The Kumbh mela drew to a close on March 10, as five million pilgrims took a dip on Mahashivratri, the last of the six auspicious bathing days. The “greatest show on earth” witnessed a record influx of 120 million people, according to Mani Prasad Mishra, the mela adhikari (chief officer). The pop up city, which Mishra presided over for 55 days, was built in a 2,000 hectare spread of the floodplains near the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganga—Sangam—and will now be dismantled before the area is inundated by floodwaters later this year. While the tents, toilets, roads, street lights and other infrastructure will disappear, the pollution problem will once again re-surface.
During the festival period, a three-pronged strategy was adopted to placate the pilgrims, and convince media observers that efforts have been made to ensure that the water would be suitable for bathing (see Graph). As a first step, the chief secretary, the top bureaucrat of the Uttar Pradesh state government, mandated the irrigation department release 2,500 cubic feet per second (cusec) or 71 cubic metre per second (cumec) from January 1 until February 28 to ensure adequate depth and dilution of expected pollution loads at the bathing site in Allahabad. Additionally, two days before and one day after each of the six shahi snan (royal bathing) days, the state irrigation department released 11.3 cumec, over and above the minimum stipulated flow. The freshwater release reduced to 42.5 cumec from March 1 until 10, as fewer people were expected with only one important bathing day remaining on the last day of the festival (March 10).
The other step taken by the state government was to curb the discharge of untreated industrial effluents into the river. Directions were issued by the Prime Minister’s Office to the state pollution control boards on January 11 earlier this year to ensure that all industries comply with the prescribed norms. In 2012, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board claimed to have shut down a fifth of the tanneries in the upstream city of Kanpur which were failing to meet the discharge norms. But the chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh took no chances and ordered a complete shutdown of all tanneries in the city.
There are more than 300 functioning tannery units in Kanpur. Respecting the faith of the pilgrims visiting Allahabad, the tanneries association held a meeting in December last year and voluntarily agreed to stop operations before the six main bathing days. But the state government had other ideas in mind. On January 3, a letter from the government directed them to remain shut during the entire mela period except these periods: January 10-13, February 22-24, and March 6-9. “We were made the fall guy, and 100,000 people’s earnings were affected,” said Imran Siddiqui, director of Super Tannery Limited, one of the oldest units in the city.
According to the real time monitoring station installed downstream of Kanpur, the closure resulted in a significant reduction in BOD, which exceeded 20 mg/l in the pre-mela period, to between 6-10 mg/l (see graphs). The chemical oxygen demand too, which measures the strength of biodegradable and recalcitrant matter in wastewater, reduced due to the industrial shutdown and release of freshwater upstream. “But with the end of the festival, units have returned to production, and we expect the pollution load and water quality of the Ganga to worsen as it was before the festival,” said Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of Ecofriends, a non-profit based in Kanpur. The data is yet to reflect these changes.
STPs v bioremediation
On the sewage front, while Kanpur continues to discharge more than 200 million litres of untreated sewage into the Ganga, Allahabad has begun to put its house in order. “We are lucky that thanks to the festival we now have the infrastructure to treat 80-85 per cent of the sewage of the city. The rest of the country is far worse off,” said L K Gupta, head of the Ganga pollution control unit of the UP Jal Nigam. But after the commissioning of four new STPs in January earlier this year, approximately 50 million litres a day (MLD) of untreated sewage continued to find its way into the river, upstream of Sangam and the bathing ghats. Gupta and his team identified 35 nullahs and floated a tender for treatment using bioremediation or microbial cultures to break down organic matter in sewage. The project was awarded to treat 39 drains over four months to Greenways Pvt limited, a Ghaziabad-based firm for 2.2 crore.
During the project period the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) took 19 grab samples, each an indicator of the water quality at a given moment. According to their data, the board concluded that bioremediation was not effective and there was merely 40 per cent reduction in BOD. “The technology depends on the retention time and length of the drain to sufficiently reduce pollution loads. If this does not exist, as in the case of several drains, the results are poor,” said Mohammed Sikander, regional officer of the UPPCB at Allahabad.
The biotechnology company representative disagrees. “Scientific advances have enabled us to isolate and mass-produce standardized pro-biotic bacteria and fungi into industrial concentrated inoculums. These selected formulations, of multiple strains of bacteria, can be targeted to address specific contaminants,” said Varun Arora, director of Greenways. These bacteria with an appetite for sewage are stored in tanks which then drip a stipulated dose into the drain (see photograph). Arora admits that the liquid dose wasn’t working to their satisfaction, and, therefore, his team began creating mud balls made out of rice bran, molasses, inoculated with beneficial bacteria. These mud balls called dango balls, are being placed every metre or so and disintegrate over a few days in the drain (see photograph). “We have been preparing the balls and positioning them in the drains every 10-15 days,” added Arora.
According to their data, the biological oxygen demand (an indicator of organic pollution) in the Arael drain, one of the 39 nullah outfalls carrying untreated sewage, reduced from 110-130 mg/l and stabilized between 20-30 mg/l. The Central Pollution Control Board standards for discharge stipulate that BOD should be less than 30 mg/l in a recipient fresh water body that is a source for drinking water supply. While the company’s own data shows that they have met the discharge standards, the UP Jal Nigam is awaiting the consolidated report from the UPPCB on the efficacy of treatment, but is given to believe that the reduction in BOD is not as high as the company data suggests.
Bioremediation seems to be emerging as a feasible solution in slow moving streams or in polishing ponds, rather than drains with fast and continuous flow. “In the morning peak hours, given the reduced retention time and velocity of sewage flows, this technology doesn’t work as well as it does in the non-peak average flows,” said Gupta, adding that the bioremediation and online treatment of drains is still at an experimental stage, has no manual, prescribed text or code, nor any methodology to authenticate performance results. “This is still in no way a viable alternative to sewage treatment plants, and was initiated only for the Kumbh mela period in compliance with the High Court order, which allowed its use,” said Gupta. The in-situ treatment of the nullahs, he said, will be discontinued on April 15 and the untreated sewage will once again find its way to the river.
The city authorities are quick to disregard the potential of bioremediation, as they are enamoured by capital intensive projects, said Arora, whose firm is now looking to develop a proposal for lakes and garden ponds in Delhi. Jal Nigam officials sell the pipe dream that by 2020 all untreated sewage will be tapped by the city’s expanding sewerage system. The Allahabad High Court in the two years leading to the festival pushed the city authorities to bolster the sewage treatment capacity from 89 MLD to 211.5 MLD. It is estimated that the city generates more than 250 MLD. The new STPs were commissioned just in time for the festival.
Dilution not the solution
The river will soon return to pre-kumbh state of being, a cocktail of partially treated industrial effluent and sewage, lacking freshwater. According to officials at the UP Jal Nigam, the approximate flow of the Ganga during the festival period at Allahabad was 212 cumec whereas the Yamuna channel carried an average flow of 227 cumec. After turning off the tap on March 10, officials in the irrigation department say that the flow of the Ganga reduced to a third of current flows, to approximately 140 cumec.
The government must realise that dilution as a solution to pollution, given the pressing demands on river waters, is neither affordable nor sustainable. The Centre’s cleaning strategy is far too capital intensive, and unaffordable for cash strapped local city agencies to maintain. There is a need to re-think the solutions to urban India’s sewage problems, and connect it to the ensuing pollution of rivers.