Ganga, as of today is a reoruce, a commodity and a belief. Civilizations have appeared and perished along this river but nevertheless remained a life line for Indians from times immemorial. It has always been revered as a diety, the one providing salvation to one and all. Saints thereby preserved the river in people's belief, a la conservation in today's terms. Great vision.
Ganga - a resource
Unfortunately, for India its population increased in leaps and bounds and so did its needs – agriculture, power (electricity), industries, domestic use, recreation, fisheries to mention a few important ones. Agriculture demanded irrigation canals and industries needed for water for variety of purpose. Both demanded abstraction. Thus the water of Ganga was carried away to western and now eastern Uttar Pradesh. There was no way in which water could return to the river. The industries returned the water after polluting it with distillery, tannery and a plethora of wastes. The power sector does not abstract water but needs to store or canalize water for producing electricity, thus rendering dry long stretches of the river. This is habitat fragmentation.
The domestic sector may or may not use the river water directly (it recharges aquifer) but wastes generated by them nevertheless find their way into this river. A large number of industries need water to treat and dispose of their wastes. This adds to the woes of the water deficient river thereby increasing the concentration of pollutants which renders the water unfit not only for human consumption but is also detrimental to life (aquatic flora and fauna) in it. The intricate food chains and food webs are disturbed thus endangering many fish populations and dolphins. Not only that the Indian major carps (Rohu, Catla, Mrigal) which are the backbone of aquaculture in India have depleted in recent past. Their depletion in the wild would be a great set back to culture practices if the system is not able to get brooders from the river.
Ganga - a heritage
And last but not the least there is a recreational need, especially of religious nature. The river attracts pilgrims form the cross section of society at various points in different periods either within a year or after every 6 or 12 years for ‘ardhkumba' or ‘kumbha'. The last ‘kumbha' at Allahabad was a record of sorts. Just like Nehru everybody wishes to have the ashes immersed in the river. So much has been written about the Ganga in the school text books that we may fail to convince our future generations that this is the Ganga, the holy river, the Ganga-Yamuna culture our heritage.
A series of dams on its mountain section, in the now Uttaranchal, and the irrigation canals are going to deprive the river of its discharge. This has to be seen in light of the shrinking glaciers. Thus arises the conflict between our heritage and resource. In both case the river is needed, justifying the need to preserve it and this can be achieved by assuring a minimum flow in the river. Have we ever seriously thought of that?