10 critical steps for Ganga revival

As PM Modi advises states along the river to shift focus from Namami to Arth Ganga, it is clear that the Ganga cannot be restored by only pollution-abatement measures

By Venkatesh Dutta
Published: Wednesday 18 December 2019
The Ganga. Photo: Flickr
The Ganga. Photo: Flickr The Ganga. Photo: Flickr

The Himalayas are the source of three major Indian rivers namely the Indus, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. Flowing for about 2,525 kilometres (km), the Ganga is the longest river in India. The Ganga basin constitutes 26 per cent of the country’s land mass and supports 43 per cent of India’s population.

The government of India has set up an empowered body consisting of a dedicated team of officers as part of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the Union Ministry of Jal Shakti (earlier called as Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation).

The NMCG has stated its vision in terms of four restoration pillars, namely Aviral Dhara (continuous flow), Nirmal Dhara (clean water), Geologic Entity (protection of geological features) and Ecological Entity (protection of aquatic biodiversity). According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB)'s 2014 estimates, approximately 8,250 million litres per day (MLD) of wastewater is generated from towns in the Ganga basin, while treatment facilities exist only for 3,500 MLD and roughly 2,550 MLD of this wastewater is discharged directly into the Ganga.

Namami Gange has completed 114 projects and about 150 projects are in progress, while about 40 projects are under tendering, of which 51 sewage projects were approved before May 13, 2015 — the day Namami Gange was approved by the Union Cabinet.

Till April 2019, 1,930 MLD of sewerage treatment capacity in 97 Ganga towns has been developed, whereas the sewerage generation in these towns is 2,953 MLD. It is further projected that the sewerage generation would touch 3,700 MLD by 2035.

The industrial pollutants largely originate from tanneries in Kanpur, paper mills, distilleries and sugar mills in the Yamuna, Ramganga, Hindon and Kali river catchments. Then, there is the huge load of municipal sewage which contributes two-thirds of total pollution load.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) in November 2019 had imposed a penalty of Rs 10 crore on the Uttar Pradesh (UP) government for failing to check sewage discharge containing toxic chromium into the Ganga at Rania and Rakhi Mandi in Kanpur. It also imposed a penalty of Rs 280 crore on 22 tanneries for causing pollution.

The cost of the damage was assessed by the state pollution control board (UPPCB) as compensation for restoration of environment and the public health in the area. Incidentally, the NGT also held UPPCB liable and directed it to pay Rs one crore for ignoring illegal discharge of sewage and other effluents containing toxic chromium directly into the Ganga.

The NGT, in its order dated December 6, 2019, directed local bodies and concerned departments to ensure 100 per cent treatment of sewage entering rivers across the country by March 31, 2020. In the case of non-compliance, the NGT has warned authorities that they will be liable to pay Rs five lakh per month per drain falling in the Ganga and Rs five lakh for default commencement of setting up sewage treatment plants.

Water in India is a state subject and water management is not a truly knowledge-based practice. The management of the Ganga lacked basin-wide integration and is not very cohesive between various riparian states. Further, there is a greater challenge of upgrading the water supply and wastewater treatment infrastructure in the designated smart cities and of providing clean water supply to all rural households by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission.

Given the limited water resources, the task is enormous. For about three decades, the different strategies to clean-up the Ganga were attempted such as the Ganga Action Plan (GAP, Phase I and II) and establishment of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). But no appreciable results were achieved.

Recently, the Ganga Council headed by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi, in its first meeting held on December 14, 2019, floated a plan to promote sustainable agriculture in the Gangetic plain by promoting organic clusters in a five-km stretch on both sides of the Ganga basin in Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

It is a good policy move, considering the cumulative use of pesticides has doubled in the last one decade and most of it runs off in our rivers. For the short-term, the five-km stretch is fine, but the government should eventually plan to stretch it to cover more area in the basin. Agriculture along the entire riverbed should be organic.

The council discussed the concept of ‘River Cities’ and charted an action plan to provide sewer connection to every household in towns along the Ganga and its tributaries. The PM directed governments of the five Gangetic states  to focus on promoting religious and adventure tourism on the river to generate sustainable income to clean the Ganga.

He also said that the focus should shift from Namami Gange to ‘Arth Ganga’, which would prop up a sustainable development model through economic activity.

It is clear that the Ganga cannot be restored by only pollution-abatement measures. Effective policy-making needs a scientific base. Many of the strategies (river-linking, riverfront development projects, access to toilets, making villages open defecation free, piped water supply in rural areas, to name a few) need to seriously integrate long-term ecological and sustainability goals, and cannot simply be a short-term populist move. 

The policies should be compatible with technology and broader aspects of holistic water management. Significant time and money can go down the drain on measures whose effectiveness has not been seriously examined. Therefore, there is an urgent need to review all management programmes undertaken so far and learn from past failures.

The Ganga’s revival: 10 critical steps that NMCG must follow


A ten-point guideline is presented as critical steps that NMCG must follow in order to reinforce its four restoration pillars:

1. Promote only decentralised sewage treatment plants (dSTP) at the colony level. Reuse treated wastewater for irrigation and empty into natural drains. For all upcoming cities, smart cities and for those, whose master plans are not in place, earmark land for dSTPs. dSTPs below 10 MLD should be encouraged and incentivised under urban development schemes and real estate development.

2. The existing and planned STPs need to be verified on efficiency, reliability and technology parameters by independent agencies (tech-efficiency-reliability verification). This will allow assessing if the technology provides value for money and is sustainable. Many STPs are not performing up to desired standards due to choice of unrealistic assumptions and erroneous technology choice. A survey conducted by CPCB in 2016 found that most STPs in Kanpur fail to comply with environmental regulations.

3. Develop and restore local storages (ponds, lakes, wetlands) as permanent solutions to both floods and droughts. Only 10 per cent of water received during monsoon rainfall is harvested. Restoration of ponds, lakes and wetlands should be an integral part of river restoration and conservation strategy.

4. Bring back glory to all natural drains that empty into rivers, and transform and rejuvenate them into healthy water bodies — they have been converted to sewage carrying drains by our municipalities and planning bodies.

5. Start restoring lower order streams and smaller tributaries in the Ganga Basin. Every river is important. The focus of Ganga Action Plan (Phase I and II) and Namami Gange has been on the main stem of the river. The tributaries that feed the river were overlooked. The Ganga has eight major tributaries (Yamuna, Son, Ramganga, Gomti, Ghaghra, Gandak, Kosi and Damodar). The majority of the funds were spent on pollution-abatement measures on the main stem of the Ganga and on the upper Yamuna basin, which constitute just 20 per cent of the Ganga basin. Further, these eight major tributaries are joined by smaller rivers, whose restoration is equally important.

6. Identify, define and protect ‘river-corridors’ as areas for no cement-concrete structures — know that rivers have been formed after thousands of years of nature’s work. Infrastructure development and destruction of river ecosystem through populist measures such as riverfront developments in the name of area and township development projects or urban / smart city development must be stopped to protect and conserve surface water sources.

7. Map the entire looped length of each and every tributary of the Ganga and correct the land records. Many of the rivers have been underestimated which causes encroachment and jurisdiction conflicts. The existing methodology to measure river length is flawed and complete mapping of looped lengths is required for proper assessment of water resources and correct revenue maps. This will ensure that active flood plains and river-corridors are free from encroachments.

8. Restore base flows through groundwater recharge. Groundwater contributes significantly to river-flows through base flows (average base flow in the order of 40- 55 per cent) especially during lean seasons in the entire Ganga Basin. The idea of Ganga rejuvenation is also linked to groundwater rejuvenation. There is a need to have robust planning and regulation of withdrawal and recharge of groundwater across all orders of the river streams to make rivers perennial.

9. Define the desired ecological flow regime(s) in the Ganga main stem and its tributaries (not just a static figure) to allow the rejuvenation of the river. Dwindling flows from over-allocation threaten the river functions. According to the Central Water Commission, all the existing hydroelectric projects have provision for releasing the mandated environmental-flow through controlled gated spillways or water ways. However, in view of the flow allocation from Ganga river system to canals, additional flow should be augmented through improving the irrigation practices and improving the efficiency of canals. Old dams should be decommissioned once irrigation efficiencies are improved.

10. Evolve new and innovative ways to generate sufficient revenues for operation and maintenance (O&M) of water and wastewater infrastructure through pricing and valuing water. The municipalities are struggling to operate their existing STPs due to lack of financing. Municipalities and urban local bodies can tap into bond markets to finance the O&M.

Venkatesh Dutta is a river scientist and associate professor at the School for Environmental Sciences, Ambedkar University, Lucknow. He is also a Gomti River Waterkeeper. Views are personal 

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