The Ganga is the largest river in India, and serves an estimated population of over 500 million people across 11 states, more than any other river in the world. The Ganges river basin is one of the most fertile and populated in the world, and is situated along the banks of someone of the oldest inhabited cities ever known, including Patna and Varanasi.
The Ganga is vitally important to India. Apart from its significant religious value to millions of people, it provides water to 40% of India’s population. It is also one of the most polluted rivers anywhere, adversely affected by human and industrial waste. Concentrated conservation efforts since 1986 have largely failed to keep the Ganga clean, its biodiversity protected, and the people who depend on it the most healthy.
In 2014, as India participated in the largest election the world has ever seen, environmentalists who have advocated for a clean Ganga for decades got the opportunity to make this an election issue. Jhatkaa, in collaboration with the Sankat Mochan Foundation, followed the trail of political candidates to Varanasi, including the two Prime Ministerial candidates, Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi.
Jhatkaa and the Sankat Mochan Foundation identified the three key reasons why the Ganga was still so polluted, with 825 crore litres of sewage going into it every day, after years of cleaning projects and millions of rupees spent. They identified the following three key reasons: poor design, poor planning, and poor governance.
Jhatkaa’s intervention was strategic, as this would not only be an opportunity to get a commitment from all major parties who have a role to play in India’s present and future, the success of this campaign would also mean having a blueprint to apply to other polluted rivers in India.
The two organisations identified the following concrete steps that the new government could take to finally take effective action for a clean Ganga. They would have to design sewage treatment systems that:
Jhatkaa and the Sankat Mochan Foundation reached out to spread the ‘Clean Ganga’ message through person-to-person contact, SMS, interactive voice response (IVR), missed calls, email, cutting-edge web tools, and social networks. They worked on the streets, ghats, and colleges of Varanasi, including the Benaras Hindu University (BHU).
Jhatkaa set up a missed call number that got 5,000 responses, a petition that got hundreds of signatures, distributed 8,000 fliers, and appeared in dozens of media stories on the issue.
Jhatkaa members met with political candidates such as AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal, Congress’s Ajay Rai and the Samajwadi Party’s candidate, Kailash Chaurasia. As a result of this extensive campaigning, the issue snowballed after people started taking action, leading to political candidates themselves campaigning about it.
For the first time in history, all the major political candidates committed to cleaning the Ganga as a top priority in their election agenda. The new government formed in May 2014 by Narendra Modi committed to cleaning up the Ganga by 2019.
In the 2014 Budget, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced the ‘Namami Ganga’ project for the development of the river basin and allocated over INR 2,000 crore for this project. As a part of this project, the government ordered 48 industrial units around the Ganga to be shut down.
Jhatkaa and other campaigners are now in a position to hold the government accountable to their promise, and challenge projects such as dams or industrial constructions that endanger the biodiversity of the Ganga and the lives of the millions of people depending upon it. Moreover, similar research-based, strategic, and dynamic campaigns can be carried out for the preservation of other Indian rivers.