Interview with Rajiv Ranjan Mishra & Puskal Upadhyay

We recently read and reviewed the book Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting by the authors: Rajiv Ranjan Mishra & Puskal Upadhyay published by Rupa Publications.

We got a chance to strike up a conversation with the authors and we discussed the book and the different programmes and initiatives to clean the River Ganga. Below is the complete interview with the authors.

1. In 2014, when Prime Minister promised to clean the mighty Ganga river. This was not the first attempt, but unfortunately, those attempts failed somehow. What was that one innovative measure the present Government has taken?

Namami Gange programme launched by the government is definitely not the first attempt to clean Ganga but the thinking and approach have been new. Unlike all its predecessors this has been able to achieve significantly by completely remapping the scope, allocating the required resources, and changing the working modalities. One significant innovative measure of the programme is the Hybrid Annuity Model-based STPs which ensure timely creation of capacity and uninterrupted operations while bringing in much-needed accountability.

2. How has your journey been with the Clean Ganga project? Can you share it in detail with our readers?

Our journey with the Clean Ganga project, i.e. Namami Gange has been not only an interesting and happening one but also of an enlightening nature through which we have almost rediscovered ourselves and are still evolving with this book.

Our association with the programme was not by design from our side, more by coincidence but somehow the indications, the connections had already been there in our past experiences. In the book, you will find occasions where this gets mentioned. But once into it, we were first engulfed by its enormity and then engrossed by the charisma of the river we almost compulsively kept following in spite of challenges and frustrations. Something kept us in. One may call it the charm and blessings of Ganga.

The experience has been a unique one, with the programme and its tool, the NMCG both continuously evolving to meet the objective of Clean Ganga. We have termed it a “wicked problem” due to its evolving, multi-sectoral, multi-agency, and complex nature and it makes an interesting read to know about the enormity of the challenge as well as the strategic approach.  In the process, we also got touched and felt very different, almost renewed.

3. From the initiation of this drive and creating a separate ministry, what were the challenges you faced?

The challenges had been phenomenal, the expectations of the government and public were heightened, and everyone wanted quick results almost like a miracle which was for sure not possible. The institution was absolutely ill-equipped to meet the same with only a few on its rolls but to top it all the business model needed a complete revamp if we wanted to avoid the same fate as its predecessor programs.

We have shared this experience in the chapter describing the ebb and flow of the startup journey while moving from vision to mission. We also found that in this crisis, the startup challenges brought the best out of the team and we tried to continue and promote the startup culture even when Organisation grew. This was very helpful in achieving several milestones.

4. In a general sense, there will be a lot of criticism and backlash for some government initiatives. This mission has also been criticized and under the radar about the progress. What do you have to say about this?

Government initiatives do receive mixed responses and some doubts have been raised about this attempt as well, especially during the initial years as not much was visible on the ground. Through this book, we have presented a comprehensive understanding for the reader purely relying on facts that speak for themselves. The book has a detailed graphical representation of the treatment gap existing and that created which will assure the reader about the progress. It will give a clear idea as to how the interventions have been scaled up multifold and the project gained momentum.


5. This book happens to be one of the most honest in writing with all the facts and figures. What is the genesis of this book?

Both during and after our initial tenures with the Clean Ganga Programme, it was very normal for us to receive queries from those we met, about anything happening in the programme. Initially, it was about anything happening at all, commonly asked as “kuchh ho raha hai?” and later as “kuchh hua? lekin kab tak aur kuchh ho jayega?”. We understood the anxiety. People and leaders were concerned alike.

In our zeal to address this issue, we came up with the idea of this book. What we also noticed is that the concept of “clean Ganga” is not a well-understood one. People had different connotations starting from a simple clean appearance to a drinking worthy state which is absolutely different objectives. Some basic understanding of the concepts would help the readers better appreciate the achievements.

It is important to understand the nature and scope of the problem and its continuous nature. We need to acknowledge that “Bahut kuchh ho gaya lekin bahut kuchh aur bhi karna hai”. We need not only clean but keep it clean. We also need to go beyond cleaning and improve ecology and flow.

6. Apart from the NMCG mission, your other initiative to rejuvenate the small rivers and water bodies is one of the most inspiring ones. How did this idea germinate?

This idea emerged from the elaborate process we adopted for redefining the problem and taking it up in its entirety. The riverine ecosystem is an intricate one and much beyond its main physical body. Major Tributaries, Small Rivers, large wetlands, water bodies, and springs are parts of the same ecosystem and feed the river at different times and stages.

This even included the floodplains to be conserved for better recharge of aquifers. One option is to just look at the main river and treat the wastewater approaching it which is definitely not an intelligent one since it first allows a problem to become bigger so that its handling becomes costly and time taking.

Instead taking up the case of tributaries and water bodies will not only address the problem at the roots but will also help increase the availability of water in the main river body. Sure this is a smart approach. We dedicated a chapter in the book on “Rejuvenating Tributaries: Healing Ganga’s intricate water web”.

7. While working on cleaning the Ganga, how difficult was it to maintain harmony with the crowd and let them follow the traditions and rituals that happen at the river?

Working with people and crowds was unexpected, and a very inspiring experience. Somehow we always hold people in a less than encouraging way and expect problems from them. You should see the massive response of people to our people connect programs. Local people, especially youth have taken it with utmost sincerity and on their own also launched initiatives of river cleaning. If you trust people and approach them with open hands they will never let you down.

In fact, in the initial moments of the mission, Ganga Manthan- a stakeholder’s consultation was organized which also saw the participation of spiritual leaders. The increasing trend of Ganga aartis at different places is also helping this connect and to keep banks clean. Our book touches upon the issue of Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj in a big way. The largest congregation of people to follow ancient traditions and rituals and still, it happens so smoothly. Now the world also accepts it as a near-impossible feat made real by us, Indians.

8. Can you, in brief, tell our readers about you, probably apart from your professional life?

Our association with the program has been more than professional and involved shades of personal experiences and belief systems which the readers would notice more in the first two chapters and also at times in other places. Coincidentally both of us have been engineering graduates and belong to places on the banks of Ganga. This helped us approach the subject from a personal perspective.

9. Can you share one best/happy incident and difficult situation you faced during these years in the mission?

In our long association with the mission, we had several moments of small and big victories as well as moments of frustration and serious problems. To recollect one or two incidents, Kanpur comes to mind.  It had become a symbol of pollution of Ma Ganga and there is not one challenge, which you did not have in Kanpur. But this was also a place we had great moments of success and satisfaction. In the chapter “Rebuilding Kanpur for Ma Ganga”, we describe it in detail with a special connection with the place with one of the authors being an alumnus of IIT, Kanpur.

Getting rid of the huge sewage flow from more than 100 years old massive 140MLD strong sewage flow from Sisamau Nala was a great matter of satisfaction and confidence among people that if this can happen, so can the other smaller ones be tackled. The place has changed and Hon’ble PM visited this place after conducting the meeting of the National Ganga Council. We could also see a modern CETP coming up to check the age-old tannery pollution problem. Other moments are the completion of all projects in Uttarakhand and the grand success of Kumbha at Prayagraj.

In terms of a difficult situation, one of the first projects under the innovative HAM model for the 50 MLD STP project at Ramana in Varanasicomes to mind for which the foundation stone was laid by Hon’ble PM. A reference to this is our book as a case determined to prove Murphy’s Law. The concessionaire ran into serious company-level financial problems. Somehow, we still continued the project with several innovative steps. But now it was the turn of their financier Yes Bank to get in trouble. With great resolve and several box decisions, finally, the project got completed.

10. What more challenges are you anticipating in the coming days?

We are aware of the challenge of sustaining this effort and a dedicated chapter, in the end, deliberates in detail. In brief, some of the challenges are close monitoring and operating all the infrastructure created even beyond 15 years. This needs local bodies and people to take over by developing capacity and also integrating rivers into the master plans. Improving flow and ecology is a long-term process and would need to take care protection and improvements of wetlands- floodplain and urban wetlands on top priority along with protection of floodplains and aquifers.

This is absolutely essential for ensuring water security in view of extreme and erratic rainfall due to climate change. This way we can make use of this excess water for recharge of groundwater and save ourselves from floods. We need to scale up the reuse of treated wastewater and follow circular economy principles. In the future, we should have a system that projects pay for their own upkeep. Ultimately, as people have started taking an active part in the program and are reconnecting, we need to continue it and keep strengthening this connection and reconnect.

Only when people continue to own this cause, we can be sure that future generations would keep on seeing a free-flowing clean Ganga. As we say in the end, it is a civilizational challenge. The river belongs to all and we need to respect it. We would like to repeat our appeal from ‘Letter to the Readers’ from the book. “But the most important lesson that the river teaches you is that if you don’t disturb, pollute, defile, or obstruct its path, it will always remain pure, it will then bring all the goodness of nature and help you live a happy, healthy and prosperous life. This cannot be too much to ask for.”

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