The Ganges and the GAP: An Assessment of Efforts to Clean a Sacred River
For centuries, the Ganges River in India has been the locus of sacred rites for the Hindus. The religious significance of the Ganges is physically manifested in ghats (stepped landings) that form the land-water interface. Besides serving as a site for religious bathing and cremation, the ghats are also tied to people’s livelihoods and are an inseparable part of their daily lives. Today, the increasingly urbanized Ganges basin sustains more than 40 percent of India’s population. At the same time, industrialization and the pressures of a growing population along its banks have contributed to alarming levels of pollution in the river. In 1985, the federal government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) with the primary objective of cleaning the river. However, characterized by centralized planning and control with little public participation, the GAP had limited impact. In 2011, the government launched yet another clean up program—the National Ganga River Basin Project—with support from the World Bank. In this paper, we take a closer look at the programs to highlight the tenuous relationship between the need for ‘efficient’ management of environmental problems and public participation. Can public participation fit into the technocratic model that is often adopted by environmental programs? What approaches to participation kindle authorship and empowerment among those who share a deep relationship with the river and the ghats ? Can religious practices be accommodated within scientific frameworks of adaptive management and resilience? We argue that rethinking the relationship between pollution control programs and participation is crucial for any effort to clean the Ganges, restore its waterfront, and catalyze broader regeneration in the Ganges basin.
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