Ganga's burden of pollutants from Kanpur to Varanasi

A visit to the tanneries in Kanpur and some of the sewage treatment plants and drains along the Ganga reveals the extent of pollution and the difficulties in tackling the waste and effluents entering the river

By Sushmita Sengupta
Published: Friday 18 July 2014

A visit to the tanneries in Kanpur and some of the sewage treatment plants and drains along the Ganga reveals the extent of pollution and the difficulties in tackling the waste and effluents entering the river  

Sewage pumping station at Varanasi has little effect on quality of water flowing by the ghats

"In order to save Ganga, tanneries should be removed from their present site," say green activists of Kanpur. But will this really help the Ganges? I wondered. To understand the situation on ground, I reached Kanpur. This was the time when north India was reeling under record-breaking heat. The temperature in Kanpur was high and humidity at its peak.

Relocation of the tanneries and pollution in the Ganga is a hot topic of debate in Kanpur after the new government under Narendra Modi gave the highest priority to cleaning of the river. I took a taxi from the station and asked the driver to take me to a clean and affordable hotel nearby. There were bill boards along the road advertising plots for sale near the river. The advertisements were quite convincing, talking about the green ambience around the plots. I crossed a drain in the city on the way. I could clearly see the black sewage flowing through it.

Kanpur has 23 such open drains which were built to carry stormwater.  I quickly dropped my luggage at the hotel and hurried off to the nearest point where I could see the Ganga. I was accompanied by the officials of Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board (UPPCB). I was dropped near a point where I could catch the first glimpse of the river. The taxi driver took me to see the biggest drain in the city—the Sisamau drain. The location was near the Kisko substation, just opposite to this was the Sisamau sluice gate (the gate controls the flow from the drain into the river). According to Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report of 2013, Sisamau drain carries the highest biological oxygenation demand (BOD) load.  Just on the other side of the road and opposite the sluice gate, I could see a big portion of this open drain. Black water was flowing through the drain and one can spot all sorts of solid waste in the drain—from gutkha pouches and chips packets to ordinary plastic bags. The drain ran below the metal road towards the sluice gate. I moved towards the gate. The road was muddy and after a walk of 1.5 km, I could see the drain entering the Ganges. The sound of the outfall of the drain into the river may be compared to that of a waterfall but the sight and the smell will surely kill any notion of beauty and romance. The officials of UPPCB explained that the drain carries only domestic sewage. Jal Nigam (water utility) is responsible for cleaning and monitoring them but nothing has happened till date, they informed.

My next stop was near a comparatively smaller drain near Ranighat, just north of Sisamau drain. The situation was worse here. Unplanned and illegal developments can be seen near this area. Barighat village stands next to this drain. As I moved towards the confluence of the drain and the river, the village residents who mistook me for a pilgrim warned me not to take bath at Ranighat. “The water stinks,” warned one of the women in the village. The village residents dump their waste near the drain, explained 40-year-old Soni, who lives very close to the river. One can find all kind of things in this heap of waste, starting from mattress to broken furniture. “Ganga needs to be clean for our own benefit,” said Soni.

Lakshman Singh and his friend have been staying in this place since their childhood. They felt that people were just too lazy to throw their garbage in the bins. They said that police should check the dumping of solid waste. In the past they had seen police force coming to their place to check the dumping. It worked like magic, but every time the police left the place, people started dumping waste in the open, added Singh. Tracing the drain's route inside Barighat, I found that the villagers had almost killed this open drain. They had encroached it, dumped their waste in it and let out their sewage into it.  There is no toilet in this village; people defecate on the banks of the river. The village draws drinking water through a shallow hand pump.  Stomach ailments are common in this village, said the women.

Ineffective treatment plants 

I tracked other sources of Ganga pollution the next day. This time, I tried to get an idea of the tannery waste—a big polluter of the river in this area. To visit the nearest tannery complex, I had to travel to the south of the city along the Ganges. A taxi driver took me to Jajmau, located on the outskirts of the city. As I passed the retail outlets of leather goods, my driver explained to me that leather belts and wallets are of best quality in this area. On my way to Jajmau,  I met the officials of Jal Nigam and UPPCB. The tanneries do not have efficient primary effluent treatment plants (ETPs); they also do not manage poisonous chromium paint, said the officials of Jal Nigam. The tanners' associations and  UPPCB, on the other hand, said that Jal Nigam neither has an effective central ETP to treat the tannery effluents nor does it maintain the  open drains which carry the discharge from the industries .

The first tannery which I visited was that of Northern Tannery. Mohammad Moin Lari, owner of this tannery, showed me the ETP and the effluent. “Everything is working fine,” said Lari and showed me his log book where he recorded the flow of the ETP in the main drain and quality of the effluent in the inlet and outlet of the ETP every day.   The strong smell of sulphuric acid and the hide of the animals was all over the place. I came out of Northern Tannery, the biggest one in the locality, and went around looking for smaller tanneries.  These were on small plots of land; here the owners manage everything, from buying raw materials to processing. To understand what is not working—ETP of industries or the CETP—I decided to visit the sewage pumping stations. There are four sewage pumping stations at Jajmau. The nearest pumping station was pumping station number 2. Just at the gate of the station, I could see how the conveyance systems were being maintained. Unplanned domestic sewage is pumped along with the industrial waste, said a UPPCB staff member. I could see a clear difference in colour between in the two types of waste water at the separator (which was sorting the solid and the liquid waste)—the domestic being grey in colour and the industrial being brown. A heap of solid waste was lying near the separator at the pumping station. The in-charge of this pumping station showed me the log book. The records showed that the pump worked for over 18 to 19 hours the previous day. There are problems of power cuts, he informed. Just by the side of this pumping station flows the Wazidpur drain, the biggest drain in Jajmau. Local people who gathered near my vehicle told me that most of the time the waste water at the pumping station overflowed into the drain because of long power cuts. The open drain was full of sewage and I could see pigs moving around. “As the day progresses, the smell from this drain becomes unbearable,” said Nawab, a 20-year-old boy, who works as a daily wage labourer in a nearby tannery.

By this time at least seven to eight people from nearby tanneries approached me. They defended themselves, saying they were not doing anything wrong and that Jal Nigam was to be blamed for inefficient management of waste. I moved to the next pumping station. This was near Jhetla Bazaar drain. The pumping station was not working and the wastewater was flowing freely into the drain. I moved along the drain to see it joining the Ganga. I could see rows of houses on either side of the drain which connected their sewage outflow into the Jhetla Bazaar drain. Finally, I reached the point where Jhetla Bazaar drain was entering the river. There is a ghat nearby, the Bangali ghat. There are small temples around the ghat and it was obvious from the steps at the ghat that people came here for bathing. The water at the ghat was black and turbid. Almost a day had passed and I was yet to see a relatively clean stretch of the river.

Chronic chromium

Next day, I planned to visit the CETP at Jajmau to understand the problems in treating the tannery effluents. Ajay Kanojia, process chemist at CETP Jajmau, came towards the gate of the CETP to greet me. A huge board on the gate said, "Ganga sewa - Bharat sewa" (To serve Ganga is to serve the nation).  Kanojia led me through the plant premises. We stopped near the separator—solid waste was heaped near it; it was blue in colour because of the presence of chromium. Kanojia was hesitant to talk about the problems in the ETPs and the tanneries. He looked around and promised to talk to me on phone and handed over the latest laboratory results of the quality of water entering the CETP. The report confirmed the presence of huge quantity of chromium (much above the standard value prescribed by UPPCB of 2 mg/l) in the factory effluent. Kanojia said that the treated water is being supplied to the agricultural fields nearby. I thought to myself that the initiative was indeed very good to save water. I moved on towards the starting point of the irrigation canal, that is the point where treated water of CETP flows into the irrigation canal. What I could see was untreated industrial waste flowing into the canal. The froth and brown colour showed that the water was not being treated to an acceptable limit. The first 1.5 km of this canal was cemented; the remaining portion was neither cemented nor lined. I saw the farmers making their own diversion channels from the canal.

Effluent treatment of little use

Functioning of government-run effluent treatment plants are hampered by prolonged power cuts. Effluents from tanneries are often discharged untreated into drains joining the river or nearby fields

I met a villager, Krishan, who told me that many a times the canal overflows and the extra water finds it way back into the main river. This means the polluted and semi-treated water again goes back to the river. The UPPCB official who came with me to collect the sample of the effluent of CETP told me that village residents complain about skin diseases whenever they use the canal water.

On my way back I got a call from Kanojia. He said that the treated water should not be used for irrigation at all—it needs further treatment. The tannery owners at Jajmau praised the management of CETP at Banther village, Unnao district which runs on Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) and suggested that I should visit it as this was a successful model. So my next destination was planned.
I travelled 20 km east of Kanpur to cross the Ganga and reach the industrial complex at Banthar. The CETP at Banthar had been developed by Banthar Industrial Pollution Control Committee (BIPCC) under a tripartite agreement with Uttar Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation (UPSIDC), Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) at Chennai and UPPCB. The operation and maintenance of the CETP is done by Banthar Industrial Pollution Control Company (BIPCC).  As I entered the gate of CETP, I was greeted by S Awasthi, environment expert with BIPCC. Awasthi explained the working of the CETP and showed me the quality of effluent. The effluent was light brown in colour and according to BIPCC it is safe for reuse. BIPCC shared with me the quality of effluent monitored recently. The quality seemed much better than in Jajmau. The sludge here did not contain high quantity of chromium as could be observed from the colour. Did this mean that all the ETPs at tanneries are working and the conveyance systems carrying the effluents from the industries were regularly monitored? I asked Awasthi about power cuts. He explained that they have proper back ups to tackle power cuts. The CETP is treating waste from 25 tanneries here in comparison to 400 tanneries at Jajmau, explained the Jal Nigam officials.  According to activists in Kanpur, tanneries at Banthar do not use chemical tannings which contain high content of chromium and hence it is easier to treat the tannery wastes at Banthar. The effluent from the CETP passed on to the City Jail Drain which joins the river Ganges about 30 km down south.

I thought of tracing the City Jail drain. As I moved away from CETP, the City Jail drain became darker in colour. Just a few kilometres down south, the drain receives domestic sewage from the surrounding upcoming residential areas. The drain had been encroached for agricultural purposes. At many places dry beds of silt could be observed, showing that these drains had not been maintained for years.  Awasthi told me that in the PPP agreement, UPSIDC was supposed to cement the whole drain up to the river. The maintenance of the drain is under the Irrigation Department and UPSIDC could not push the department to complete the task. I proceeded towards the holy city of Varanasi with high hopes that there the Ganga would have cleansed itself after travelling to the temple city almost 330 km.

Varanasi is Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. People in the city had just celebrated Ganga Dussehra—a festival to mark the day when the Ganga descended to earth. People took dip in the river to get rid of their sins. People in the holy city have great faith in this river which is also their life line.

Varanasi in top gear

There are numerous proposals to clean up the city and the river Ganges. I realised this when I visited the offices of different government agencies. Be it UPPCB or Nagar Nigam (municipality), Jal Nigam or Jal Sansthan (water utilities)—every one was talking about cleaning the Ganga. Like Kanpur, Varanasi also has open drains, which were meant to carry only stormwater. There are two tributaries of the Ganga in the city—the Assi and the Varuna. The city derives its name from these two rivers.

My first stop in the city was a sewage pumping station near Assi river (now called a drain). The pumping station was not working and sewage was flowing freely into the drain. Solid waste is dumped on either side of the drain, which enters the river during monsoon. Moving downstream of the drain, I found that it had been diverted into Nagwa drain, one of the prominent open drains in Varanasi. I decided to do a visual check of the water quality at the confluence of the drain with the river.

Nagwa drain's dirty water entering Ganga at Varanasi

I took a boat to ride along the Ganga from the point where the Nagwa drain falls into Ganga to the point where the Varuna river meets Ganga. I started from Assi Ghat with a local guide, Vishnu, who seemed quite knowledgeable about the drains in the city. As I climbed down the steps of the ghat, I could see small shops selling plastic cans. Devotees buy these cans to collect water from the river, said Vishnu. He called a boatman who was his friend. The boatman, Santosh, about 30-years-old, cleaned the seat for me with a small piece of cloth. I discovered that he had a motorised engine attached to his traditional boat. I learnt that there is regular spillage of diesel into Ganga because of motorised boats.

Everyone opts for fast moving boats, informed Santosh. When I asked him about the permission process for these motorised boats, he said, “the municipality gives the permission without any fuss”. I moved a little upstream from Assi ghat to reach the outfall of Nagwa into the Ganga. I saw a ghat just beside the outfall of the drain where women and children were enjoying a bath. “Don't they fall ill,” I asked the boatman. “Yes they do,” was the reply. “Awareness meetings are held on the banks of the river every year, still they cannot be stopped,” said Santosh. Our boat moved on. I passed different ghats one after another (there are eighty ghats in all). I could see the sewage pumping stations on the ghats—I passed the Mansarovar, Rajendra Prasad, Jalashila and Trilochan pumping stations. I could see paintings of Gods on the walls of the pumping stations.

Our boat moved towards Rajghat, where I could see the main city sewer outfall--the Khirkia drain. The flow at Rajghat drain was not much and I moved towards the Varuna outfall. In between, I could see the floating monitoring machines of UPPCB and Minitry of Water Resources (Use pic with key words monitoring of MOWR , monitoring of UPPCB). On two ghats, namely Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats, I could see the smoke from funeral pyres very close to the river. Santosh said that half burnt bodies are often thrown into the river. I remembered my conversation with B D Tripathi, founder coordinator of Centre for Environmental Science and Technology at the Benaras Hindu University and also expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).  According to Tripathy, a 2012 study showed that 300 tonnes of half burnt flesh is released in the river. About 3,250 bodies of adults and children and 6,000 animal carcasses are pushed into the river.
I passed the Sakka ghat after that where I could see a huge heap of solid waste, tilting towards the ghat. “Who is responsible for cleaning this?” I asked. “The Nagar Nigam,” answered Vishnu. “So why are they are not doing their job?” No one answered. Soon I reached the confluence of the Varuna and the Ganga. I realised why the river Varuna is termed as a drain by CPCB. The water in Varuna was black in colour and turbid due to presence of sewage. I left the boat and climbed the bank and walked along the Varuna. The tributary is totally clogged with city sewage.

Meawhile, the sun was setting and I could see the priests and devotees getting ready for Ganga 'aarti' on two or three ghats. I could hear the main priest chanting mantras for the 'aarti' at the Rajendra Prasad Ghat. I heard the devotees repeating after the priest: “We will protect Ganga with all our mind, body and soul". The 10 km stretch of Ganga showed me the blind faith and love for Ganga in this city.

Waste flowing into the Assi river, a tributary of Ganga, which has been turned into a drain

The next day I visited the Jal Nigam office, responsible for monitoring the drains of the city. “The monitoring of the drains in the Cis-Varuna (core city) and Trans-Varuna areas (new city) are under two sections. We work separately,” said the official at Jal Nigam. The officials were very busy in their meeting with the Union urban development secretary, Sudhir Krishna, who was visiting Varanasi to discuss the development of the city. Somehow I managed to meet a laboratory official to get some data. “The laboratory is under renovation,” said the official while wiping the sweat off his forehead. There was no electricity and not single computer in sight. The official opened a big safe to take out his log books. He nervously flipped through the pages to find the latest data. He could not find them and said that it was lost due to renovation work. He pulled out data from a logbook dated 2012 and said the river is anyway polluted and so few numbers up and down did not matter. He said he could easily manipulate the data to make it the latest for me. I was amazed by his expertise!

Not one single clean stretch in sight

I returned to Delhi after failing to find a single stretch of clean Ganga. I hoped the promised good days (achhe din) by Modi government would arrive soon for Ganga. But how that will be achieved is still a big question.

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