UP Singh, director general, NMCG explains why the holy river cannot be cleansed in one stroke or by a single scheme
Aasha Khosa | November 3, 2017 | New Delhi
In a conversation with Governance Now, UP Singh explains why the holy river cannot be cleansed in one stroke or by a single scheme. He also talks about how Ganga is different from other rivers across the globe and therefore needs a different mechanism to purify it again.
When would we get to see a clean Ganga?
Cleaning Ganga is not a one-time, but a continuous, process. It would be fallacious to declare a date for this. We have to accept the fact that unlike rivers in other parts of the world that have been cleansed successfully in a time-bound manner, Ganga cannot be cleaned because there is a difference in the way we see and use rivers as against other cultures. For example, nowhere would you see a river being used in the manner that we do in India – for bathing, burning bodies, dumping animal carcasses, human waste, etc. Imagine about 20 lakh people take bath in Ganga every day! This is apart from the special congregations like the Kumbh and festivals. For us a river is like our home; we use it and litter it every day and then clean it the next day.
Still, there must be some targets that you must be keeping in mind...
Yes, we have decided to completely stop the flow of untreated sewage into the river by 2022. Sewage is just one, though important, source of pollution in this river that we have to tackle to make it cleaner. Then there are other pollutants caused by sources like cremation of human bodies, dumping of half-burnt bodies, immersion of puja leftovers wrapped in polythene, soap used for bathing and washing in the river or on its ghats and agricultural runoffs from fertilizers and pesticides. We also have to deal with dumps of solid waste. Cleansing Ganga can’t be done in one stroke or [through] one scheme. It’s an ongoing process. When we look at the cleansing stories of other rivers, we tend to look away from our scene wherein one lakh people bathe at the Ganga ghat believing in a ritual that makes them dump their clothes on the ghat, which again contributes to solid waste.
As per your estimate, what are the two most critical sources of pollution in Ganga that you are dealing with on priority?
Sewage and the industrial effluents are the two sources of pollution that we are tackling at present. We are committed to build sewage treatment plants (STPs) in all the towns and cities. The second challenge we have taken up in right earnest is ending the flow of industrial effluents, which are most harmful, into the river. We are enforcing it; we are asking industries to set up effluent treatment plants (ETPs) without fail. We are actively monitoring all the industries; if they don’t fall in line, we have the powers to order their closure. We have identified 1,109 gross polluting industries, most of which are located in western Uttar Pradesh, that have to set up ETPs. The central pollution control board and 11 technical institutions are helping these industries in this. Of these, 334 non-compliant units have been closed and unless they set up STPs they can’t reopen. The area has a lot of sugar mills, distilleries, tanneries which release harmful effluents. Then, 4,500 villages along the river have been declared open defecation free. In the long run, we have to think of large-scale afforestation to treat the catchment area of the river. Maintaining and monitoring the rich biodiversity of the river is also part of the plan.
What are the major challenges before the Ganga Action Plan (GAP)?
The biggest challenge in cleansing Ganga is to make sure that the river has water and a regular flow. The treated water from the sewage plant gets diluted once we put it in the river if it’s flowing; the situation can’t be reverse: that the river’s shallow waters have to be diluted with the STP effluent. In fact, all rivers should have enough water to remain healthy. Therefore, cleaning Ganga is linked to the overall issue of water conservation. Right now, all our water resources are overused and overextracted. The fact is that even our dams are wasting about 75% water; then, at homes, in fields, etc., it’s the same story. Our water use efficiency is very low. Now the prime minister has coined the slogan ‘per drop, more crop’; let’s see what comes out of it. Techniques like drip irrigation instead of the flood irrigation have to be made popular and mandatory. Each river system has self-cleaning properties, provided it has a good flow. Ganga even has bacteriophages [organisms that eat harmful bacteria] and also a huge biodiversity like crocodiles, dolphins and other amphibians. For us to cleanse it, for huge stretches, we don’t have flowing water in it.
More work has to be done by the civic bodies that are in charge of cities’ solid waste and effluents. Most of them are short of funds. How do you coordinate with them?
Solid waste management is still a huge challenge for the system. We have installed 11 trash skimmers in Ganga at Varanasi and Patna. But that is not sufficient. Very often the civic authorities used to dump the garbage and other solid waste on the floodplains of a river or simply throw it on the ghats. For example, in Haridwar, all the municipal waste was being dumped at Chandi Ghat. Finally, the NGT [National Green Tribunal] had to restrain the municipality from littering the river and now they have shifted to another place. The cities don’t have land for landfills. What we need is waste-to-energy plants and start compulsory bio-composing of the biodegradable waste. We also have to deal with construction and demolition waste, for which right now there is no policy. Until all this is taken care of, absolute cleansing of the river may not happen. However, right now, the GAP is only taking care of liquid waste. We need a sustainable system to deal with common solid waste like polythene. Though polythene is banned across many states, the ban is not enforced. As a result, polythene even clogs the drains of the sewage treatment plants.
Municipalities and other civic bodies are not in good shape in most states. How can they take care of the STPs?
Yes, that’s a fact. We have realised that most of the sewage treatment plants and the sewage pumping stations are not being run properly. They are either not functioning to their optimum capacity or are not being maintained. We are offering something new to deal with this. Now onwards, the STPs and pumping stations will run on hybrid annuity mode. Under this, we are offering 100 percent cost of running and maintenance of these plants. The payment will, however, be staggered: 40% would be paid at the time of opening of the plant. For the next 15 years, the operator will be paid the actual cost of running and maintaining the plant along with the interest on the pledged cost each year provided he runs it well. This is a paradigm shift in the policy. For each STP, there will be separate and independent tripartite agreements among the Ganga Action Plan, municipal body and the STP operator. We will also set up a special purpose vehicle for the running of each sewage plant.
But most of the towns and cities do not have sewer networks; or best, they have incomplete networks for the STPs to be successful in tackling the Ganga’s pollution.
There are ancient cities like Varanasi and [old cities like] Kanpur and many towns on the banks of Ganga, where most of the houses are not connected to sewers. At the best, the houses have septic tanks linked to the toilets. How should we get all households connected to the sewer? Should we enforce it and motivate the families to ask for sewer connection? There are questions that need answers. Enforcement of the sewer link on families will be an unpopular move that probably the elected councillors of the civic bodies may not be able to take. If we had norms for proper disposal of the faecal sledge from the septic tanks even that should have been fine. After all, we may not need the huge and expensive paraphernalia of the sewer network, the technical snags of linking and adding connections to the sewers and the huge cost of maintenance. But the reality is that the content of septic tanks is emptied in the rivers and on its beds. Probably having norms for safe disposal and transportation of this sludge too should be on the cards if we want our rivers clean and healthy.
Can we ever have full sewage coverage in the cities?
That way in India no city can ever have 100% sewerage coverage. We are trying it in Varanasi but let’s see what happens. Patna’s project has also been sanctioned. In short, it’s not a single idea that will work to cleanse the Ganga basin. [It] has to be a multi-pronged and multi-sectoral approach.
There have been many rivers across the world that were in worse condition and have been cleaned. Why can’t we get help from those countries?
Yes, Danube [Europe’s second largest river] and the Rhine in Germany are fine examples of how to maintain cleanliness of a river. For example, for putting treated sewage water into the Rhine one has to pay to the authorities. They have big state-of-the-art sewage treatment plants and compliance of rules on waste disposal is not an issue there. Then we can’t match the strength of their trained manpower. They don’t have the issue of creating awareness.
Are we seeking help from abroad for cleansing Ganga?
Uttarakhand has tied up with a German government body to monitor the sewage treatment facilities. The Netherlands firms are involved in green technology at Kanpur’s tanneries. But there are no major foreign collaborations in Ganga cleaning and it’s not required.
Which is the most problematic area or state on the path of Ganga for you?
Most rivers are self-sustaining and self-caring. For example, in the lean season when the rivers dry up, the aquifers [large underground collections of water] would release the water due to gravity. For the healthy river, the waters should keep flowing. But if you see Ganga, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, its aquifers have almost dried up because of overdrawing of underground water through submersible motors, tube wells, etc. This goes unchecked. Free electricity to rural areas is another problem, which makes farmers draw out copious amounts of water for irrigation and not use this resource judiciously. There is no policy on groundwater recharge. About 80 percent of the supplied water goes waste, be it in households or fields. Somebody would have to work on managing the supply side and also take water conservation policy seriously.
The success of many people-linked schemes depends on the behavioural change of the people. Are you also working on making that happen?
We have been trying many such things in Varanasi. For example, we have put up signboards that people can take bath in the river but should not use soap. We are asking them not to dump plastics and polythene in the river. There is a component of awareness in our campaign in which the NGOs and local organisations are also participating.
Which is the most difficult stretch of Ganga for you?
Decidedly, it’s Uttar Pradesh. In the state, we have to deal with a very large population, length [of the river] and also the biggest chunk of industries. Honestly, in Uttarakhand, the 250 km long Ganga hardly needs attention. It’s only at Kashipur, Haridwar and Siidcul there are industries and water quality has to be monitored. The river runs 70 percent of its run in UP; it’s here that it starts running into problems. They have dug out a canal at Devgaura barrage from where the water level of Ganga starts depleting; there are more canals that branch out at Bijnore and Narora respectively. As a result, the river has hardly any flow up to Ballia. At this point, Ghaghra, which is one of the most robust and cleanest rivers of India since it mostly flows through unpopulated Chambal, falls in it, the Ganga gets rejuvenated. The point is if the flow of the river keeps going down, it gets more polluted. Likewise in Patna, since the water flow is uninterrupted, cleansing the Ganga is not such a great problem. Therefore, UP remains a major challenge to us.
(The interview appears in the November 15, 2017 issue)
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