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Cover Story

A momentary sparkle

Temporary measures give a facelift to the Ganga during the Maha Kumbh. After March 10, it will be business as usual


The 55-day-long Maha Kumbh has brought the Ganga some relief, though short-lived. Just before daybreak on the first day of the festival, the river was relatively clean and with substantial flow. But this picture of India’s longest river will last only till the festival lasts.

To placate the estimated 100 million sadhus, pilgrims and tourists attending the Maha Kumbh, the state government is following a three-pronged strategy to keep the Ganga clean and flowing. In keeping with the order of the Allahabad High Court, which has been monitoring pollution in the Ganga following a public interest petition in 2006, the government is releasing water from upstream reservoirs, treating sewage in Allahabad before releasing it into the river and has curbed effluent discharge from industries upstream.

As a result, the quality of the water at the confluence has improved, says Sanjeev Gogia, founder of Aaxis Nano Technologies. The company, based in Delhi, monitors water quality of the Ganga every 15 minutes at eight places along its course on behalf of the Central Pollution Control Board (see snapshot of monitoring report). Data from the state pollution control board shows by 6 pm on the day of Shahi Snan, BOD leveles in the water of the confluence had risen to 7.4 mg/l, up from 4.4 mg/l from the previous day. “This increase is mostly due to mass bathing,” says Gogia. “But it is insignificant when compared to the pollution load discharged by industries.”

Before reaching the confluence in Allahabad, the Yamuna is the sewage receptacle for several towns and cities, including Delhi, although it is somewhat diluted by tributaries en route. The Ganga travels through several cities and industrial areas, including the leather hub of Kanpur. Every day, it receives approximately 250 million litres of industrial effluents and 1.3 billion litres of partially treated sewage (see map on facing page). At Allahabad, their confluence creates a cocktail of pollutants.

With its sewerage system in a shambles, Allahabad heightens the pollution levels. Water at Sangam has been deemed unfit for bathing since the 1990s.

Holy but without sewer system

Until December 31, 2012, the city had just two sewage treatment plants (STPs) with a capacity of 89 million litres a day (mld). This is about one-third of the sewage the city generates. These STPs were installed under the Centre’s Ganga Action Plan, initiated in 1984 to check pollution in the river. Following the intervention of the high court in 2010, five more STPs have been installed.

They became functional just before the Maha Kumbh. Getting the administration to meet this deadline was difficult. In 2011 the court observed: “We are constrained to observe the state government, which is the ultimate authority to see that the people of the state are provided unpolluted river water, has been lethargic in taking significant steps to check the menace of tanneries discharge and sewage discharge enter the river untreated.”

As of now, these seven STPs are capable of treating 211.5 mld of sewage. Their capacity will be bolstered by 42 mld by June. But given that Allahabad is one of the oldest and populous cities of the country, most areas remain unconnected to the sewerage system (see map). “Besides, every now and then, political establishments allow illegal and unauthorised colonies,” says L K Gupta, general manager, Ganga pollution control unit of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. “Each year minor drains appear which carry raw sewage from these establishments and release it into the 57 storm water drains across the city that outfall into the Ganga or the Yamuna. On paper, Allahabad generates 240 mld of sewage but this is far less than the ground reality,” he adds.

Water quality of the Ganga downstream of Prayag on January 23

Now with directive from the judiciary, the authorities are mechanically lifting sewage from storm water drains and treating it in STPs. But for this intervention, four of the seven STPs would not receive a drop of sewage. They are running at full capacity as they are intercepting, diverting and pumping the sewage flowing in nearby drains. “We will continue to do this until the yet-to-be-laid sewer lines bring sewage to the STPs,” says Gupta, acknowledging that it is a pipe dream.

For the 35 untapped drains, the state government gave the go-ahead to employ a bio-remedial technique, which uses microbes to break down the organic matter. A Ghaziabad-based firm has supplied the microbial solution. The authorities admit that the bio-remedial technique is not a proven treatment practice as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Urban Development. Yet, they say, the colour and odour in the drains have reduced markedly, and are expected to meet the prescribed discharge standards after treatment. The technique is likely to be discontinued on March 31, which means come April the 35 storm water drains will once again begin to discharge untreated sewage into the Ganga and the Yamuna. “The state government has sanctioned Rs 2.2 crore for the bio-remedial project just for the Mela period,” says Gupta.

Ahead of the Maha Kumbh, the Prime Minister’s Office also issued a directive to the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, asking it to ensure that industrial unit “comply with prescribed norms”. But making erring industrial units shut down is easier than getting them to comply with norms, say pollution control board officials.

The government decided to shut down all tanning units in the upstream city of Kanpur. On record there were 417 tanneries in Kanpur. Over the past two years, the administration has shut down about 100 tanneries as they were not meeting effluent discharge standards. Many, however, continued to function as the pollution control board turned a blind eye to the discharge. Earlier this month the regional officer of the state pollution control board in Kanpur was suspended for not carrying out his duties. The government is playing hard ball, for the moment.

The figures show annual average BOD and faecal coliform levels; Source: Central Pollution Control Board

“Since January 10, people come at odd hours to inspect as if we are in the drugs business,” says Imran Siddiqui, director of Super Tannery Limited, one of the oldest units in Kanpur. The units will begin functioning on February 14 until 22, remain closed for three days, resume functioning again on February 25 until March 5 and finally resume without restrictions only after March 10, when the Mela ends. Siddiqui says the closure will result in damages up to Rs 1,000 crore and affect nearly 100,000 people. “We are being made the scapegoat, while other industries continue to function,” he adds.

“The four drains in Kanpur that carry the wastewater of tanneries do not have flow, at least in the day time,” affirms Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of Ecofriends, a Kanpur-based nonprofit that often monitors drains in the city for clandestine discharge. Gogia says the real time monitoring station shows the closure has had a noticeable impact downstream of Kanpur where BOD levels have reduced from 22-25 mg/l to about 6 mg/l in the past month.

The fallacy in such system of curbing pollution is that one cannot shut down a city. Kanpur generates over 400 mld of sewage, of which only 171 mld is treated. The remaining continues to be discharged untreated into the Ganga. The authorities only hope that it gets flushed out or diluted by the extra water released from upstream reservoirs.

Ganga filled half-heartedly

The high court had asked the state government to make sufficient water available at ghats on the days of Shahi Snan, which receive the largest throngs of pilgrims and sadhus. Officials at the irrigation department claim they have been releasing 71 cumec of water from Narora barrage in Bulandshahr since January 1 and will continue to release the amount till February 28. “We will release an additional 11 cumec of water around the six important bathing days,” says A K Srivastava, superintending engineer of the state’s irrigation department. The flow will be reduced to 43 cumec from March 1 until March 10.

A report by WWF-India in December last year says given the presence of such a large number of people, water must be released during the Kumbh period to maintain the environmental flows at the confluence. To achieve and maintain the desired depth of 0.9-1.2 metres for bathing, environmental flow at the confluence should be in the range of 225 to 310 cumec. The report has been submitted to the Uttar Pradesh government.

This is an ambitious target for planners. In January during non-Kumbh years, water flow of the Ganga is 142 cumec at Allahabad, which is much less than that of the Yamuna when it joins the confluence. “If the Ganga is allowed to flow the way it is flowing during the Maha Kumbh, it will have serious impacts on drinking water and irrigation needs in the upstream catchment,” says R K Srivastava, professor at the civil engineering department of Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, who has a team studying the environmental impacts of the Kumbh gathering. But the irrigation department did not do any studies to understand how the diversion of water from the Narora barrage for nearly two months would affect the rabi crop in the upstream catchments.

When the festival gets over, the barrage gates will close to hold back the waters, the pollution control boards will turn a blind eye to the discharge, clandestine or otherwise, from tanneries and other industrial units, and cities along the banks will continue to discharge untreated sewage into the Ganga. And the holy river will return to its usual way, sluggish, polluted and neglected.

The Ganga will remain dirty

According to the Central Pollution Control Board, of the 12,690 km length of the river (including tributaries, the main stem of the Ganga is a little over 2,500 km in length), 42 per cent is moderately polluted or worse off. Half of the river is not fit for bathing or drinking.

imageExcreta Matters, a report prepared by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based nonprofit, in 2012 shows that the Ganga will remain polluted in spite of the fact that the bulk of treatment facilities in the country have been installed to prevent untreated sewage outfalls in to the river.

The Ganga Action Plan, initiated in 1984 was a frontrunner in building treatment facilities, but the sewer lines, pumps and treatment plants fell far short because of the increasing volume of sewage. According to the study, most cities have inadequate sewerage, highly energy intensive collection and treatment systems, and cash strapped urban local bodies which cannot afford the cost of operations and maintenance.

They take water from the river, only to return waste. In August 2009, the National Ganga River Basin Authority was formed and the river was given the status of a National River.

The difference from the earlier Ganga Action Plan programmes is that the planning would be done on the entire basin of the river. A consortium of seven IITs and experts is developing a plan to meet the 2020 objective of not discharging untreated sewage into the Ganga.

The plan was to be prepared by last year. There have been delays in receiving data from the government, says mission coordinator Vinod Tare of IIT Kanpur. What the plan will be, how all the capital infrastructure required will be financed, operated and maintained is yet to be seen.

MLD: million litres daily; Source: Central Pollution Contro Board, 2011

Sadhus take up the torch

“Pollution in the Ganga is an aesthetic issue for us. However, it is not for those who are dependent on her for irrigation and drinking water,” says Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, an American who is associated with Parmarth Niketan Ashram, the largest ashram in Rishikesh, since 1996.

This is the first time the Kumbh gathering is being termed “green” and environment has become the talking point at several religious discourses and among seers and sadhus. “People listen to religious leaders, which is why faith-based environmentalism will work,” says Saraswati. “Besides, one cannot talk to the common man in a scholastic way about pollution loads in a river.” To keep the Ganga clean during the Mela period, Parmarth Niketan Ashram has launched an initiative, the Ganga Action Parivar. Every day sadhus and devotees associated with this Parivar clear out polythene and other rubbish thrown on the riverbank. They are also organising meetings on the riverbank to make people aware of the pollution load in the Ganga and ways to improve its health.

Swami Chidanand Saraswati, head of Paramarth Niketan Ashram, plans to call a meeting, which will be attended by chief ministers of five states through which the Ganga crisscrosses. The meeting will discuss how to maintain the purity of the Ganga.

Several non-profits have also joined the nascent movement of faith-based environmentalism. “It was during the Kumbh of 2007 that I got the idea of spreading awareness of cleanliness, hygiene and pollution among a vast gathering,” says Kusum Vyas, president of Living Planet Foundation, a non-profit based in the US.

Some, however, are not as convinced of this approach. “Green political thought is good but we cannot expect much improvement given the population increase and model of growth we have adopted,” says M P Dube, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at Allahabad University.

The Sangam City itself is a classic example of this contemporary society, where a pop-up mega city is constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks. Maha Kumbh is no Olympics, which leaves behind a legacy of infrastructure. Come March 10, the tents, stalls, offices, ghats and pontoon bridges will be dismantled. The 100 million people will leave behind a mountain of waste, excreta and plastics for the residents of the host city and downstream villages to deal with, for long.


I think it is the faith only that keeps people making a beeline to Sangam and it is sheer faith that saves them from bacterial infections. The health of Ganga is pitiable and with the added muck of millions it is bound to go from bad to worse.
We can only say Jai Gange.

But is time that the message about keeping the rivers clean is conveyed to the masses through all types of media-else the future generations will have rivers of poop only.

5 February 2013
Posted by
V.K. Joshi

The answer to the question: Can Faith Heal? is most certainly yes.
In offering my comments on “Hindu Philosophy & Environmental Pollution”, I had offered a much better explanation than “peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One in October 2012, which argues that despite cold weather, endless noise, poor food and risk of disease, devotees who attend such events and participate in collective rites have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing. Maybe, the study holds the answer to Mark Twain’s quest.”

My comment was:
“I am of the firm opinion that instead of ridiculing the people in having faith in rituals it will be better to restore the status of the Ganga.

Look the conviction of the yatrees, the devotees and much more the sadhus is deep down at the state of the ecosystem where one can only have a feeling. It is the ecosystem that is deeper than the microenvironment (size: 10-6), or the nanoenvironment (size: 10-9) but the picoenvironment (size: 10-12) where the free energy exchange is all that matters. This free energy is what is “atma” or “rooh” and in terms of thermodynamics it is the driving force or Free energy of life processes. This the theme of my Book: “Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes”: [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi].

According to this approach, all humans, including people who feel a sense of calm and bliss over the polluted Ganga, are under oxidative dehydration-induced stress. All of us, when under stress look for reversal of the stress which may be possible by reductive rehydration by asking or praying to the unknown but omnipresent, who may bless the stressed soul with the much needed free energy and may be the means to get the desired relief and blessing for which millions of people go for yatra and visit shrines. All yatrees who go far yatra with firm belief, are blessed in some such ways that satisfies their soul. If this were not the case, people may not have thronged to such places in ever-increasing numbers. To them the polluted water does not smell, and does no harm.

In thermodynamic terms the stressed state of the yatree is in dire need of free energy/driving force. The yatree’s faith is the medium for transfer of free energy and the much needed driving force. That is how the stressed yatree earns his reward for visiting the mela.

Interestingly, all places visited by yatrees and devotees have some source of water, may be a river, a spring or a pond. The springs these days are just as much, if not more, polluted with microorganisms and chemicals as the Ganga; they also do not have as much dissolved oxygen as the freshwater flowing in the rivers. The devotees get their stress released just the same. So, the idea is that pollution may be causing deficiency in dissolved oxygen but the water continues to have the potential to provide the free energy at the picoenvironment which provides the relief to the firm believers like the Sadhus and devotees.

So, sir, instead of ridiculing the traditionalists for their faith, let us concentrate on purifying the Ganga chemically and biologically; while the yatrees consider it pure enough to purify their soul, and my theory considers it energetically charged adequately to undo the stress.

So, sir, Hinduism and for that matter any religion is not insensitive to the environment; on the contrary they are more sensitive to clean environment. The plain truth is that humanity begs of the governance system to adopt sustainable approach to the environment.

Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
Former Director General PCSIR Karachi

This article lacks scientific approach. The question we need to ask is whether kumbh melas or religious practices pollute water, and if yes, to what extent. What kind of pollutants they induce in water? And what percentage of them? You will find it's the industrial waste that is almost solely responsible and not occasional celebrations.

My Comment (23012013)
This article may lack scientific approach but not common sense.
The common sense demands that “The last person who can save an accident and does not save the accident is responsible for the accident”. Simple! The mela yatrees are asking for forgiveness through their religious practices. In doing so they are looking to purifying their atma or soul. So they take a dip of about 14 seconds, in the water of the Ganga, assuming that its water, bearing heavenly characteristics, will purify their soul. It is not the physical or biological purity that matters to them. On the contrary their conviction is so strong that they do not care about the physical or biological impurities; they consider it pure enough to purify their soul.

This is where common sense matters. The Ganga has been physically polluted by the industries whose industrial waste is likely to cause the accident by way of harming the health of the yatree. The accident can be avoided by restraining the industries from discharging the pollutants. If not they will be the last ones which could save the accident and do not save the accident and hence will be responsible for the accident, by the universal laws.

You do not need a scientific approach to solve your own problem. What needs to be done then is to warn all concerned: the industries, municipalities and individuals to refrain from polluting the Ganga. It is therefore the moral obligation of the Governing Hierarchy as well as all concerned to preserve the sanctity of the Ganga and all religious institutions, may be a temple, a church, a mosque or a synagogue.

Coming back to the scientific explanation given in the earlier article, the confidence of the yatrees in the Ganga in providing purity is governed at the level where it is all in terms of energy. Despite the impurity, they consider water of the Ganga to be charged with adequate purity to provide them the sense of calm and bliss.

Remember, some if not most of these people, have no access to the conventional system of healthcare. For them the Ganga and the springs near the shrines provide alternative therapy. Many such people are cured by what I call the Ecosystem approach to life Processes; such persons are under oxidative dehydration-induced stress; they are looking for reversal of the stress which may be possible by reductive rehydration by asking or praying to the unknown but omnipresent, who may bless the stressed soul with the much needed free energy and may be the means to get the desired relief and blessing for which millions of people go for yatra and visit shrines. This free energy is what is "atma" or "rooh" and driving force or Free energy of life processes as I have proposed in my Book: "Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes" [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi].

Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
Former Director General PCSIR
Karachi, Pakistan

10 February 2013
Posted by
Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg

Dr Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, I agree with you. The point we are trying to drive home is how the government has failed to take adequate steps to cap pollution. To comment on whether Kumbh should happen or whether devotees should take a dip in Ganga is not for us to preach or prevent. Our earnest attempt has been just to report the ground situation. I agree that religion do not harm environment. Almost every religious scripture preaches peaceful coexistence with other human beings, trees, plants and animals. Rivers and mountains are worshiped. At times, agitations by tribal groups have been triggered simply because mining companies desecrated their sacred hills. Your comments answered several questions that I had. Thank you.

13 February 2013

Posted by
Soma Basu

In an earlier comment I had identified the need to concentrate on purifying the Ganga chemically and biologically. Since the yatrees are least concerned about the physical purity, let us not discourage the faith in the yatra by quantifying the impurity. It is bad enough that we cannot physically purify the Ganga, and it is worse if we cannot preserve the sanctity of the Ganga on which millions depend fo purifying their soul, and my theory: “Ecosystem Approach to Life Processes" [Life Processes Health Disease & Aging, Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, 2012, Research & Development Publications, Karachi]” considers it energetically charged to adequately undo the stress and provide the bliss.

I now find that the departments concerned have taken the steps i) to increase the volume of freshwater flow into the Ghat areas, and ii) reduced the BOD levels from 22-25 mg/l to about 6 mg/l though for a temporary period by closing the polluting units. This has perhaps been possible when the governance system was forced by the Judiciary to adopt sustainable approach to the environment.

Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg
Former Director General PCSIR Karachi

10 February 2013
Posted by
Dr. Mirza Arshad Ali Beg

Faith does not emanate from the sole dip of Ganga.
Spiritually faith comes from within through meditation and yoga. Ganga serves as the mediator between the soul and the Gods.
The number of antisocial elements do not decline by a single sip of Ganga water. It serves as an excuse to the faithless one's who enjoy the sword of self-defence.
Elaborate arrangements are made to ensure safety of the pilgrims at a huge cost by the administrator, however after taking a nice dip in Ganga there remains no guarentee whether the sin has been washed or being manipulated for the Indians who are effortless and live with tyranny.

It is better to have faith on Ganga as a holy river and sacrifice everything to see it flows neatly and without the devil's archive in manifesting the divine abode.

2 January 2014
Posted by
Subhojit Srivastava

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