The first steps of the Namami Gange programme will be set into motion on Thursday with the inauguration of 231 projects along the course of the Ganga through seven states. These projects, announced by water resources and Ganga rejuvenation minister Uma Bharti on Thursday, will include afforestation drives, sewage treatment, trash skimmers, ghat modernisation and the conservation of biodiversity.
India’s new environment minister, however, might have a different idea of how this should proceed. Anil Madhav Dave, who on Tuesday replaced Prakash Javadekar as minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh since 2009. He is also a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker.
In 2012, in a speech to a sparsely populated Rajya Sabha, Dave spoke of how politicians tend to talk only about the Ganga and Yamuna. He contended that rivers in Kerala, Assam and Gujarat were just as important but unduly neglected. He also criticised the government for blaming individuals for polluting rivers instead of looking at larger entities such as city sewage systems and government policies.
The Namami Gange programme is a grand plan for a government that appended “Ganga rejuvenation” to the ministry of water resources and river development to emphasise its focus on cleaning up the heavily polluted river. The task of giving approvals to these projects might fall to Dave.
Dave is an environmental activist who has worked along the Narmada. In his seven years in the Rajya Sabha, he has consistently spoken about the impacts of climate change and about the need for conservation. A river, he said in this particular speech, is more than just the water that flows between its banks. It includes its catchment area, it has its own riverine economics, culture and society built around it.
Citing water as a possible cause for class wars to come, he said that there is a great need to move beyond air-conditioned rooms and to listen to people who use water directly from the rivers.
Following the Sangh line of personifying rivers, he said that it is not enough just to want to save a river. We need to serve them.
This could herald a starkly different approach to rivers than the one taken by Javadekar. The government’s push to clean up the Ganga came even as Javadekar confirmed the validity of clearances to six new hydroelectric dams in the upper Ganga basin in Uttarakhand in early 2015. The wildlife advisory board had vetoed these dams and dams had been blamed for the disastrous floods in that state in 2013.
Javadekar has been a controversial figure. He gained notoriety for granting environmental clearances to polluting or ecologically harmful industries without question, for restructuring government advisory bodies to remove outside experts, and most recently, for waiving a Rs 200 crore fine for environmental fine to Adani Enterprises.
In his role as environment minister, Dave will have to take a call on several contentious river-related issues. The Modi government has grand plans of interlinking rivers. Javadekar gave a nod to the Ken-Betwa interlinking without conducting a site inspection. Dave might also soon have to address proposals for inland waterways now that the Rajya Sabha passed that bill in the 2016 Budget session.