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Story Publication logo July 19, 2016

Field Notes: Politics and the Ganges River

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A pilgrim takes a holy dip in river Ganges
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Journalist George Black takes an unconventional look at the efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi...

Pilgrims take a “holy dip” in the sacred river. Image by George Black. India, 2015.
Pilgrims take a “holy dip” in the sacred river. Image by George Black. India, 2015.

An interviewer asked me recently what the main challenges and surprises were in reporting a story for the New Yorker on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's effort to clean up the River Ganges. I said there were three: one had to do with politics, one with the environment, and one with religion, and in this series of posts I'll talk about each of them in turn.

The most basic problem I encountered was how hard it was to approach the story objectively. Like any journalist covering India in recent years, and like a lot of Indian citizens for that matter, I'd first learned about Narendra Modi because of his reputation as a radical Hindu nationalist who had been implicated in one of India's worst incidents of communal violence in the past quarter-century: the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims in his home state of Gujarat. So if I was to report honestly on his efforts to clean up the Ganges, I had to start by setting aside those prejudices.

Modi came to power talking very little about matters of faith but a lot about his plans to build a new, clean India—a campaign he calls Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. The promise to clean up the Ganges is the most visible symbol of that. It's the holiest river in Hinduism. Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation's first prime minister after independence in 1947, called it the purest expression of India's soul. In those days the river still ran clear for much of its length. Today it's an environmental crisis of global proportions. Half a billion people depend on the river for their survival. At one end it's menaced by the melting of Himalayan glaciers, at the other by rising sea levels, all the result of a changing climate. In between, it is afflicted by every imaginable kind of human pollution. So whether Modi is a pious Hindu or a modernizing reformer—or both, as I eventually concluded—I felt it was important to take him at face value, to examine his campaign with an open mind and to judge whether he has a realistic chance of succeeding where all previous Indian governments have failed.

If you're trying to assess a politician's good faith in dealing with a serious problem, I think the first thing you do is to find out how much money he is allocating to it. I found that Modi had initially budgeted only 300 million dollars a year for the Ganges clean-up, but had then increased that amount to three billion over five years. So how did this compare to the money that earlier governments had spent since they first tried to tackle the problem 30 years ago?

I looked at academic studies, reports by non-governmental organizations and aid agencies, and the more numbers I found the more confused I became. The estimates ranged from 230 million dollars to six billion. How could that be? Even the government's own figures didn't help. One official report in 2012 said 600 million dollars; another, issued in the same year, said three billion. The plain fact is that no one really knows. Modi has promised a government that is competent, efficient, and transparent, and here in a nutshell was the kind of obstacle he has to contend with.

One reason why it's so hard to get reliable numbers about what has been spent on a government initiative in India is the epic scale of corruption. A huge amount of money may be budgeted, but much of it has a way of simply disappearing into people's pockets before it reaches its destination. On one of my first reporting trips to India, seven or eight years ago, I interviewed Leena Srivastava, the executive director of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in New Delhi. TERI is one of the most important think tanks in India, and it was headed at the time by Rajendra Pachauri, who chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I told Srivastava that I'd been reading a book by the Financial Times correspondent in India, Edward Luce, now chief US commentator, who'd said that 70 percent of the funds budgeted for public works projects were stolen by government officials, contractors, judges, police and others. I said I found this hard to believe. She agreed that the figure couldn't be accurate, then paused for effect and said, "It's more like 90 percent."

I've seen the evidence of this many times on my subsequent trips to India. A couple of years ago, for example, I wrote a series of stories trying to figure out why roughly 350 million rural Indians, more than a quarter of the population, still have no reliable access to electricity. In one typical village in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the main street was lined with electricity poles. Inside some of the houses, there were electricity meters on the wall, encased in spider webs. Nowhere in the village was there any sign of a wire. There was no power. Despite this, a bureaucrat had inspected the village and checked off another success for the government's "Remote Village Electrification" campaign.

Many of these problems stem from the fact that India is a federal system, and while Modi controls the lower house of parliament, which is elected by popular vote, he doesn't control the upper house, whose members are mainly chosen by state legislatures. While the central government may set policies and allocate budgets, projects like municipal sewage or industrial effluent treatment plants are executed by state authorities. In Uttar Pradesh, which is where the worst pollution of the Ganges is concentrated, those authorities are often corrupt, incompetent, and riddled by caste politics (no one should be under any illusion that India has solved that age-old problem). Furthermore, the state is not controlled by Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. In fact the state government, which depends heavily on Muslim votes, is deeply antagonistic toward him.

So I found myself oddly in sympathy with Modi's predicament, forced to contend with all these deeply ingrained forces that for so long have stood in the way of real change. There are state elections in Uttar Pradesh next year, and Modi obviously considers it vital to win the state. Yet Uttar Pradesh is also where Hindu nationalist politics are at their most virulent, and in the national elections two years ago this was where Modi played the religious card most aggressively. So could the price of cleaning up the Ganges be another dirty campaign that will make the state's minority Muslim population even more nervous than they are already? Could Modi accomplish one without resorting to the other? When I looked at the appalling condition of the river, I found myself rooting for him to succeed; when I talked to beleaguered Muslims I dreaded the possible collateral damage to community relations. That conundrum is the kind of thing that makes India such a uniquely challenging place for a journalist.

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