IT is the end of March. Sudhamoy
Chakladar, the aged Kisan Sabha leader
from Khardah, stands drenched in golden sunlight, contemplating the lush
green fields sprouting rice saplings... for
the unthinkable 2nd time this year. "It is
a dream for the peasants. We've 6ever
had this in the last 50 years. But today
there are about 450 bighas (approximately 60.75 ha) which are growing rice
during the dry season."
In fact, this is the Isf time ever,
under the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), that
such a feat has been achieved anywhere
in the country. Just 20 kni from
Calcutta, is the Bandipur project of the
Calcutta Metropolitan Water and
Sanitation Authority (CMW&SA) - a
sewage treatment plant (SPT) with a difference. Situated on the east bank of the
Hooghly, the project is treating 14 m
litres of sewage emanating everyday
from the Titagarh township, which has a
population of 1.4 lakh.
The system is simplicity itself. using
the common pond to purify the water
for agriculture and pisciculture. The
beneficiaries are the local farmers who
had been living in poverty for all these
years. The benefits have just started
showing, and the project, now trans-
ferred to the local panchayat, is regarded
with much pride by them.
The cmw&sA has already completed
the project in Panihati too, about 16 km
from Calcutta, and is now into developing it in Bally., Dhrubajyoti Ghosh,
CMW&SA's executive engineer and the
mastermind behind the project, has
completed writing the basic manual,
entitled Integrated Wetland System for
Waste Water Treatment and Recycling.
It will be published soon by the United
States Agency for International
Development. The book has a slogan:
'For the P6orer Parts of the World With
Ample Sunshine, Ghosh told Down To Earth.
Here, sewage water is channelised
through a series of ponds. First comes
the deep, anaerobic pre-treatment
pond, where the heavier particles in the
water settle down. "It is the simple
action of bacteria which increases the
oxygen content of the water in this
pond, and the catalyst is the sunlight,"
Ghosh says. Bacterial action on the
organic waste converts the latter into
food for the algae and fungi. The latter,
in the presence sunlight,,,release oxygen
into the water.
From here, the water flows into a
2nd pond, which is the Ist of the treatment ponds. Fish cultivation starts in
the 2nd pond, explained Chakladar. The
Indian Institute for Public Health and
Hygiene has certified that the water has
a very high level of dissolved oxygen
from the 2nd tank onwards. All the
tanks are interconnected through minor
sluices, and no pumps are used in this
"The biological oxygen demand
(BOD) removal rate is 90.95 per cent for
the Titagarh spT. The influent BOD level
is 200 mg/l, whereas the effluent BOD
comes down drastically to just 30 mg1l,"
The Bandipur project has 5 ponds
over an area of 11.48 ha. The Panihati
project has a total pond area
of I I ha, and will treat 12 in litres per
day. The initial cost of the 2 projects has
been at the rate of Rs 1.6 lakh per milhon litres. Compare this with Rs 25 lakh
required for setting up a plant treating 1
million litres in a conventional treatment plant, plus another Rs 5 lakh per
year by way of maintenance costs.The cmw&SA made a I-time investment in buying the land, but on the
whole, the process is virtually free, needing no overhead expenses, like the salary of maintenance personnel. The farmers
run it on their own. "Besides, as against
a conventional plant, this new method
pays you back the money invested in
buying land," explains Ghosh. The sale
of crops and fish is lucrative business.
The unique thing is that the projects
are run not by the municipal authorities, but by the panchayats. "This is
Agenda 21 in action," Ghosh emphasises. "It speaks of the 'institutionalisation
of the stakeholders' participation'. This
is precisely what we have achieved here."
There were a lot of hiccups, though.
It was difficult convincing the people to
give up rice-yielding land for this project. "But we explained to them the possibilities of not one, but multiple crops,
and of fish cultivation round the year."
Chakladar and other Khardah people
associated with the project smile: There
was a time when Ghosh used to come
and speak to the farmers for hours, anil
they wouldn't budge ... he was perpetually complaining about his time being
wasted. "One had to hear themout, and
then talk to them in their own language," a satisfied Ghosh now sums up
his lessons from this project.
But once the water Ist entered the
fields and the 2nd crop became a reality,
there was no looking back. Gradually,
the project was handed over to the panchayat. Today the CMW&SA runs the
pumps which bring in the,sewage. "The
moment the panchayat can manage the
money and skills to run them, we will
give up these functions as well," Ghosh
asserts. At the moment, intensive cropping, intermittent crops and crop rotation are being planned.
Will the soil be able to sustain such
intensive cropping over many years?
"Why not? The silt deposited here is
pure organic fertiliser," Ghosh explains.
"And it is not as if tonnes of silt are
deposited everyday. It's just like the septic tank which contains the sewage outside your own home. That needs to be
cleaned once in 10 years or so. Here, we
will take out the deposits after 2-3 years,
and put them back into the soil as fertiliser. The whole process is perfectly
This solution seems ridiculously simple
now. But the search had begun 15 years
ago. The reason that it took so long,
Ghosh says, is that "our planners and
engineers had for long remained blinded by western concepts." Thus, the
Bandipur project takes one into the
larger issues of ecological management.
The project is the result of a whole
process of "unlearning what the
Western ecologists have taught us."
This year's ist edition of People 6,
the Planet-says: "Over the past century,
Calcutta-+as developed a system of
sewage disposal that is among the most
efficient-and ecologically benign in existence." The 3 majgr projects on this
front are the East Calcutta Wetlands,
which recycles the city's solid waste, the
Mudiyali fishery project, where industrial effluent is treated, and the
Bandipur-Panihati projects. In all 3,
very little money is spent, and much earned.
Ghosh recounts how some senior
Western ecological scientists had questioned him about this system. "My
answer was that they were looking at the
whole thing in terms of clearing pollutants. But for the local people, who had
not been burdened with Western education, this was not a question of clearing
pollutants, but of using a resource ... just
the opposite attitude. Our whole education was wrong. It is a wrong perception
of the entire problem, or rather, it is a
developed-country perception of 'waste
These projects, feel a wide range of
concerned persons, is a question of our
heritage, of the achievements of our
native intelligence in handling a practical problem. "We should be proud of
this," beams Nabo Dutta of Nagarik
Mancha, a workers' resource group
which has actively taken up environmental issues over the last 2 years. With
73 municipalities in the state being castigated by the Supreme Court for wasting crores of rupees of the GAP funds,
Dutta firmly believes that the authorities should go in for this new system at
With the completion of documentation of the process (the basic manual),
the whole experiment has been given a
scientific basis, and its replicability
ensured. Ghosh is currently formulating
the design manual, Meanwhile, he says,
the steering committee of the GAP has
decided to try out this process wherever
possible, "taking into account the peculiarities of each city where it will be
tried." Ghosh has actually identified
other cities, notably, Madurai, where
this can be, done.
Such a project inevitably runs contrary to local vested interests. "The
question of who will own the bheries
(fish ponds) comes up, and when you
turn them over to the community, vested interests - local dons - try to block
the process. Besides, there are those
who could have made money out of
constructing Western-model treatment
plants. They are also against this.'
In fact, there are times when the
vested interests win, as in the suburb of
Bally, where the project has not yet taken off.
But the compulsions of a global
environmental movement and the
resultant growth in awareness
also act as a counter-pressure against
such forces. "In the end, it is the
sheer power of the scientific truth of
the project, and our persistence in hearing out and then convincing the
farmers, which are the only means
which have succeeded and will succeed," Ghosh believes.