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“Purifying the Ganga” by Down to Earth, U. Shankar

Shankar, U. “Purifying the Ganga.” Down to Earth. 30 September 1992.

Purifying the Ganga

By Uday Shankar

September 30, 1992

“The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilisation …” – Jawaharlal Nehru

It may have been this emotive encomium to the Ganga that motivated Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, to undertake India’s most ambitious environmental clean-up programme ever. Launching the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in Varanasi on June 14, 1986, Gandhi, then prime minister, of India, stated confidently, “We shall see that the waters of the Ganga become clean once again.”

The task was ambitious indeed: to improve water quality so as to permit safe bathing all along the 2,525 km of the Ganga, from its origin in the Himalaya to the Bay of Bengal, and to make it potable at important pilgrim and urban centres on its banks. Beginning with Rishikesh, where the Ganga enters the UP plains and begins to be contaminated by municipal and industrial effluents, GAP was designed to intercept and divert untreated sewage currently flowing into the river to treatment plants. The plan also involves devising low-cost sanitation systems to prevent the river bank from being used as a latrine or garbage dump and to build electric crematoria that would offer an alternative to disposing the dead by casting the bodies into the Ganga.

Although industrial effluents constitute only about 15 per cent of the waste discharged into the Ganga, its toxicity is cause for concern. So GAP strategy involves indentifying the major polluters and attempting to persuade them to clean up their act by offering government loans for the setting-up of treatment plants. Under this programme, 68 “gross pollutants” were identified from more than 450 major industrial units.

The scheme met with instant popular approval because the river is culturally important — no Hindu religious ceremony is complete without the use of Ganga jal (water). It was on the banks of the Ganga that the earliest and most extensive pockets of urbanisation flourished, because of the river’s relatively steady course. Its northern tributaries, on the other hand, are extremely flood prone. This, in turn, led to the Ganga being exploited, especially during the industrial age.

A 1984 study prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board noted three-fourths of the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) of the Ganga was from untreated municipal sewage and 88 per cent of this came from 27 Class-I cities. It was this study that formed the basis for GAP, whose first phase was designed to tackle pollution from 25 of these cities, situated in UP, Bihar and West Bengal (see box). In statistical terms, this meant treating 870 million litres a day (mld) of the 1,400 mld sewage generated in these cities. For this, 261 schemes for the interception, diversion, conveyance and treatment of effluents were set up in the cities concerned.

Rs. 250 crore was set aside in the Seventh Five-Year Plan alone to finance the project, while the total allocation for the entire scheme was set at Rs. 292 crore. The government also decided to set up the Ganga Project Directorate (GPD), within the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MEF). The outlay for the first phase of the GAP was subsequently revised to Rs. 385 crore, of which Rs. 300 crore have already been spent to complete 191 schemes. GPD officials assert that of the 70 remaining schemes in the first phase, 47 will be completed this year and the remaining 23 will be completed next year, when work on the second phase also is due to begin. It will involve tackling the pollution from class II cities along the Ganga and its major tributaries.

Complex task

It was obvious from the start that no standard treatment process could be adopted as the nature of the problem varied from region to region. For instance, in Hardwar with its relatively small population of about 1.5 lakh, gives rise to only about 42 mld of sewage per day. But pollution is accentuated sharply every six years during ardha kumbha when upto 50 lakh devotees descend on the small town to take a holy did. Industrial effluents from two public sector establishments — Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd and Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd — also create serious problems.

Downstream in Kanpur, a highly industrialised and large urban centre, the situation is more complex. Though treating municipal waste itself calls for a massive infrastructure, the toxic discharge from engineering, textiles and especially the leather industries, create additional threats to the river

A formidable challenge lay in the low volume of water in the river during the eight non-monsoon months. Almost 90 per cent of the dry-weather flow of the ganga is diverted to the Upper Ganga canal at Hardwar and all the recharge that takes place after Hardwar is diverted to the Lower Ganga Canal at Aligarh. This reduction of the dry-weather flow of the main river to a trickle — the monsoon flow near Kanpur is said to be 33 times the dry-weather flow –has further concentrated pollution levels upto Allahabad, where the Yamuna augments the flow. The Ganga receives more than 60 per cent of its water from its tributaries.

Thirteen sewer drains are the major source of pollution at Allahabad, and the venue of the kumbha every 12 years which is said to attract the largest gathering of people in the world. These sewer drains are choked, says R K Mehrotra, engineer in charge of the Ganga Project Cell in Allahabad. Besides, much of Allahabad town has no sewer facilities. Fortunately, there is little industrial pollution in the city.

The problems at Varanasi, said to be the oldest, continuously inhabited urban centre in the world, are somewhat similar, but intensified by the effluents from the diesel locomotive works located in the city. Varanasi is responsible for one-fourth of UP’s contribution of pollutants to the Ganga and its 400-km sewerage system — some stretches of which are 300 years old — has been choked since about 1920. Because Varanasi is a popular tourist centre, GAP undertook cosmetic projects such as cleaning and renovating the ghats and the riverfront. A problem peculiar to Varanasi arises from the Hindu belief that the dead cremated here attain moksha (freedom from reincarnation), which results in hundreds of bodies being cremated there every day.
Pollution of the Ganga at Patna, the next major city downstream, is due largely to its phenomenal growth over the past 20 years, during which new areas have been built up without adequate civic facilities. Government officials estimate Patna generates 100 mld of waste water, of which 87 mld from nine major outfalls in the city are being tapped in the first phase of GAP. Unofficial estimates set waste-water generation much higher. As there is little scope for the city to grow in width because it is sandwiched between the Sone river and the Ganga, Patna has expanded mostly along the Ganga, which vastly increases the garbage that gets dumped into the river. One advantage that Patna has, however, is high discharge even during dry weather, because the Ganga is augmented by the Ghagra and the Sone upstream and the Gandak joins it downstream.

In Calcutta, the second most populous Indian city, GAP is involved mainly in laying sewers because little of this has been done in recent years even though the population has increased considerably. Little sewage flows into the Ganga from the areas covered by the Calcutta and Howrah municipal corporations and so the main source of pollution here is waste generated in 33 municipalities, three municipal corporations and three notified area committees, which form part of the Calcutta metropolitan area. K K Bagchi, chief executive officer of the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA), said only 167 tonnes of the 397 tonnes of the BOD per day is actually directed into the Ganga. “But laying sewer lines in West Bengal is far more difficult than anywhere else because the water table here is very high”.

GAP details

In the six years of its existence, the Ganga Project Directorate claims many achievements, including that about 200 schemes have been completed and only 23 of the 261 projects remain for completion this year. Out of 68 industries identified as “gross pollutants”, 10 have been closed, eight are being prosecuted, 43 have installed treatment plants and seven are in the process of doing so. According to the latest annual report of the Union ministry of environment and forests, 12 of 35 sewage treatment plants and 19 of 28 electric crematoria had been completed by March this.

GPD director Vinay Shankar stated 370 km of sewer lines have been laid so far and 485 mld waste water is already being intercepted and diverted, though only 223 mld is actually being treated. Shankar explained because poor sanitation greatly pollutes water quality, GAP has placed special emphasis on low-cost sanitation facilities for the poor and earmarked. Rs. 21.45 crore for what be called “one of the largest, lowcost sanitation programmes ever undertaken in this country”. A number of measures have been implemented near the banks and ghats and dhobis (launderers) have been provided alternate sites. All 35 riverfront development schemes, which included renovating 128 ghats, have been completed.

Commented Virendra Vats, GPD additional director, “We have achieved most of what we set out to do and the Ganga is much cleaner today than it was six years ago.” GPD officials said water quality of the Ganga has improved significantly at Rishikesh, Hardwar, Allahabad and Varanasi, but were reluctant to discuss specifically whether the improvement was line with set targets. Shankar explained, “The bacteriological water quality to meet bathing standards haven’t been met yet because a large number of the sewage treatment plants are still not operational.” Echoed R N Trivedi, chief executive officer of Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika, “Unless all the schemes are complete and all the treatment plants fully operational, the desired results cannot be achieved.”

But criticism of the project and its progress is strident from those outside the government. Says Raghunath Singh, former MLA and secretary of the Ganga Mahasamiti, “The Ganga project is hogwash. The Kanpur stretch is one of the high-profile assignments of GAP, but there is hardly any improvement in the health of the river there.”

S N Upadhyaya, professor of chemical engineering at Benares Hindu University, was a shade more generous, “Some improvement is certainly there. But GAP, as designed, cannot bring about a comprehensive change.” And, Calcutta Mayor Prasanta Chatterjee complained though 70 of 110 schemes in West Bengal have been completed, “pollution has not been checked.”

But the most scathing criticism of the project accuses project officials of not paying attention to the high faecal coliform count in the Ganga, a vital cause for human illness along its banks. The World Health Organisation prescribes a maximum coliform count of 500 for bathing water, but the GPD limit is an astounding 2,500 and, after Hardwar, the count is several times higher (see box).
Some allegations have been made that GAP officials have concocted data. A C Shukla of the botany department of Kanpur University contends water quality data forwarded by different government agencies showed considerable variance and this is evidence of their “unreliability”. S K Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation at Varanasi, who is an associate professor of hydraulic engineering at Benaras Hindu University, even accused pollution control board officials of “fudging” data because monitoring by the foundation’s own laboratory — Swatcha Ganga Laboratory — showed much higher pollution levels in the Ganga than the government’s figures. For instance, government figures show the dissolved oxygen level — the higher the level, the cleaner the water — upstream of Varanasi has risen from 5.6 mg/litre in 1986 to 7.5 mg/litre in May this year, while, the DO level downstream rose from 5.9 mg/litre in 1986 to 7.2 mg/litre in May. Foundation figures based on samples collected from eight sites in Varanasi show DO levels in May never rose above 6.5 and were as low as 2.5 mg/litre in some places.

K J Nath, director of the Calcutta-based All India Institute of Public Health and Hygiene which monitors the health of riverside residents, said it is not possible to quantify GAP’s impact on health. “Water- borne and water-washed diseases are the main cause for illness in these areas and some of them, like skin and eye diseases, have shown an upward trend during 1985 and 1989.” Similarly, the incidence of diarrhoea in Varanasi has increased but other ailments showed a downward trend during the same period. Nath commented, “We do not have evidences to show that either the increase or the decrease is due to the GAP.”

Long-term prospects

Three major doubts are being expressed about the programme’s prospects of success. The first queries whether state and municipal officials can maintain and operate Ganga clear-up schemes on their own and using their own resources. The GPD estimates a minimum of Rs. 13 crore will be required annually for this purpose, but unofficial figures set the total at around Rs. 25 crore. And, a senior GPD official coutioned, the cost of maintenance will shoot up with each passing year. The second area of doubt is indiscipline among both people and officials in the use of facilities. Sewage can be pumped into sewage treatment plants, but in most municipalities, sewage — much of it solid garbage — is dumped down manholes even in sewers still being built. In some cases government officials and operators of plants and pumps have been caught damaging them deliberately so they can make some money on repairs. The third area of concern is rapid urbanisation as the assets being created are linked to the needs of the urban population, currently living along the river.

But what will happen as these cities grow? Even Bagchi of CMDA expressed concern about maintenance costs, saying, “When all the facilities are in place, it will require about Rs. 10 crore per year in West Bengal alone to run them. I am not convinced that the state government and municipal agencies have this kind of money.” GPD officials concede the response so for from state governments has been dismal. “We have been able to create all these facilities only because it is a totally Central sector programme, but now that the states have to maintain them, they are developing cold feet,” said a senior GPD official, who asked not to be named.

Dipankar Chakravarty, professor of environmental science Jadavpur University, put the blame squarely on GAP itself. “Isn’t the GPD aware of the resource crunch? Don’t they know that we cannot afford electrical-mechanical schemes that are so energy intensive? I think from the very beginning, no one was serious about running these
schemes,” he said citing the case of the bheri(fish farm) at Mudiali, where city sewage is treated by exposing it to sunlight and lime, which reduces BOD to tolerable levels. The treated sewage is then used for fish farming, which employs about 250 families.

R K Mehrotra of Allahabad Municipal Corporation says it would be difficult to operate the treatment plants even if the funds are available because “in summer most of these cities are subjected to loadshedding and then the sewage has to be released in the river untreated. There is no alternative as long as the power crisis continues.” Operators at a municipal sewage treatment plant near Jajmau, an industrial suburb of Kanpur, admitted they were discharging untreated water into the Ganga for upto seven each day because of power cuts. They had a generator but it was powerful enough only to open riverside gates, but not to operate the Sewage treatment plant.

There are also pockets which suffer from faulty planning as, for example, in Kanpur, where the pumping station at Sheesamau has been lying idle because bad alignment has made it impossible for gravity sewers to carry water to it. Raghunath Singh Trivedi of the nagar mahapalika contended untreated water is still into the river because of a “problem,” but an expert committee is reviewing this problem which is not limited to just one pumping station but to the entire stretch of the river along the city. Vinay Shankar most of the untreated sewage is being diverted and discharged into the river, downstream of the city. But Shankar noted GAP’s objective is only to intercept the waste water that flows into the existing sewers. But the quality of water in Kanpur and Varanasi indicates that because a large portion of these cities are unsewered, effluents simply stream into the river. This is particularly true of slum colonies and of those agricultural lands on the fringes of these cities that have been colonised recently and without proper government approval.

GAP’s critics argue that these problems arose because the authorities did not pay any attention to planning, especally to planning underground sewers, because sewage treatment plans can work only if the sewers remain unclogged. “This is asking for too much because we all know that this cannot be done,” commented Mishra. “And, if this cannot be achieved, the whole plan runs aground.”

B L Gupta, works manager of UP Jal Nigam in Allahabad, which is doing most of the sewer laying work, contended people were dumping garbage into sewer inlets and manholes because municipalities no longer bother about regular garbage collection. Even dead animals he added, are found in sewers and in Jajmau, where extensive sewer-laying is being done in worker colonies, many of the new sewers can be seen literally choked with garbage.

But this pivotal emphasis on sewers also means it is difficult to replicate the GAP experience elsewhere because “none of the Indian cities is fully sewered, leave alone the fact that existing sewers don’t work,” says G D Agarwal, former member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. Agarwal contended the critical role of pumps in these schemes is a problem because of frequent breakdowns, which means untreated water is flushed into the river. So important is the role of pumps, the Ganga projects founder-director, K C Sivaramakrishnan, described it as a “pumps- and-pipes scheme.”

But M C Mehta, a Supreme Court lawyer who specialises in environmental cases, commented aunstically that the only beneficiaries of the pumps-and-pipes scheme are the suppliers and the officials who award the contracts. “There schemes are like milch cows. Not only do the officials make money on construction, there is a lot of money to be made every year on maintenance,” he said.

Urban solid waste is another problem for the river. A major portion of this waste emanates from the large number of small industries located in urban pockets. Chakravarty pointed out that many of the large units may have set up treatment plants, but they continue to contribute to Ganga pollution because they subcontract their “dirty work” to small units. “It is cheaper and it helps the big unit look clean, but the river gets hurt,” he said.

However, GAP’s major shortcoming is the lack of provision in it to tackle urban growth. Sewage treatment plants, for example, are just not designed to tackle the extra sewage that will be generated during the next decade. In Varanasi, for instance, even as Ganga clean-up work is going on, a World Bank-aided drinking water project is coming up that will add another 100 mld to the city’s sewage. But there is no provision to deal with this extra load in GAP’s Varanasi segment and so, the water will flow untreated into the river. Cities along the Ganga are all expanding rapidly but their officials give little thought to civic infrastructure, which these municipal bodies would not be able to set up in any case because they are impoverished. In April, for instance, Kanpur Nagar Mahapalika had to suspend all work temporarily, for lack of funds.

GAP also suffers because of pressure from groups like land developers who circumvent the system to protect their vested interests. A Varanasi land-developer, it is said obstructed the Assi drain intended to be one of the main carriers of the city’s sewage.

All these are some of the fundamental problems facing GAP, convincing critices like Chakravarty that the whole concept of a centralised treatment facility is impractical in India. “We know that sewage farms are working well wherever they have been started and so we should have settled for similar low cost, self-sustainable systems. But more than cleaning the river, the government wanted GAP to be grandiose and spectacular — and that is what it has become,” said Chakravarty.

Replicating GAP

Can GAP be a model for cleaning up other rivers in the country? “Of course,” responded Vinay Shankar, although be conceded it would not work if sewers are logged and pumps fail to function or if the scheme caters only to sewered areas. “Once the sewage treatment plants are operational, we are sure everything will be all right,” he said. But others say the faecal coliform count was not likely to drop, because it would not be possible to control it under GAP.

The Central Ganga Authority, which is chaired by the prime minister, is to meet shortly to clear GAP’s second phase, which seeks to divert and clean up the main tributaries of the Ganga — Yamuna, Hindon, Gomti and Damodar — in addition to dealing with the remaining 500 mld waste-water from the Ganga. While there is a flurry Pariavaran Bhavan over the impending meetings, there are many like Raghunath Singh and Mehta who want GAP evaluated before more money is sanctioned. “Once they get the money for the second phase, the colossal waste in the first phase entailed will be forgotten,” said Mehta.

Agarwal, with somewhat similar views, argued the very idea of water-based conveyance of sewage for treatment is impractical in India because of the high costs involved. “It is just compounding the problem,” he said. The sewage, pointed out, is merely carried a long distance, then treated with high-energy inputs and, after all this, there is still the solid waste to be disposed. “Why can’t we think of a dry disposal system, instead?” he asked.

Dry disposal would be more effective, but it would require much more disciplined consumption of water by the urban rich. Said Agarwal, “The Ganga will remain dirty as long as wasteful urban lifestyles continue to be subsidised.” But the government seems to be little inclined to enforce sanitation discipline on the urban population.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has submitted a National River Action Plan to the Planning Commission for inclusion in the Eighth Five- Year Plan allocations. The plan seeks to clean up 22 of India’s most polluted rivers. Which raises the question : can the country afford a project that could well result in replicating GAP’s mistakes?

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Subjects: Ganga Action Plans & Restoration Efforts by the Government of India