Towards a Healthy Ganga – The Namami Gange Aspiration

Ganga River

The river Ganga and its tributaries have provided physical and spiritual sustenance to Indian culture for millennia. Throughout the years, Indians regarded the mighty River Ganga as a Divine Body and the flow of the Ganga as the flow of Divinity. To the Indian worldview, the Ganga River is indeed the holiest of rivers and the cleanser of mortal beings, but also a living Goddess known as “Mother Ganga”.

Lord Sri Krishna’s expressive words in the Bhagavad Gita encapsulate her elevated standing in Indian consciousness. The Ganga River originates in the Himalayas and runs through India’s heartland. The Ganga and its tributaries run through Uttarakhand, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal before flowing into the Bay of Bengal. The river generates a delta near its confluence with the Indian Ocean in the Bay of Bengal, which is home to a diversity of species.  This location is known as the Sunderbans and is on the list of Heritage Sites coordinated by the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

The Namami Ganga Project

The Namami Ganga Project was initiated by the Central Government in June 2014, with a budget of Rs 20,000 crore. The Namami Gange project’s goal is to prevent untreated city sewage or industrial runoff from entering the river. According to a study conducted in 2010 by the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, treatment plants processed only 45 percent of the 11 billion liters of sewage generated by 181 cities and towns along the Ganga that year.

Project’s goals include effective pollution abatement, conservation, restoration, and rejuvenation of the national river Ganga. The project is divided into three segments or targets: immediate entry-level activities (for visible impact), medium-term activities (to be implemented within 5 years of time frame), and also long-term activities (to be implemented within 10 years). Under the initiative, Rs. 29,990 crores have been spent on 344 projects, of which 147 have been finished and the rest are still in the works.

Challenges and Opportunities

The river Ganga has been degrading for a long time. It may have begun visibly as a result of large-scale water abstractions via canals, which began in the mid-nineteenth century. However, as a result of the damaging and increasingly diverse anthropogenic activities in her basin, the deterioration has become multidimensional such heinous crimes have become more common in recent decades. The causes of the degradation can be broadly categorized into five major groups: 

  • overuse of the basin’s natural resources; 
  • pollution discharge;
  • decrease in water-holding capacity and replenishment of water bodies; 
  • mutilation of rivers by piecemeal engineering works; and 
  • dangers to geological processes in the basin. 

The principal human activities that cause the aforementioned harms can also be classified into five broad categories, as indicated in the adjacent figure: (i) industrialization, (ii) urbanization, (iii) lifestyle changes, (iv) agriculture and other rural activities, and (v) deforestation/denudation. 

Objectives of Ganga River Management

The primary objectives of Ganga River Management have been determined based on the vision and social needs –

  • Environmental flows in all rivers and tributaries of the Ganga River system must be maintained in order to fulfill their geological, ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural roles.
  • The water quality in all rivers and tributaries of the Ganga River system must be consistent with their controlling geological, ecological, socioeconomic, and cultural functions.
  • The Ganga River system’s water and other aquatic resources must be handled wisely to promote sustainable development throughout the basin. 
  • All current, ongoing, and planned anthropogenic activities in the basin must be examined or scrutinized in a transparent, inclusive manner for the basin’s overall health.

Legal Provisions pertaining to Water Pollution in India

Ganga Aarti

Water pollution is regarded as a severe issue, and the government has taken a number of initiatives to reduce and regulate it:

Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Act, 1974

The primary goal of this Act is to provide for the avoidance of water contamination as well as the care and maintenance of water bodies. It also attempts to raise awareness about the importance of water body restoration. The Central and State Governments formed the Central Pollution Control Board and the State Pollution Control Board, respectively, to improve the execution of the Act. According to the Act, the board has the authority to support and conduct studies and investigations with the goal of encouraging, the important prevention of water contamination, as well as advising the Central Government on areas connected to environmental issues and the prevention and control of water pollution

The Water Prevention and Control of Pollution Cess Act, 2003

Waste from industries is one of the leading causes of water contamination. Waste from companies is dumped into rivers, polluting them on a huge scale. Industries, according to Section 2 of this Act, encompass any activity or process, sewage or disposal treatment, or industrial effluent. Section 3 of this Act exempts industries from paying a cess if their water consumption falls below a certain threshold. Water is polluted by toxic or non-biodegradable chemicals when these materials are processed in any industry, and such industries are obligated to pay a cess under this rule.

The Indian Penal Code

The laws of Indian criminal law have been established to penalize anyone who commits an offense in violation of the Code. Section 277 of the Code states that anyone who knowingly commits the offense of fouling a public reservoir or a public spring shall be punished with three months in prison, a fine of 500 rupees, or both.

The River Boards Act, 1956

The purpose of this act was to establish rivers and regulate interstate water disputes. The State Government has the authority under the Act to establish Boards by issuing a specific notification. This Act’s purpose is to resolve and control interstate water conflicts. Article 262 of the Indian Constitution empowers the Union to establish and adjudicate inter-state water disputes in the country. This Act established awards and tribunals to resolve interstate disputes that arose in a given country.

Constitution of India

The important Constitutional provisions that deal with the protection of the environment are:

  • Article 21 Right to Life and its expanded interpretation.
  • Article 48A Protection and improvement of environment and safeguarding of forests and wildlife.
  • Article 51A(g) requires citizens to safeguard and improve the natural environment, including woods, lakes, rivers, and wildlife, as well as to have compassion for all living things.

What does our Court say?

Supreme Court

The Indian judiciary has taken a major step toward reducing water pollution. According to the judiciary, the right to clean water is under the purview of the right to life, and so the scope of Article 21, Article 48, and Article 51(g) can encompass the right to clean water. The Supreme Court ruled in Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India that the right to clean water is a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The court stated that the right to clean water is a core necessity of the human right to life.

The state has a responsibility to keep the water clean. In the landmark decision of MC Mehta vs. Union of India, the Supreme Court ruled that avoiding pollution of the Ganga River is an urgent priority. The Supreme Court recognized in Subhash Kumar v. State of Bihar that the right to life includes the right to enjoy pollution-free water and air for the full enjoyment of life. The Supreme Court went much further in the Sardar Sarovar case, directly deriving the right to water from Article 21. It claimed that water is a basic need for human survival and is part of the right to life and human rights as embodied in Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The Uttarakhand High Court (UHC) declared in 2017 that the Indian rivers Ganga and Yamuna, as well as the Gangotri and Yamunotri glaciers and other connected natural features, are ‘legal people’ with all the rights, obligations, and liabilities of a living person. Following that, the same high court ruled in 2018 that the entire animal kingdom has rights equal to those of a living person. The Punjab and Haryana High Court then issued an order in March 2020 proclaiming the Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh City to be a living creature with rights equal to those of a person.


But, can legislation or court decisions granting rivers rights change the course of their destruction? What does it mean to hold rights to a river? Would the law, which has mostly been used to condone environmental damage, resolve contentious articulations of human-nonhuman interactions, culture-nature links, and development-environment relations? The answer to these questions is not a categorical yes. However, judicial decisions in India may mark the beginning of a shift in the country’s legislative attitude to nature, assisting in diminishing the current hegemony of development (projects) over nature.

The Ganges River is regarded as the goddess Ganga Ma, or “Mother Ganges,”. The Ganges and its tributaries, particularly the Yamuna, have been used for irrigation from ancient times, in addition to providing drinking water for religious reasons. The Ganges Basin, with its lush soil, is critical to India’s and Bangladesh’s agricultural industries. The Ganges and its tributaries provide a continuous source of irrigation for a broad area, and if the river water becomes polluted and dangerous, humans, plants, and animals will have no alternative.

In addition, numerous plants and animals are dying on a daily basis as a result of the toxic and deadly water. The necessity of the hour is to examine the threat to river life more realistically, exhaustively, and, most importantly, with an eye toward the future. A future scenario will assist decision-makers in developing a realistic approach to solving the problem. A review mechanism and the willingness to make course modifications as needed will assist the country in preparing for the impending disaster.