servant and as Director (Finance) of NMCG who also played a critical role in developing the building blocks of the NMCG, wrote a book namely, ‘GANGA-Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’ which has their experience and learning about the importance of the river Ganga and the building of the NMCG as institution of national importance.
As part of the Wednesdays.for.Water conversation series, we invited Rajiv Ranjan Mishra and Puskal Upadhyay for a book reading session to discuss their coauthored book, ‘GANGA- Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’ to understand better from them the Ganga of today and the institutional opportunities and challenges to reimagine, rejuvenate and reconnect as they write in the book. The video of the discussion is available here at the WforW Foundation website and YouTube. This essay is an excerpt from that discussion.

The book

The book, ‘GANGA- Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’ is published by‎ Rupa Publications India (ISBN-10: ‎9355201990, ISBN-13: ‎978-9355201997) on 23 December 2021. Weighing 640 grams and measuring 15.24 x 2.54 x 22.86 cms, the book is available for buying at Rupa Publications, Amazon, and other portals besides book stores across the country. The Kindle Edition is priced INR 426 and Hard Cover version is priced INR 449/- online.
The Hardcover book has 376 pages with 16 chapters and nice letter to the readers at the end. The foreword is written by Bibek Debroy and in addition words of praise are written by 17 great thinkers, philosophers, policymakers, authors, scientists and leaders.
For example,
  • ‘As citizens of a country where rivers like Ganga have given us life, the Ganga’s future depends on what we, the readers, do and don’t do.’ —Bibek Debroy, author and Chairman, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council.
  • ‘The book lucidly explains the efforts being made, the enormity of the challenge and the intricacies of institution building for the rejuvenation of Ganga.’ —Rajiv Kumar, Vice Chairman, NITI Aayog
  • ‘This book is crucial for all to read as river conservation in our world demands a different ethic; a different paradigm of water and waste management so that it is affordable and sustainable.’ —Sunita Narain, DG, Centre for Science and Environment
  • ‘An account of the various challenges the NMCG team faced as they set out to restore the Ganga, one of the most formidable rivers on the planet.’ —Mike H. Pandey, ecologist and Green Oscar winner
  • ‘Through the National Mission for Clean Ganga, the river Ganga has now become an emblem for all the river ecosystems in the country.’ —Prof. Edmund Penning-Rowsell, OBE, Distinguished Research Associate, Oxford University Centre for the Environment
  • ‘This book looks at the importance of putting people at the heart of rebuilding our waterways so future generations can also prosper from their bounty.’ —Karlene Maywald, South Australian Water Ambassador

The Session

The session (moderated by Mansee Bal Bhargava) started with introducing the speakers. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra is associated with National Institute of Urban Affairs NIUA as Chief Advisor and Chairman of strategy & Policy Unit and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee as Professor of Practice in the Department of Management Studies. He is deeply involved in areas such as climate resilient cities, water sensitive urban design and developing a paradigm and online courses for Managing Urban Rivers.
Puskal Upadhyay is one of the pioneers of the government’s clean-Ganga initiative and has even worked before the launch of Namami Gange and played a critical role in developing its building blocks during formative years as also the famous Hybrid Annuity Model. He is currently the Financial Advisor in New Delhi Municipal Council. This is followed by a brief background of Ganga, efforts to clean it, and the concerns continuing doing so as written in the background of this essay.

Justification of the book title

The authors realised the plight of the Ganga and are of the opinion that both large- and small-scale changes are required to be brought in to save the river from further degradation. The book thus focusses on how a change can be brought in for the betterment of the resource and also tries to find out how difficult such a challenge would be. Puskal argued that the problems of Ganga have been very dynamic. Any problem at hand has a genesis. Thus, the entire situation must be reimagined as the contents around it have changed with the passage of time.
After reimagining the scenario and finding some strategies, they must be implemented on ground to achieve a holistic rejuvenation of the river. This entire process is not possible without the cooperation of all the stakeholders. Therefore, the call for all the people to be reconnected with the resource as well as among themselves. Since, most of the rivers in the present days have become sewer channels as the people around them have lost their connection with the waterbodies.
The reconnection is aimed to facilitate communities to integrate with the environmental aspects around them to bring about rejuvenation of the rivers, particularly of Ganga. The book talks about how the flow of Ganga attributes to the socio-cultural connections around the river. This is how the title of the book emerged as, ‘GANGA-Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’.

Capturing the wicked problems from Gangotri to Gangasagar

Rajiv argues that Ganga, throughout its course, exhibits diverse ecological and cultural characteristics. It varies greatly from the banks at Haridwar to its downstream course at Kolkata. The different stages of the river at different region face certain unique social-ecological challenges. It can be said that there are many ‘mini-Gangas’ flowing within the Ganga.
This diversity is captured in the book to provide the readers with an experience of travelling all along the course of the mighty river. The unique challenges at different stretches may be attributed to the different stakeholders involved, different levels of governments working on it and indeed the presence of different ecological conditions. It is common practice in most conservation schemes to move to the solutions without looking closely at the local problems.
Some general questions to the readers are posed, such as why the river matters to the citizens, what are the institutional structures around Ganga while taking them along the course of Ganga as it flows. They bring out the specific problems of the various places and the need for sustainable actions as the river will continue to flow for generations, much after our lives.

Connecting policy and people

A common fault that occurs with the majority of projects is that we often try to jump to the solutions before building a comprehensive understanding of the problem status. While reimagining the entire Gangetic scenario, it is found that Ganga rejuvenation involves two crucial components- objectives and institutions. The objectives, which is considered as the destination of the journey have to be clear and achievable.
The institutions are the driver have to be capable of moving towards or attaining the objectives. Unclear objectives and incapable institutions have been among the major challenges in the previous Ganga programs. As a result, despite a lot of efforts and planning in the projects, they failed to have substantial impact.
The book is an account of how the institutions are built to the move towards attaining the objectives of the Namami Gange Program. To link the policies with the people, to connect the vision and mission of the project and to successfully deliver, setting up clear objectives and then readying the institutions were crucial. This is carried out by consulting all the relevant stakeholders for building the institutions.

What needs more focus -- the tributaries or the mighty river?

Ganga is said to be a gaining river and is joined by several tributaries as it flows down from the source moving across the plains and then through the delta/mangroves/estuary merging into the sea. Firstly, the Ganga River Basin is considered part of a larger river basin consisting of Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. Known as the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) River Basin, it is one of the largest river systems in the world.
Secondly, focusing on Ganga alone, it starts as a convergence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers in the Himalayan Mountains and then has two headstreams and a number of tributaries besides hundreds of connected small streams. The left tributaries are, Brahmaputra, Burhi Gandak, Kosi, Mahananda, Ramganga, Garra, Gomti, Gandak, and Ghaghara. The right tributaries are, Yamuna, Rupnarayan, Tamsa, Sone, Karamnasa, Punpun, Flagu, Kiul, Chandan, Ajoy, Damodar. The Yamuna tributary is the longest and also second largest tributary river of Ganga.
As the water systems are connected, the quantity and the quality of water in the river depends on the other water bodies, be it the surface water and ground water of the region. Many earlier projects have tried to focus on few pocketed areas which reduced the effectiveness of the efforts made towards cleaning the river. The book puts stress on understanding the whole river system by taking a basin approach where every tributary, wetlands, springs or any other waterbodies are considered equally important as the main mighty river.
For example, in Kanpur, despite several water treatment plants, the Ganga is hardly clean as it is joined by Kali Nadi and Ram Ganga. If the waters in Bareilly and Moradabad are not cleaned, Kanpur will continue to dispose polluted water. Whereas, after Varanasi when Ghaghra, Kosi, Son and others meet Ganga, the river is comparatively cleaner. Thus, every component of the river system is important and together they make up the bigger picture of the mighty Ganga.
Tributaries of Ganga, Click here for source

People-River – The Connect

Rivers are not just bodies of water and resources flowing across a landscape, but they are flows supporting a variety of cultural beliefs, values, and ways of life by linking people, places, and other forms of life. As a cradle of civilization, every river has its tales of mythology, iconography, folklore and origins which are worth knowing, especially in the current times when they are under severe distress of development.
Since knowing these intangible aspects of the tangible resource/heritage is crucial to instigate emotional and spiritual connect which may in turn make people and policy makers understand these rivers better and thus have more empathy towards them to engage more sensibly and sensitively.
However, the Ganga being considered as mother by thousands of people around the country, is also taken for granted, just as the mother in the family. As we need to develop more respect for our mother in the house through our deeds, similarly we need to care for our rivers more. The value of the river as a critical life sustaining resource can only be realized if there is a strong local connect between the people and the river.
The government and many non-government institutions fueling several funding and policies can only change the situations on the ground when local people devote themselves to on-ground actions. To facilitate this aspect, a program is started through Namami Gange which involves the formation of District Ganga Committees. These committees include members from both local officials and local community.
Through the District Ganga Committees, the local people also have the opportunity to put forth their needs, grievances, and views in the process of Ganga rejuvenation. To sustain any project for a longer term, it is also crucial to have small local initiatives that hold several branches of stakeholders together, that is the role envisaged from the District Ganga Committees.
Big and massive projects on the inland waterbodies and river systems are gradually interfering with the natural ecosystems in the basins like Ganga. Many aquatic species are dying out or being forced to migrate to other areas due to severe anthropogenic and technological activities.
The situation of Gangetic dolphins finds a place in the book. Ironically, the existence of dolphins in Ganga was hardly known to people. Majority of the population believe dolphins to be found in marine environments and are unaware of their presence in the Ganga. dolphins, however, have existed in the river since its very formation and have even been mentioned in numerous mythological and historical texts.
The Namami Gange has tried to bring biodiversity as one of the very crucial indicators of river quality monitoring in the Ganga. With the help of the Wildlife Institute of India, a census of gangetic dolphins and some other aquatic species are conducted. The main purpose of this was to bring out or increase the visibility of the species among the people so that they become aware of their existence.
Being the national aquatic animal of India, the Gangetic dolphins should necessarily be the focus of related river projects and there are many efforts towards its protection. Measures are taken to reduce the risks to dolphin from fishing as it was found that large number of dolphins were being affected due to unscientific or disorganized fishing activities.
There has been a project with the Central Inland Fishery Resource Institute whose efforts have been instrumental in curbing the threat to the dolphins. They involve public awareness and training of fishermen to conserve the species. Thus, with the help of both community and scientific measures, the future of the dolphins in Ganga appears to be positive, with their numbers gradually increasing. Now locals and tourist get dolphin sighting in the river which has become a special tourist attraction.
Uncontrolled technological expansion and exploitation pose serious threats to future. More automation is leading to more carbon emission whereas our focus should be on ecologically sustainable means. To handle the crisis is to be in sync with the natural resources and use them in a sustainable manner. Even though development requires technological advancements, long term measures should prioritize nature-based solutions.
For example, a feasible alternative for the benefit of marine species and to protect them from propellers and vibrations. Traull pullers are considered to be helpful and eco-friendly as they do not require the use of large motors and huge quantity fuel. They can be attached to simple boats and help in carrying cargo or other necessary goods along. 
Solutions or alternatives are available for any negatively affecting activity but what matters in such situations is the willingness of the people to use the alternatives. The greater challenge is to make ecology and water a priority for the people. Large-scale conservational measures need to focus on the parallel applications of several solutions to achieve a holistic outcome.
Chemical pollution of the rivers has been a disastrous event for a considerably large span of time. They not only kill marine species but cause irreversible changes in the quality of river water. For example, the 21 drop points in Kanpur from where effluent is directly entering the river and mixing up in the ecosystem and then in the food chain.
This has a direct impact on the local population. Ironically, several factories around the area lack the capacity to properly treat the wastewater however possess valid licenses to operate issued by some government agencies. How to ensure accountability of the people granting such licenses and how to address the social and governance issues? 
In Namami Gange, enforcement of sustainable means is carried out more strictly now even if that affects livelihood. There is thorough monitoring on regular basis and annual inspection carried out by institutions such as, the IITs. Numerous solutions are also emerging towards pollution abatement, especially in regions like Kanpur.


The discussion concluded with reinstating the aim of the Namami Gange team as to rejuvenate Ganga to its unaltered pristine condition and not just restore its quality to what was a few years ago. This creates a broader impact both on the resource as well as the society. The book ‘GANGA-Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting’ becomes an asset for any future conservation program.
Taking the readers along the course, it brings out the real on-ground situation of the river and lays down the institutional-individual objectives in front of the society. It also describes unique ways of connecting people, bring out new initiatives and mechanisms to further strengthen them, connecting the river back to the communities and most importantly raise the concern and importance of immediate action towards this critical resource, more as a problem of human sustenance than of the resource sustainability.
The United Nations has recognized the Namami Gange initiative to rejuvenate river Ganga as one of the top 10 World Restoration Flagships aimed at reviving the natural world at the 15th Conference of Parties (COP15) to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) in Montreal, Canada on World Restoration Day in December 2022. Recognitions are ok but we need more realization and be more optimistic about the Aviralta and Nirmalta of the Holy Mother Ganga.
Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Monami Bhattacharya (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Bnglr), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at and WforW Foundation is reachable at and The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.
*Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation; **Independent Scholars and Fellows at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation



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