What Mr Narendra Modi needs to do for Ganga

Just planning more sewage treatment plants is not going to clean up the river

By Sushmita Sengupta
Published: Thursday 26 March 2015

Just planning more sewage treatment plants is not going to clean up the river

Narendra Modi is all set to preside over the fifth meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), which was set up in 2009. With prime minister as its chief, NGRBA was set up as the apex body for the revival of the River Ganga following public and protests and agitation wherein activists claimed that Ganga Action Plan (GAP) had failed to clean up the river. In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, had launched GAP for cleaning the 2,500 km mighty river.

In August 2009, GAP was re-launched with a river basin authority in charge. The objective of the NGBRA is to ensure that there an effective pollution control and there is conservation of the river. The functions of the authority include planning and execution of the programmes to keep the river clean and flowing. In the last 30 years, GAP had failed to improve the quality of river water to acceptable standards (defined as bathing water quality standards). Around Rs 950 crore were spent in the name of cleaning the river in two phases. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Congress, even got financial aid from World Bank to clean the river. But the situation remained grim. What was lacking was a holistic plan to save the Ganga.

Growing pollution load
According to July 2013 estimates of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the faecal coliform levels in the mainstream of the river remain above the acceptable level in all stretches, other than its upper reaches. But even in these reaches, there are worrying signs as faecal coliform levels are increasing in places like Rudraprayag and Devprayag, suggesting that there is inadequate flow for dilution even in these highly oxygenated stretches. The upper stretches, which showed lower coliform count before launch of GAP, have started to show higher faecal coliform levels now. In the upper reaches of the river, where the oxygenating abilities of the river are the highest, there are growing signs of contamination. This suggests that even here, water withdrawal for hydroelectricity is endangering the health of the Ganga.

As the river reaches the plains, the amount of water extracted from the river increases to meet irrigation and drinking water needs. In this stretch of the river, from Rishikesh to Allahabad, there is almost no water during winter and summer months. In other words, the river stops flowing. But the waste water flow does not ebb. The river at these times receives only waste and turns into a sewer drain. According to CPCB’s recent monitoring data, BOD levels are high downstream of Haridwar, Kannauj and Kanpur and peak at Varanasi. But what is worrying is that in all the stretches, pollution is getting worse day by day At Varanasi, for example, the biological oxygen demand (BOD) values never reduced below 7 mg/l between 1986 and 2011.

This is not surprising given that all along this heavily populated stretch, freshwater intake from the river is increasing. In this way, water is drawn for agriculture, industry and cities but what is returned is only waste.


All talk, no action so far
When the new government was formed under Modi, cleaning Ganga was one of the top-most priorities. The government talked about corrective measures and pointed out the failure of GAP. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance said NGRBA was ineffective, toothless and a non-starter under previous UPA regime. BJP also criticised the fact that the members of NGBRA met only three times under the previous government to discuss the impact of GAP. In the first meeting held under the new government in 2014, and fourth in a series, it was decided that NGRBA, which was functioning under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, would be transferred to the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. The ministry thought of modifying and restructuring NGBRA to make it active.

However, Modi’s dream of cleaning the holy river does not seem to be happening in the near future. This is in spite of the fact that an integrated Ganga Conservation Mission, Namami Ganga, was established. In the latest budget presented in February, not much attention was focused on cleaning the river. The interim budget presented last year talked of over Rs 2,000 crore exclusively for cleaning Ganga. Till date, no implementation has been seen on ground. The only actions observed were arrangement of meetings for discussions, like the Ganga Manthan and Jal Manthan. The Supreme Court, which is dealing with a two decades-old PIL filed by environmentalist M C Mehta on the cleaning of the river and setting up sewage treatment plants alongside it since 1985, slammed the government several times for not putting words into action. The prime minister is said to have taken stock of the actions taken so far. Meanwhile, the ministry presented two reports to the Lok Sabha—one was on the pollution hot spots and the other on Ganga River Basin Management Plan, prepared by a consortium of seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). Water resources minister Uma Bharti says the ministry is ready to clean the river in just two years. She even asked citizens to ensure cleanliness and plant trees along the river. One hopes the plan prepared by IITs does not focus only on things like setting up sewage treatment plants but also takes into consideration that most of the cities along the river have only 20-30 per cent sewered areas. The conveyance of waste must be re-conceptualised and implemented at the time of planning treatment plants.


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