More money goes down the drain called Yamuna

Yet another plan to clean up the Yamuna is coming up, without understanding why previous attempts failed. Unless governance is improved, more treatment plants will mean nothing


Neha Sethi | October 31, 2012

Though it is difficult to imagine, the black, stinking stream of water near the Yamuna Bank station of Delhi Metro was once a river with clean water. It was thanks to this river that a city came up on its banks; now the city has reduced it to a sewage stream.

Delhi starts guzzling down the Yamuna right where it enters the city, at Palla village, where most of its content is diverted to meet the water needs of the 1.78 crore people. In return, Delhi drains its sewers and nullahs into what is left in the name of the river. Most of the sewage let into the river is untreated.

The Yamuna’s 22 km stretch in Delhi contributes to over 70 percent of the river’s total pollution load though it is barely two percent of its total length.

The health of a river is mainly judged on two counts: the coliform content and the level of dissolved oxygen (DO) in the river. The total coliform content – which in a layman’s terms is an indicator of the presence of excreta – in the Delhi stretch of the Yamuna varies between 93,000 mpn (most probable number)/100 ml (millilitre) and 22,00,00,000 mpn/100 ml when it should not be exceeding 5,000 mpn/100 ml. One can imagine the impact of these very high levels of coliform (that is to say, the high amount of excreta) on the health of the people using this water downstream in Uttar Pradesh.

The DO level of the river stands at zero as against a prescribed limit of a minimum of four ml (milligrams)/l (litre) by the Delhi Pollution Control Committee (DPCC). This means that the water that flows in the Yamuna in Delhi is not only unsuitable for drinking and bathing but also for irrigation.

This, of course, need not have been the case. The river can be cleaned up. So, the Delhi government has spent crores of rupees under the Yamuna action plan I and its sequel, plan II – to no avail. Now, it plans to spend around Rs 3,000 crore more in the next four years to ensure that no sewage flows into the Yamuna.

The Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the agency responsible for proper disposal of wastewater and management of the sewerage system, has presented a plan before the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to ensure that by 2015 no wastewater would be discharged into the Yamuna without being treated first by sewage treatment plants (STPs).

The plan has four focus areas: revamping and modernising existing STPs, augmenting their capacity so that they can treat more wastewater, laying an interceptor sewer to ensure that treated and untreated wastewaters do not get mixed, and providing sewerage facility in the areas not yet covered.

As a first step, the DJB plans to add around 200 million gallons per day (MGD) of wastewater-treating capacity to the existing STPs. The Okhla STP, one of the biggest in the city, will treat an additional 30 MGD of wastewater over the already installed capacity of 140 MGD. The STP in Kondli will treat an additional capacity of 45 MGD. They are expected to cost the DJB a whopping Rs 900 crore over the next five years.

But experts believe that the plan is deficient. In addition to bolstering the sewage treatment infrastructure and capacity, they insist that there is a need for better management of the existing STPs. In other words, the problem does not lie as much with the plants (so that it can be solved by ‘modernising’ them) as it does with the agencies that are not managing them efficiently.

Figures also support the experts’ view. According to figures provided by the DJB, the installed STPs in the city are supposed to treat 513 MGD. But they are treating only 390 MGD, which means that they are operating at 76 percent of their capacity.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) says that putting revamped STPs in place will not work. “The issue here is that the existing plants are not working at their capacity. We are already equipped with the necessary technology but it is not working because there is no governance. So, the main problem is governance,” says Thakkar.

He says that there is a need for establishing a ‘governance committee’ for each STP, “of which 50 percent of the members should be from outside the government”.

There have been reports of STPs being non-functional – a fact which the DPCC confirms in its monthly reports. These also state that some STPs weren’t functioning at the time of monitoring.

A complete use of capacities of the STPs is expected to cost the DJB a further Rs 1,000 crore. An official from DJB says that the major cause for the installed plants not working at their full capacity is their under-maintenance. “If the sludge is removed from the plants and they are de-silted once in a while, the problem of underutilisation will not be there,” he said.

The other problem is the mixing of treated and untreated sewage. One of the three biggest drains of the city, called ‘supplementary drain’, carries 30 MGD of treated sewage. But, the same drain also carries 40 MGD of untreated sewage. A DPCC official says that even the STP in the Sen nursing home area in south Delhi which has a capacity to treat 20-24 MGD of water is treating only five MGD – and then this water is getting mixed with untreated sewage.

Manoj Misra, the convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says that the DJB is making its plans on the basis of inaccurate figures of sewage disposal in the city. The DJB estimates that the city requires a wastewater treating capacity of 650 MGD. However, according to a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report, the city produces around 835 MGD of wastewater. “The most important issue is that there is a no match between the DJB figures of sewage and what is reported by the CPCB. As a result, DJB is underestimating the enormity of the issue and hence obviously under-preparing itself,” Misra says.

DJB is also building an interceptor sewer at a cost of Rs 2,000 crore to ensure only treated sewage is disposed in the river. The interceptor will also prevent the mixing of the treated sewage with the untreated. “We will intercept the small nullahs entering the major drains so that no untreated water flows in them,” says the DJB official who doesn’t want to be named.

But Thakkar says that the DJB is designing a system (interceptor sewer project) only for three out of the city’s 18 drains.

The board also admits that of the total trunk sewer length of 150 km in the city, it needs to rehabilitate and de-silt 105 km. Though it has allocated a sum of Rs 650 crore for this, Thakkar says that before constructing STPs it is important to ensure that the drainage system is proper so that the sewage actually reaches the STPs.

The board official admits that the wastewater of 1,541 colonies, 189 rural villages, 12 urban villages and more than 1,000 jhuggi clusters falls directly into the nullahs without even the basic treatment and goes directly to the Yamuna. (The rural villages are the ‘unauthorised’ villages in the city, as opposed to the urban villages which have been regularised and can avail all the government facilities.)

To lay sewers in unsewered areas, DJB has allocated a separate fund. But the board says that this amount does not include the laying of sewers in jhuggi clusters. “It is not practically possible. The most we can do for them is to provide them with septic tanks,” the DJB official says.

Thakkar thinks that the DJB should focus, in particular, on involving people. But the DJB official says that the board has already had a bad experience in the case of common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) as far as public participation is concerned. “We had told the industries to treat their own effluents by maintaining CETPs but the result is that the CETPs in the city are not functioning properly,” he says.

The DPCC official says that the sustainable solution is an ideal situation where the wastewater discharge from a colony or industry is zero so that there is no need to dispose it. The colony should treat its own wastewater and use it for purposes other than drinking and bathing, like watering parks, to minimise the water discharged in drains.

Till the time Delhi reaches this ideal situation, it can only hope that DJB’s ambitious plan to clean the Yamuna by 2015 delivers results and it that the drain becomes the river Yamuna again.

(This story appeared in the Oct 1-15 issue of Governance Now in 2011.)



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