Veerbhadra Mishra on Ganga Action Plan

Veerbhadra Mishra heads the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an NGO at the forefront in trying to revive the Ganga's fortunes in Varanasi. A man who wears many hats -- head priest of the Sankat Mochan Temple, a former engineer, an activist -- Mishra tells Pradip Saha that faulty planning is what put paid to the Ganga Action Plan's (GAP's) first phase in Varanasi

By Pradip Saha
Published: Thursday 31 August 2006

Did GAP's first phase benefit Varanasi?
Not at all. gap's first phase in the Ganga's Varanasi stretch concluded in 1993. But all sewage is still discharged into the river. In fact, the Ganga has worsened, especially up to three metres from the ghats. So, many take their holy bath in dirty waters. In the last five years, the biological oxygen demand (bod) has increased, implying that the water has more organic matter. Faecal coliform levels have also increased in the last five years.

In all, the river remains polluted, domestic sewage continues to flow into it and people are suffering.

What accounts for this failure?
It's a clear case of bad planning. The Ganga Authority was created in 1985 and late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi initiated gap in Varanasi in 1986. All planning was done in a year: prescribing medicines without diagnosing the disease. At that time, we did not know the total sewage flowing into the river. Even today, what we have is an estimated value.

There were numerous other problems. 70 per cent of the fuel required by the sludge plants is biogas. But after the plants were completed, it was found that there was no biogas for them. Moreover, any scientist will tell you that sludge plants don't control faecal coliform, they are merely equipped to undertake primary and secondary treatment. So, gap did little to control faecal coliform.

That's not all. The sewage is drawn at 30 stations that run on electricity. So every time electricity fails -- which is a daily occurrence -- untreated sewage flows out from these stations into the river.

But then even proper sewage treatment plants wouldn't have helped. 147 million litres of sewage were generated in Varanasi when gap commenced. But the plan created a capacity to intercept just 122 million litres every day. Why this shortfall? Why was there no forward planning? Why have a system that's so electricity-dependent, when we know what the country's energy supply situation is?

So, what's the way out?
Stop domestic sewage from reaching the Ganga. Doing that, I can say for sure, will check 95 per cent of the river's pollution. People should not be allowed to discharge either treated or untreated wastewater into the Ganga from any of the point sources. Tapping sewage at the point sources should be stopped, and it should instead be diverted to the fields and used to make manure.

For a river's water to be fit for bathing, its bod should be less than 3 mg/l and levels of faecal coliform should be less than 500 faecal coliform bacteria in a 100 ml sample. But the Ganga at Varanasi falls way short of such standards -- quite ominous, considering that for numerous Hindus a bath in the river is a matter of religious and cultural importance. At the Tulsi ghat, the bod is around 4 mg/l at the upstream and at town's end it's as high as 22 mg/l. Faecal coliform levels are quite alarming: 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml at the upstream and 1.5 million fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml at the end of the town.

For many Hindus, the Ganga in Varanasi has special significance. But it's not uncommon for devotees here to be affronted by the sight of a dead body floating in the river.

How does one check this pollution?
The city's municipality criticised us in 1995 saying we have always found faults and not offered solutions.So in 1997, we came out with a solution: we informed Varanasi's authorities that the city's topography permits sewage interception and diversion based on a pond system. The system does require more land but obviates use of electricity and is the only system, that can control faecal coliform.

The system uses a series of four ponds, the first of which is very deep and can be used for anaerobic activity. Here, methane is fermented completely, thus obviating sludge formation -- a perennial problem faced by most units.

The wastewater then flows by gravity to a second pond, a shallow one with algae, which breaks the waste further down, assimilating even heavy metals and chemicals. The algae settle down in the third pond, and the waste finally flows into the fourth pond, where it remains for three weeks, during which faecal coliform levels go down exponentially. The treated water can be used for irrigation.

But many oppose this system. It's been alleged that the system will break down the ghats. I don't want to hurt such sentiments; I am a religious person myself. But the fact remains that a network of sewer lines was made behind Kedar ghat as part of gap, so weren't sentiments hurt then?

I am a civil engineer and can say with utmost responsibility that the pond system will disrupt nothing of religious significance. Moreover, our system is way cheaper: it costs Rs 150 crore while the one preferred by the municipality costs Rs 237 crore. The annual operation and maintenance costs required by our system are around Rs 3 crore, while the municipal facilities require an upkeep of Rs 10-12 crore per year. But authorities haven't paid much heed to our plans.

So, what keeps you going?
I have a commitment towards the river, my heart cries everyday when I see it. The river is the lifeline for many like me. We know what is happening to it and what can happen to me as a result of using its water.

I am not going to abandon my mission of trying to clean up the Ganga. This is my Satyagraha, and I know there are a few thousand people who share this mission.

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