Cleaning the Ganga:How Sewage Is Turning It into Less of a River and More of a Toxic Waterway

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The holy river becomes a carrier of untreated industrial waste, garbage, agricultural run-off and municipal waste making it less of a river and more of a toxic waterway. Photo Credit: The Economic Times

Article courtesy of Urmi Goswami | May 23, 2015 | The Economic Times | Shared as educational material

Over 70% of the sewage that flows into the Ganga is untreated,” says Hukum Singh, BJP member from Kairana in Uttar Pradesh and chairman of the parliamentary standing committee on water resources.

Singh, whose committee submitted a report on the workings of the water resources ministry in late April, isn’t exaggerating. As the Ganga makes its nearly 2,000 km journey through the plains of north India to the Bay of Bengal, it carries much more than the famed silt responsible for the fertility of the Indo-Gangetic plains.

The holy river becomes a carrier of untreated industrial waste, garbage, agricultural run-off and municipal waste. All things that make it less of a river and more of a toxic waterway. By all accounts, the water in the Ganga is not fit for bathing, let alone consumption or farming.

It has a high presence of total coliform and fecal coliform, a group of closely related bacteria — an indicator of the level of contamination of a water source or body — except in the upper reaches.

The worst stretches are between Kanpur and Varanasi and then again in West Bengal beyond Dhakineswar. It is in the stretch from Kanpur-Unnao to Rai Bareli to Allahabad and Varanasi that the Ganga ceases to be a river and becomes a flowing body of filth. The Central Pollution Control Board, which is the apex body entrusted with tackling water pollution, reported in July 2013 that Uttar Pradesh contributes 76% of the Ganga’s pollution load.

Yet, the Ganga captures our imagination. The river is believed by millions of Indians to have the capacity to wash away one’s sins and purify the living and the dead. Such is the power of the Ganga that politicians always make it a point to highlight their “dip” in the holy river. This, perhaps, would explain why prime ministers from Rajiv Gandhi to Narendra Modi put “cleaning” the Ganga on their to-do lists.

Successive governments since 1985, when the Rajiv Gandhi government launched the Ganga Action Plan, have sought to restore the river to its pristine form, or, to use Indianspeak, ensure its “nirmal dhara.”

Some Rs 4,000 crore later, the dhara (flow) is no more nirmal (clean) than it was before. In fact, in the three decades that have passed, the Ganga has taken in more waste than it did before 1985. BD Tripathi, environment science professor at Banaras Hindu University and expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, attributes rising pollution in the river to untreated domestic waste, industrial effluents and religious practices like cremation.

To this shortlist, Anjum Parvez, a professor at the Law College Dehradun, adds growing population, poverty, unregulated urbanisation and improper agricultural practices.

Mammoth task

Cleaning the Ganga is a mammoth task—the river traverses 66 districts and there are 118 towns and 1,657 gram panchayats on the river’s main stem. Municipal waste is the major source of the river’s pollution and although the quantity of industrial effluents is lower, experts say it’s more harmful.

In its 2014 order, the Supreme Court referred to studies to stress on the need to focus on curbing the flow of untreated waste, saying that industrial discharges were 10 times more noxious than domestic waste. The government is focusing on addressing municipal waste and industrial effluents to stem the tide of muck that makes it into the river.

“People see the floating trash and say the Ganga is so dirty. Floating trash is minuscule. Our focus is on the big problem: municipal sewage, there are 144 drains following into the river. This is the biggest source of the pollution and this where we will use the bulk of our resources. Then there is industrial effluents. We have to ensure that no waste and untreated water flows into the Ganga,” said a senior official with the National Mission for Clean Ganga.

At present, some 7,300 million litres of sewage is generated every day in towns, cities and villages along the river. Sewage treatment plants can handle only about 2,126 million litres a day. Plants with a cumulative capacity of 1,188 million litres a day are under construction or in approval stage.

Even after discounting any increase in the quantity of sewage generated, the treatment capacity would still be far lower than required. Another problem is under utilisation of capacity. In 2013, the CPCB reviewed 51 sewage treatment plants and found that while 15 of them were non-functional, the remaining 36 operated at 59% of capacity, hampered by factors such as lack of electricity.

Water resources ministry officials say they expect to bridge the “sewage treatment capacity gap of about 2,500 mld on the river Ganga main stem by 2018-19.” The government has asked authorities in 118 urban centres that account for half the sewage generated to prepare and implement management and treatment plans. These centres — a mix of different classes of towns and cities including Haridwar, Varanasi, Patna, Allahabad, Kolkata and Rajmahal — generate over 3,636 million litres of sewage per day. The 55 sewage treatment plants servicing these centres can, at full capacity, handle one-third of the waste generated.

Zero-liquid discharge

An Indian Institute of Technology consortium set up for designing the clean-up operations advises adopting decentralised treatment of sewage with many small-capacity plants.

It also suggests limiting the use of fresh water for drinking and bathing, while for everything else, the aim should be to first use treated water. To this end and to limit pollution of the river, the government has been pushing industry to implement a system of zero-liquid discharge. “Ideally the treated water should be reused.

However, a wastewater market is yet to be established in India. We recently held a market conference with 268 industry partners to encourage re-use,” an official said. With the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court taking active interest in addressing pollution of the Ganga, the government has made it mandatory for industries across 17 sectors to put in place online monitoring and zero-liquid discharge systems by June 30, a three-month extension over the previous deadline.

The government says it is serious about moving on industrial pollution — taking steps to ensure compliance, including disconnecting electricity supply. Officials told the parliamentary committee that the environment ministry and pollution control board “should be able to – except for maybe pulp and paper – hopefully in the next one year achieve substantial results.”

The Ganga’s pollution problem may be exacerbated by reduced water flow from the large number of hydropower projects in the upper reaches in Uttarakhand, which lowers its selfcleaning ability and curbs dilution of waste. The government has told the Supreme Court that it intends to maintain a flow of 1,000 cubic metres a second in the river.

Local involvement

Parvez, in a paper published in the Dehradun Law Review, had suggested more effective implementation of laws dealing with prevention and control of river pollution, along with increased public awareness about the importance of keeping rivers clean. This would save rivers and eliminate expenditure on cleaning efforts, he said. Officials at National Mission for Clean Ganga say that past efforts to clean the river failed because it didn’t involve local bodies, businesses, citizens’ groups or public participation.

“It would be the easiest thing for us to step in and procure the aerators, or trash skimmers but then who will use and maintain it? Local bodies must have a stake in this effort. Sustainability involved with community participation,” a senior official said.

When it comes to cleaning the Ganga, there is a great deal of talk and energy, especially with Prime Minister Narendra Modi putting his weight behind it. But are they enough? That’s a sentiment echoed by Supreme Court Justice TS Thakur: “How far will the government’s renewed zeal make any difference on the ground is for anyone to guess.

What is, however, clear is that if the mission has to succeed, all those concerned will have to rededicate themselves to the accomplishment of the cause that will not only cleanse the holy river but comfort millions of souls that are distressed by the fetid in what is believed to be so holy and pure that a dip in its water cleanses all sins.”

Clean up timeline

Dec 1984 Comprehensive Survey of the Ganga basin by Central Pollution Control Board

June 1985 Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was based on Central Pollution Control Board survey

April 1993 GAP II started along with three other rivers Yamuna, Damodar and Gomti

December 1995 GAP II effective

Dec 1996 GAP II merged with National River Conservation Plan (NRCP)

March 2000 GAP I declared closed

Feb 2009 National Ganga River Basin Authority launched

July 2010 World Bank project planning and monitoring unit activated under National River Conservation Programme. MoUs signed with consortium of 7 IITs to prepare a comprehensive basin management plan for river rejuvenation

August 2011 National Mission for Clean Ganga registered as society

June 2014 Namami Gange programme announced. Group of Secretaries formed

July 2014 Initial report submitted by Group of Secretaries

Aug 2014 Ganga rejuvenation transferred to ministry of water resources from environment ministry. Group of Secretaries submit final report

Sep 2014 Reconstituted NGRBA

Dec 2014 EFC approved for Namami Gange programme

Feb 2015 High level taskforce constituted

May 2015 Cabinet approval for five-year programme Namami Ganges

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