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‘Clean Ganga’ by 2021: Is it achievable?

TreeTake is a monthly bilingual colour magazine on environment that is fully committed to serving Mother Nature with well researched, interactive and engaging articles and lots of interesting info.

‘Clean Ganga’ by 2021: Is it achievable?

‘Clean Ganga’ by 2021: Is it achievable?

‘Clean Ganga’ by 2021: Is it achievable?

Arunima Sen Gupta

The deadline for cleaning up the national river Ganga has been revised again. With the third extension, the deadline has now been extended to 2021. In not a very subtle announcement, new minister of the Jal Shakti Ministry, Gajendra Shekhawat, said the Ganga would be cleaned in two years. Incidentally, when the Namami Gange mission was first announced in the 2014 budget speech by the Narendra Modi government, it was claimed that the Ganga would be made clean by 2019. However, the then minister of Water Resources, Nitin Gadkari, clarified that while 80 per cent of the river would be cleaned by 2019, the entire process would be completed by 2020. Whether even the 80 per cent target was achieved or not is a matter of debate. With the latest revision, Shekhawat still has a number of challenges ahead if the target is to be achieved within next two years.

Till April 2019, projects worth Rs 28,451.29 crore had been sanctioned under Namami Gange. Work on these projects has not even been completed for one-fourth of the sanctioned costs; the total expenditure done (on these projects) till April 30, 2019 stood at Rs 6,838.67 crore. In terms of numbers, only 98 projects had been completed as against sanctioned number of 298 till April 30, 2019. The biggest investment was made on creating sewage infrastructure. Out of Rs 23,540.95 crore-sanctioned projects, only projects worth Rs 4,521 have been completed.

According to the latest information available with the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Ganga water is not fit for drinking in the entire stretch of Uttar Pradesh (except for Bijnor), Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Out of 70-odd monitoring points, the water is fit for drinking at only three points in Uttarakhand and Bijnor in Uttar Pradesh. As far as bathing standards are concerned, the water was fit only at places in Uttarakhand, two places upstream in Uttar Pradesh and two in Jharkhand. Otherwise the entire stretch is unfit for bathing. As against the upper limit of faecal coliform number of 2,500 per 100 millilitre (ml), it was 11,000 per 100 ml in Allahabad, 32,000 per 100 ml in Kanpur and 22,000 per 100 ml in Varanasi in April, according to the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board. UP is one among the five Ganga belt states where the government has put maximum thrust under the Namami Gange mission. In West Bengal’s Uluberia, the faecal coliform number was 50,000 per 100 ml. The main source of faecal coliform is human excreta. According to it, if a keystone species of that part of the river is preserved, it is presumed that there is enough water in the river to protect other species.

A 2018 CPCB report, however, said that the river water quality did not improve between 2014 and 2018. “In the Uttar Pradesh stretch, biological water quality is consistently moderately polluted during the period 2014-18… In Bihar, the river at Patna city was heavily polluted during 2015-16, while all other points were moderately polluted,” it said. While experts were skeptical that the river would be cleaned by the original deadline of 2019, now it seems that even the revised deadline would be difficult to meet.

In fact, experts and activists have even advised that The Central Water Commission should be disbanded. This is one of the many demands in the Citizens Report for rejuvenation of the Ganga. According to the experts, the panel has too much on its plate and it needs to go for better regulatory framework. “It is a body which is doing multiple jobs—collecting data, making policies, giving technical and financial approvals to various projects, monitoring and what not. It is not capable of doing all this,” Ravi Chopra, head of Dehradun-based People Science Institute, said. Saying such a system did not exist in any other country, he cited the example of the United States Geological Survey, which is entrusted with only collecting the country's hydrological data and putting it out in the public domain. “The data given by CWC is so secret and not up to the mark. We also have good evidences to suggest it lobbies for dams and has huge conflicts of interest,” Chopra claimed. The demand was not new and a committee formed by the government did recommended the restructuring of CWC in 2016, he added.

Activists from across the country and experts from various institutions, including the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Delhi, Kanpur and Roorkee, have summarily rejected the Union government’s e-flow notification for being woefully inadequate for the Ganga and for lacking scientific basis. “All that Union water resources secretary UP Singh say during the session that he was told that keystone species methodology was used,” Chopra alleged.  “First, why could not he say anything convincing on the technology? Second, we don’t believe that even this technology was used; had it been, they would not have come out with such poor notification because the flow that they aim to ensure with this notification already exists. So what is the purpose of the notification?” he added. IIT-Kanpur’s Vinod Tare, who led the IIT consortium in preparing the Ganga Basin report, also did not concur with the ministry’s technology.

Presenting the way forward on different points Chopra listed out various long- and short-term measures. For restoring the e-flows, the experts demanded that all proposed projects in the Ganga River Basin be cancelled. They also demanded that the construction of all projects in the headstreams of the river should be cancelled. Among medium-term measures, experts said old dams should be decommissioned. “In dams like Bansagar even during May end and beginning of June 60-70% water is present. So how much is the dam serving the purpose? Bansagar is, in fact, relatively new, there are much older dams. Every five yearly or 10 yearly the assessment of existing dams should take place,” Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan pointed out.

Experts also demanded that the projects related to interlinking of the rivers are doing no good to them, especially the Ganga and its tributaries. “The basic principal behind interlinking of the rivers is that one river basin has enough water and therefore it can be interlinked with another. But how is this conclusion arrived at? All that the assessment includes is to see that a basin has enough water for dams in its basins. The urban and industry usages, groundwater recharge and other such factors are hardly looked into. So the basin from which water is diverted suffers,” Mishra explained. The experts also demanded the inland waterways and riverfront development projects should be withdrawn as they were harming the Ganga.

The experts also demanded establishment if an autonomous institute for the Ganga rather than the one controlled only by the government. “If IITs, IIMs and Election Commission, as late GD Agarawal used to say, can function autonomously, why not an institute for the Ganga. We have seen in the past 70 years, how the governments have performed and therefore we need to take it away from complete government control,” Mishra said. Another demand was on policy front included formation of national river policy and a separate national urban water policy to govern the urban use of water resources.

The issue of illegal mining in the bed of the Ganga also cropped up. It was reducing the Ganga to a mere stream in most of the places where such mining was happening. The experts demanded ‘no use of machinery’ to extract sand and other boulders from the riverbed. To improve the base flows, the experts also suggested improving crop pattern and better irrigation methods. “In terms of usage of the Ganga water, irrigation is on the top. We are producing paddy and sugarcane so much that the government is forced to export, especially the latter. Even the sugar mills owners are finding it difficult. So when we are exporting, we are exporting just not the product but the water too which is so scarce for the river. Therefore, we need to give a serious thought to the cropping pattern. Other suggestions included reducing groundwater extraction from the Ganga, promoting rainwater harvesting, ensuring better functioning of existing sewage treatment plants in the Ganga basin (to ensure clean river), comprehensive Ganga law on the lines of the draft given by late GD Agarwal, establishing protected zones in origin stretches of all major rivers and tributaries (for biodiversity conservation), teaching ecology in all science and engineering curricula across the country and  studying of climate change impacts on the Ganga, among many others.

No efforts are proving enough

Seven months after the plugging of Kanpur’s infamous Sisamau drain, which once drained nearly 140 million litres of untreated sewage into the Ganga and was a symbol of pollution in the river — the river continues to be unfit for bathing or drinking, according to a perusal of water quality reports. Between June 2016 and November 2018, the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) completed a 63-crore exercise to divert sewage from the Sisamau drain to two treatment plants in different parts of Kanpur and stopped the expulsion of the drain, which once emptied out as a massive waterfall, into the river. This should have meant that the stretch of the river downstream of the point where the Sisamau drain emptied out would have registered an improvement in water quality. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has defined norms on what constitutes acceptable river water quality. Three attributes: Dissolved Oxygen (DO), Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Total Coliform Matter (TCM) must conform to certain numbers. The DO should be 4 milligram/litre or more for it to be fit for drinking after disinfectation and treatment and, BOD should be 3mg/l or less and TCM/100 ml should be 5,000 or less. For it to be a fit source of bathing water: DO should be 5 or more, BOD should be 3 or less and TCM 500 or less.

The water quality reports prepared by the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board after the drain was completely tapped in November 2018, showed that the reading in December, in ‘Downstream Kanpur’ — a measuring station — was as follows: the DO was 9, BOD 4.2 and TCM 28,000. In January these readings were 9, 3.3 and 34,000. In February they were 9.2, 3.2 and 28,000. Thus, while oxygen demand numbers were in the ball park of acceptability, the coliform numbers — an indication of the variety of bacterial species present — were significantly out of bounds. Water quality is being monitored, every month, at seven locations in Kanpur and ‘Downstream Kanpur’ is just one of them. While it might look like the oxygen demand levels have improved due to the tapping of the sewage drain, data from the years before the drain was tapped showed that this too wasn’t a significant gain. In November 2017, a year before the drain was tapped, the DO, BOD and TCM numbers were 7.2, 4.8, 70,000; in December 2017, it was 9.2, 6.1, and 120,000 respectively. The only significant gain between, say Dec ‘17 and Dec ‘18 was the TCM levels — a nearly 75% reduction.

A senior official in the Jal Shakti Ministry (formerly known as the Union Water Resources Ministry), which oversees the NMCG, said the TCM levels wouldn’t drop below a certain point. He also underlined that the Ganga wasn’t as polluted as it was being made out to be. “Because the Ganga is used for bathing, is used by humans and animals, TCM will not decline beyond a point. The Ganga was never an extremely polluted river,” said UP Singh, Secretary, Jal Shakti Ministry, on the sidelines of a Ministry-led public event. Another official, who didn’t want to be identified but is familiar with the proceedings of the Ganga mission, said it would be “impossible” for the government to show that the Ganga had been cleaned, if one were go by the accepted definition. “The Ganga is a living river and a thriving aquatic system. Certain stretches were dirty but tapping the drains cannot improve quality beyond a point. These are standards borrowed from European rivers and cannot be applied to the Indian context. The government will have a hard time proving that the river has been cleaned.”

Much left to be desired in attitude adopted

The focus of the 28,000-crore NMCG was, as promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, cleaning the Ganga and under the implicit understanding that the river — worshipped by many — was polluted. The focus of the mission was making sewage treatment plants, several in Uttar Pradesh, which faced the maximum problems with municipal sewage and industrial waste being directly dumped in the river. As of May, only 42 of the 151 sewage treatment and infrastructure projects had been completed. A map released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows high level of coliform bacteria in the river. Only 18 spots have been found to be fit for bathing. The Ganga river water is absolutely unfit for "direct drinking" and only seven spots from where it passes can be consumed after disinfection, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has said. According to the latest data with the CPCB, most of the Ganga river water in the Uttar Pradesh-West Bengal stretch is unfit for drinking and bathing. In a country where scores of people flock to take a dip in the Ganga, which is considered as the lifeline of India, the CPCB says the river water is so polluted that it is unfit for bathing, let alone drinking. Some stretches in Uttarakhand and two spots in West Bengal are marked in green, indicating water can be consumed after disinfection, while the rest of the river water is unfit for drinking or bathing the whole way till it drains into the Bay of Bengal. The 78 monitoring stations where the river water was found unfit for drinking and bathing include Gomati river in Bhusaula-Bihar, Kanpur, Gola Ghat in Varanasi, Dalmau in Raebareli, Sangam in Allahabad, Ghazipur, Buxar, Patna, Bhagalpur, Howrah-Shivpur in West Bengal and others. The six spots which were found fit for consumption under class A- fit for drinking after disinfection- are Bhagirathi at Gangotri, Rudraprayag, Devprayag, Raiwala- Uttarakhand, Rishikesh, Bijnor and Diamond Harbour in West Bengal. The areas found fit for bathing under class B in river Ganga include - Bhagirathi at Gangotri, Rudraprayag, Devprayag, Raiwala- Uttarakhand, Gharmukhteshwar, Rishikesh, Bijnor, Aligarh and others, including four spots in West Bengal. The ministry of environment, which is also involved with the cleaning of the river along with the ministry of water resources, said industrial pollution has been checked as industrial units are now not discharging in the river.

“On the banks of river Ganga, there are over 1100 industrial units which discharge their waste into the river. Today, not a single industry is discharging black waste in the river. That is the level to which we have brought it,” Union Environment Secretary C K Mishra said. Mishra also said that the situation was not a ‘happy’ one but efforts were on. “Sewage is a big issue. Work is going on and it will take a little while. Every day we monitor the water quality,” he said when asked about river cleaning. However, environmental activist and lawyer Vikrant Tongad, who also filed an RTI regarding the condition of the river, said though government's efforts were appreciable, it was not enough to tackle the situation. “Efforts can be lauded but certain other measures including public participation and managing agricultural waste generated after using pesticides are also required. The government had planned to clean the river by 2020 but it cannot be achieved till 2025,” he said. The CPCB map 'Sustainability of river Ganga water' uses the criteria of dissolved oxygen (more than 6 mg/litre), biochemical oxygen demand (less than 2 mg/litre), total coliform levels (5000 per 100 ml) and pH (range between 6.5 and 8.5) to assess the health of the river.

The ‘chowkidar’ who kept warning but no one listened

Professor G.D. Agarwal, the prominent environmentalist who spent several years for the cause of cleaning up river Ganga and passed away while on a fast for its sanctity, had written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi thrice, demanding that the government ensure uninterrupted flow of Ganga. Agarwal had been demanding that steps be taken to make Ganga ‘aviral‘ (free flowing). He wanted government to put a halt on all hydroelectric projects along the tributaries of the Ganga and urged for the enactment of a Ganga Protection Management Act. He even wrote several letters to ministers who were given the responsibility to rejuvenate the Ganga and to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He sought to remind the PM of his visit to Varanasi in 2014 and his proclamation that “Maa Ganga had called him”. However, the prime minister’s office did not respond to Agarwal. However, none of his letters ever elicited any kind of response from the concerned authorities. In his third and final letter to Modi, he said, “It was my expectation that you would go two steps forward and make special efforts for the sake of Gangaji because you went ahead and created a separate ministry for all works relating to Gangaji, but in the past four years all actions undertaken by your government have not at all been gainful to Gangaji and in her place gains are to be seen only for the corporate sector and several business houses.” He eventually sacrificed his life. The question now is how has the government fared on its promise to clean up the Ganga and ensure uninterrupted flow? The response to an RTI filed by a leading online newspaper provided some answers. The Ganga has not become any cleaner. In fact, the river’s contamination levels have increased at many places since 2013, even though Rs 5,523 crore was released for cleaning the Ganga between 2014 and June 2018. Of the funds released, Rs 3,867 crore has already been spent. According to information provided by Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), an organisation under the ministry of environment, forest and climate change, the amount of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) in the Ganga river was very high in 2017. Information also reveals that the quantity of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) is continuously decreasing at most places. BOD is the amount of oxygen needed by biological organisms to break down non-essential organic material in the water. The higher the BOD level, the faster oxygen present in water would deplete. A high BOD level is harmful for both the river and the organisms that live in it. Dissolved oxygen in another parameter used to measure pollution. A high DO level means the water is less polluted. When pollution rises, the oxygen is used to decrease it. Scientific parameters dictate that the BOD level in a clean water body should be less than 3 milligram/litre, whereas the DO level should be more than 4 mg/l. If BOD level exceeds 3 mg/l, the water is not suitable for even domestic purposes, let alone consumption. The CPCB has been examining the water quality of rivers since 1980. At present, it examines the 2,525 km long Ganga river at 80 sites, up from 62 a few years ago. A CPCB report said that in 2017, the BOD level of Ganga was more than 3 mg/l at 36 of the 80 sites and 2-3 mg/l at another 30. In 2013, it was more than 3 mg/l at 31 sites and 2-3 mg/l at 24. According to the CPCB criteria, if the BOD level of water is 2 mg/l or less and the DO level is 6 mg/l or more, the water is fit for drinking without any treatment. However, if the BOD level is 2-3 mg/l, water treatment is essential. If such water is consumed without being treated, it may cause serious diseases. If the BOD level is more than 3 mg/l and the DO level is less than 5 mg/l, the water is not suitable even for bathing. The CPCB report reveals that almost at half the sites where Ganga water is tested, the water is unsafe for domestic purposes.

Water is only safe for consumption in Uttarakhand

The CPCB monitors the quality of Ganga water from Gangotri, where the river originates, to West Bengal. Its water is pure at Gangotri, Rudraprayag, Devprayag and Rishikesh, with BOD level at 1 mg/l and DO level between 9 and 10 mg/l. However, as the Ganga flows forth, the contamination levels keep rising. At Haridwar, Uttarakhand’s famous religious site, the condition is extremely pathetic. The BOD level stands at 6.6 mg/l. However, it has seen a decrease from the 2013 level of 7.8 mg/l. High levels of pollution prevail at Varanasi, Allahabad, Kannauj, Kanpur, Patna, Raj Mahal, Dakshineswar, Howrah and Darbhanga Ghat in Patna. In Varanasi, Modi’s constituency, the maximum BOD level was 5.1 mg/l in 2013. It was to 6.1 mg/l in 2017. Similarly in Allahabad, the BOD level was 4.4 mg/l in 2013 and increased to 5.7 mg/l. Besides Aligarh and Bulandshahar in UP, the BOD level of Ganga has gone up at Tribeni, Diamond Harbour and several other places in West Bengal.

In May 2015, the government approved its flagship Namami Gange programme, under which guidelines were formulated for cleaning the Ganga river. These included treatment of sewage from cities, treatment of industrial pollution, cleaning the river’s surface, rural sanitation, riverfront development, construction of river banks and cremation ghats, tree plantation and conservation of biodiversity. So far, 221 projects have been sanctioned under the program at an estimated cost of Rs 22,238 crore. Of these, 105 projects were sewage treatment plants, undertaken at a cost of Rs 17,485 crore. Just 26 projects have been completed. Of the 67 projects for riverfront development, construction of banks and ghats and cleaning of the river bed, only 24 have been completed. Professor Agarwal, in his letter to the PM, had expressed doubts over the efficiency of the Ganga projects started by the government. Agarwal felt the projects for cleaning the Ganga were beneficial only to the corporate sector and business houses and did little to ensure uninterrupted flow of Ganga. In addition, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has also questioned some of these projects. In its 2017 report, CAG said, “Even after six and a half years of settlement with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), the long term work plans of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) could not be completed. It has been more than eight years since the formation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, yet NMCG does not have a river basin management plan so far.”

In addition to BOD and DO level, the quality of Ganga river water is determined on the basis fecal coliform and total coliform bacteria levels, pH level, and conductivity. The CPCB stipulates that total coliform bacteria should be 50 mpn (most probable number) or less in every 100 ml of drinking water. If the water is used for domestic purposes, it should be 500 mpn or less. If higher levels of coliform bacteria are found in drinking water, it causes nausea, vomiting, fever and diarrhoea. Agarwal felt the projects for cleaning the Ganga were beneficial only to the corporate sector and business houses and did little to ensure uninterrupted flow of Ganga. The Ganga water does not meet this standard anywhere except Gangotri, Rudraprayag and Devprayag in Uttarakhand. In Haridwar, the mpn is 1,600. In Allahabad it is 48,000, 70,000 in Varanasi and 1,30,000 in Kanpur. In Bihar’s Buxar, the level is 1,60,000, the same as Patna. In West Bengal’s Howrah, it is a shocking 2,40,000.

The pH level of a water body determines if it can be used for irrigation. The safe level of pH is 6 to 8.5. However, the 2017 report states that the pH level of Ganga water is above 8.5 at some places, making it dangerous for irrigation too. The Ganga flows through five states. The State Pollution Control Board (SPCB) of every state checks the quality standard of Gangetic water every month and sends the report to CPCB. The Central body compiles the final report based on the average of data collected. If the Ganga’s monthly water quality is analysed, the picture is even more frightening. During certain months, the pollution is significantly higher than the average. Industrial pollution and domestic waste have been identified as the reasons behind the Ganga’s deplorable condition.

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