Twenty-six-year-old Surender is a ferryman in Varanasi. Surender and his family own three boats and their livelihood is dependent on taking tourists on a joyride on the Ganga. Recalling the time when he used to ride a boat with his grandfather, Surender says, “At that time Ganga water was so clear that if you threw coins in the river you could see them sparkling at the bottom. We used to collect them. The Ganga was deep then. Now it is shallow and green.”
The NDA government under the leadership of prime minister Narendra Modi launched Namami Gange, a National Mission for Clean Ganga, in 2015. A sum of Rs 20,000 crore has been allocated for the project. The programme works with a dual integrated approach to reduce pollution and conserve and rejuvenate the river.
The programme tries to deal with the problem of river pollution in a holistic way. It is led by the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), an institution which has financial and administrative powers as per the River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Authorities Order, 2016.
According to Hitesh Makwana, executive director (projects), National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), the river water has shown considerable improvement in different aspects. In terms of dissolved oxygen (DO) and biological oxygen demand (BOD), the parameters have shown that DO (DO-5 mg/l) was 8.1 in Rishikesh in 1986; and it increased to 10 in 2017, he states.
Similarly, BOD (BOD-3mg/l) was 1.7 in Rishikesh in 1986; it improved to 1 in 2017. The third aspect, measuring faecal coliform level, ascertains whether the water is fit for drinking and bathing.
Makwana says that the level of faecal coliform cannot be compared with previous years as earlier the quality of river was measured only on two parameters: DO and BOD.
The three major steps needed to stop polluting the river are: filling Ganga with more water, controlling sewage discharge in the river and prevent dumping of industrial waste into the river. Let’s take a look at the programme’s claims till date.
The foremost aim of Namami Gange is to increase the quantity of water in the river, which can dilute and adjust the waste. Additionally, the project aims to rejuvenate the river, especially in those areas where the water is fast depleting. The vision for Ganga rejuvenation constitutes restoring the wholesomeness of the river defined in terms of ensuring ‘Aviral Dhara’ (continuous flow) and ‘Nirmal Dhara’ (unpolluted flow). This will regenerate river ecology and also help in making it an important inland waterway. By ensuring a healthy habitat, aquatic life which constitutes of dolphins and gharials (Gavialis gangeticus) can be revived.
The status report on work done under Namami Gange as on Feb 19, 2018
- Out of 191 projects, 97 are sanctioned. New sewage treatment plants with a capacity of 2,278.08 million litres per day (MLD) and repair of 574.8 MLD existing STPs are proposed
- Laying/rehabilitation of 4,766.4 km sewer network for abatement of pollution in Ganga and Yamuna are part of these sanctioned projects
- 20 projects completed, which have created 262 MLD STP capacity, rehabilitated 92 MLD STP capacity and 1,706 km of sewer network laid
- 45 sewage infrastructure projects are under execution
- These projects have created 834 MLD sewage treatment capacities
- Another 32 projects are under various stages of tendering. These projects envisage creating 1,758 MLD sewage treatment capacities
- 36 real-time water quality monitoring stations are operational
Another aim is to look for innovative ways to control untreated sewage discharge in the river. Namami Gange looks into the issue of sewage treatment plants (STPs) far more thoroughly than the GAP phase I and II. Under this programme, the centre will bear the cost of constructing STPs. It will also provide financial assistance for the functioning and management of STPs for 15 years from the beginning of its operation under public-private partnership (PPP) projects.
For this, the mission has launched 155 new STPs and will add 963 more. The STPs will also assist in composting. It is also trying to cut the time of proposal to action by making it quick and fast.
There are around 800 industries near Ganga, like tanneries, distilleries, sugar mills, paper and pulp, cement plants and dyeing factories, which pollute the river. The NMCG has the power to enforce polluting industries to either close or follow SOPs of pollution free waste. The government has asked these industries to set up common effluent treatment plants (CETPs) and get new technologies to ensure zero liquid discharge into the river.
For abatement of industrial pollutants, a survey of all 1,109 grossly polluting industries (GPIs) has been conducted. Out of 1,109 GPIs, 333 were closed down and closure notices were sent to non-complying GPIs.
Namami Gange has also included all the concerned states. All the states except West Bengal have formed state-level committees for the Ganga cleanup. It will be the responsibility of these state-level committees to ensure implementation of projects under the Namami Gange. They will also check proper utilisation of funds.
The river Ganga is filled with solid waste, clothes, polythene and all kinds of religious offerings. These float on its surface making the river dirty. The easiest solution is to remove them.
This will make the river clean. For this, machines called trash skimmers have been deployed. Eleven trash skimmers have been deployed at Haridwar, Garh Mukteshwar, Kanpur, Varanasi, Allahabad, Patna, Sahibganj, Nabadwip, Kolkata, Delhi, Mathura and Vrindavan to clean the surface of the river. The government is also taking corporate groups’ help as part of their corporate social responsibility.
Burning the dead
Cremations along the rivers and immersion of mortal remains in the Ganga have religious connotations. But this is a major cause of river pollution.
When wood is burned during cremation it not only results in deforestation but also the process of burning itself leads to air pollution. GAP phase I focused on establishing gas or electric crematoriums, especially in cities like Varanasi and Allahabad that have religious importance.
Under the river front development project, work on 111 ghats and 46 crematoriums is in progress and is expected to be completed by the end of 2018.
Also, renovation and modernisation of existing crematoriums has already been ordered.
There are more than 1,600 villages that lie directly on the banks of Ganga. Open defecation is one of the most common problems in these areas. And untreated sewage goes directly into the river.
For rural sanitation, around 4,464 villages on the banks of Ganga have been declared open defecation free (ODF). The project has helped in constructing 12,74,421 individual household toilets thereby paving way for cleaner and healthier river banks and riverbeds.
Filling the GAPs
Owing to the unchecked flow of industrial and domestic sewage, the pollution in the Ganga had reached unmanageable proportions by the 1980s. In June 1986, prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) phase I, with an enormous budget of Rs.350 crore – the most expensive mission undertaken at that time.
The GAP was divided into core and non-core schemes. The core schemes aimed at interception and diversion of industrial and domestic sewage to STPs, therefore installation of STPs were proposed. The non-core schemes aimed at providing sanitation facilities to people which would put an end to open defecation. This scheme also envisaged construction of crematoriums and development of ghats. It also focused on afforestation and public participation in cleaning the river.
But the GAP objectives failed to meet its goals. As per the Central Pollution Control Board report in 1988 around the 28.4 billion cubic metres of sewage (industrial and domestic) was still being dumped into Ganga. As per the report, only 16 STPs were constructed in 98 cities situated along the river’s banks. Moreover, the installed STPs did not perform well.
In 1993, prime minister PV Narasimha Rao extended the Ganga Action Plan and named it as GAP phase II, with an outlay of Rs.1,498.66 crore on 50:50 basis with the respective states. For the next three years the plan was extended in many phases to include rivers like Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahananda. GAP phase II addressed the issue of river pollution in seven states across 95 towns. It was extended till 2000.
GAP II also invested in research projects and conducted studies area-wise and collected data. For the status paper on river action plan by the ministry of environment and forests, All India Institute of Hygiene and Public Health (AIIHPH), Kolkata and National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur conducted studies in Varanasi, Kanpur, Patna and Kolkata to understand the problems faced by STPs there.
With GAP II planning 441 new projects, the government increased its budget to Rs.2,285.48 crore. On learning that the states were not putting adequate funds, the fund sharing ratio was changed to 70:30.
GAP II fared better than the first phase of the project, however its desired result of cleaning Ganga by 2000 could not be achieved.
Ganga being a holy river has religious sentiments attached to it. Not only cremation on the banks, dumping dead body remains and animal carcasses pose an imminent threat to the Ganga, but idol immersion during the pooja seasons also adds to the river’s woes.
Although many attempts have been made to ban this practice yet thousands of idols are immersed in the river every year.
Therefore, there is an urgent need to create public awareness, at macro and micro levels, to help people see the severity of the situation.
To address this issue, six public outreach programmes have been organised in the five Ganga basin states from time to time – Swachh Pakhwada, Ganga Swachhta Sankalp Divas, Ganga Nirikshan Yatra, Ganga Dussehra, Ganga Vriksharopan Saptah and Swachhta Hi Sewa campaign. Namami Gange is initiating public awareness programmes to ensure that people actively participate in these events and do their bit to save rivers. The awareness campaigns not only aim at societal changes but also talk about efforts required at an individual level, making it a two-pronged approach of tackling individual beliefs and societal norms.
Another challenge before Namami Gange was preservation of aquatic life, in and around the river. As a result, NMCG has initiated a project, ‘Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation’ in collaboration with the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), to restore the dwindling aquatic wildlife of the river. By stopping dumping of waste in the river and maintaining a continuous flow of water, the aquatic life can survive and revive, including a variety of fish which can clean the river. Union minister Nitin Gadkari has started a massive initiative under the Ganga tree plantation drive. Under the drive, the government will plant 10 crore trees along the banks of the river from Haridwar to Kolkata.
The vast networks of canals and ditches filter away the water from the Ganga, resulting in an alarming drop in water levels, especially during the dry season. Every day almost 90 percent of Ganga water is extracted for agriculture.
Moreover, up to 50 percent of this water is wasted due to careless irrigation methods. This results in less water in the river for dissolving the pollution, adding pressure on the river and its ecosystem. The need of the hour is smart agriculture and the mission is looking at innovative ways to propagate micro irrigation.
“The NMCG has already invested Rs 16,681.10 crore on various activities like sewage infrastructure, ghats and crematorium development, riverfront development, surface cleaning, institutional development, biodiversity conservation, rural sanitation and public participation,” says Makwana.
Environmentalists are hopeful of the Namami Gange mission but are sceptical regarding its implementation. Their concern is the lack of promptness and agility required from the government for this project. The mission plan looks good on papers, but its execution holds the key.
Dams and barrage
Environmentalists are against the construction of dams and barrages on the river as they might not only disturb the river’s aquatic life but also its physical-chemical properties.
The walls of a dam block the free-flowing ecosystem of the river and convert it into an artificial reservoir.
Madhusudan Srinivas, media consultant with the Clean Ganga Project, says that a dam or barrage can change the temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and the physical properties of a river.
In any case, reservoirs are not suitable to the aquatic plants and animals that evolve with a given river system as they also help in self-cleaning the river.
Rivers need water, free flowing to dissolve the pollution created by us, but how will they help if there is no water?
Ultimately dams affect rivers. Their impact depends upon where they are built, how big they are and how they are managed.
Even NDA’s union minister for drinking water and sanitation Uma Bharti has opposed construction of dams on Ganga saying that in order to secure/rejuvenate the river we must first protect the origin of Ganga.
In June 2016, the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation referring to the 2012 BK Chaturvedi committee report, submitted its view on new dams proposal in the upper basin of Uttarakhand in the supreme court saying, “Existing dams and river water diversions have caused significant damage to the river length and have depleted and deprived the river of its original content thereby compromising the quality of the water downstream.”
Corruption hampering execution
Environmentalists have been raising the issue of corruption in the government departments and polluting industries. “Even if we accept government statistics, then there are 1,109 polluting industries and action was taken against only 333. Why? Did the rest of the industries accept all the rules of the government? And who is investigating this? Corruption between the enforcement agency and polluting industries has resulted in pollution,” says Srinivas.
The Ganga flows through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal before reaching the Bay of Bengal. Out of these five states, four have BJP government which implies close centre-state coordination. West Bengal is averse to a lot of central initiatives on different grounds because of the centre-state rift, resulting in delay in work.
Despite full funding from the centre, there are issues of land allocation. The local bodies take a lot of time in allocating and transferring land for STPs. Also, the centre can only fund construction of STPs, ghats, crematoriums, etc., but taking care of their operations is a state’s job and here the good intention is wasted in corruption web.
What we need is strict law
Environmentalists are asking for a legal framework to protect the Ganga and restore its ecosystem. Experts advocate a stricter law to stop pollution in the river.
In April 2017 a draft proposal of legislation against river pollution was submitted to the then minister for Ganga Rejuvenation and Water Resources Uma Bharti. Called the National River Ganga (Rejuvenation Protection and Maintenance) Bill 2017, it aims to ensure cleanliness and rejuvenation of the river. The draft bill is under review by a committee chaired by the director general of NMCG. At that time Uma Bharti had said that there was a proposal to make a Ganga law. But who should be held responsible for this? Around 20 lakh people take bath in Ganga every year hoping to wash away their sins. And the numbers are increasing with the people’s dependence on water. The government must take measures to control pollution not just in Ganga but in all the rivers in the country. For this we need strict laws and even stronger implementation to enforce people, companies and agencies to comply with the norms and follow the law. A clean Ganga will happen only when there is a change in the mindset of people living along the river. This may not happen overnight, but a strong law and strict action will certainly help.