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Cleaning the Ganga: The Hurdles Ahead

New Delhi, 8 March (G’nY News service): Ganga, the iconic river of our nation, has played a vital role in the socioeconomic life of the country, and is held sacred by millions. However, it has not been treated as such. According to Central Pollution Control Board’s (CPCB) report, ‘Pollution Assessment: River Ganga, 2013’, 2,723 million litres per day of domestic sewage is discharged by cities located along the River. Additionally, hundreds of factories release 260 million litres of largely untreated wastewater while other major pollution inputs include runoff from the more than 6 million tonnes of chemical fertilizers and 9,000 tonnes of pesticides discharged annually (ibid.).

During his election campaign last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised the nation that his government would clean the River, and in accordance, the Clean Ganga Project Mission was launched. Earlier this year in January, the Supreme Court demanded that the government submit a detailed outline of the steps it intends to take for the implementation for the Clean Ganga project, because they felt that the government was not being proactive on the issue.

A public interest litigation filed in 1985 by activist M.C. Mehta has recently picked up speed in the Supreme Court. The Ministry of Water Resources submitted a blueprint of the plan in answer to this demand. The immediate steps that the government has listed include the following: improve sanitation in cities and towns along the river, reform the existing sewage treatment plants, conserve the biodiversity, and the plant trees in certain sections of the River.

GangaGanga at Rishikesh: About 2,723 million litres per day of domestic sewage is discharged by cities located along the Ganga; hundreds of factories release 260 million litres of largely untreated wastewater annually; 6 million tonnes of chemical fertilizers and, 9,000 tonnes of pesticides are also discharged annually.

However, despite the enthusiasm of the present government, the Clean Ganga Project has met with a lot of criticism, its staunchest critic being the Supreme Court itself. “After seeing your action plan, it seems Ganga will not be cleaned even after 200 years” the top court opined as per the report published in NDTV online in September 4, 2014. “The net effect as of today is that Rs. 2,000 crore has already been spent and the river is still polluted. Fortunately money is not a problem with the government but we want to see the results on ground. Show us the output that can be objectively verified,” the bench told the Solicitor General, as quoted in The Indian Express, January 15, 2015.
The Clean Ganga Project is being accused of refurbishing the earlier Ganga Action Plan (launched in 1986 by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi), relying heavily on building more sewage treatment plants, which failed miserably. In the article, Cleaning Ganga Holistically, published on October 24, 2014, in the Financial Expres, Dr. Syamal Kumar Sarkar, ex-secretary of Ministry of Water Resources states that, “Ganga Action Plan (GAP 1986), did not yield results despite heavy expenditure…the major weakness for cleaning Ganga till now are: inappropriate choices of technology for treatment of wastes, incorrect policy of discharging waste water into river, lack of clear legal and institutional framework, conveyance and treatment of sewage across cities in river basin”.

As per the National Commission for Clean Ganga, Rs. 939 crores have been spent on the Ganga Action plan as of February, 2014.

In 2013, in an inspection conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board it was discovered that not only are these sewage treatment plans failing to serve their purpose, 30 per cent of them were not even functioning. In 1986, there were 170 tanneries releasing toxic wastewater directly in to the river, now there are 400 (ibid).

Another issue that the earlier Ganga Action Project and current Clean Ganga Project fail to address in a suitable manner is the shrinking flow of the river due to the numerous dams and channels that have been built over the years. In his paper, ‘SWOT Analysis of the Ganga Action Plan’ published in December 2011, Dr. Vinod Tare, professor and coordinator at Development of Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP), states that, “Despite having adequate flows for dilution of the discharged effluent, western countries treat water up to the tertiary level. The Indian model of treatment proposes treatment up to secondary level only, despite having lean season of water flows for 10 months. This results in further degradation of the water quality of the river in terms of fecal contamination.” The self-cleansing mechanism of any river is the water flow, which washes out the biological wastes and other pollutants, however in this case the flow of the river has been reduced to such an extent that the withdrawal rate is much higher than that of discharge of the water making the rising rates of pollution unavoidable”.

Rama Rauta, founder and convener of Save Ganga Movement and an expert member of the National Ganga River Basin authority, talking to G’nY poses a question, “What is the definition of Namami Ganga? They are calling it the Mission Ganga Rejuvenation, but how can that be accomplished if you do not restore the natural flow [eco-flow] of the river”.

Speaking with our correspondent, the former zonal incharge of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), Lucknow, Dr. M.Q. Ansari, expressed his candid thoughts on the Clean Ganga Project. “Considering the present state of affairs, the Ganga will never be clean. What is required is a healthy partnership between the people and the government. However, the general public does not even have basic awareness of the issues that are related with the pollution of the river. We have been monitoring and studying the river since the Water Act of 1974. We have all the facts and statistics about the point and nonpoint sources of river pollution, but proper steps are yet to be taken.”

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