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Is There No Hope For The River Ganga?

By Marianne de Nazareth

26 June, 2014

It was in the '80's when the excitement of seeing the Ganga for the first time, threatened to overwhelm. We were standing on the steps of the Ghats in Varanasi, looking around at sights which world renowned photographers had burned onto our conciousness, with their evocative pictures. Corpses being burnt on pyres, sadhus and holy men ringing bells and chanting, marigold flowers bobbing down the river along with a little diya (lamp) with its tiny flickering flame, in the evening twilight. The sense of piety and the ambience of reverence, permeated the air. But, even then, the sticky slime on the steps and the horror of seeing people hold their nostrils and submerge their heads in the filthy waters shocked us all.

The sacred river Ganga is the largest river, extending over the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal. The Ganga basin is densely populated with 37 per cent of India's population living in the region. Millions of Indians depend on this great river for physical and spiritual sustenance. People have immense faith in the powers of healing and regeneration of the Ganga. The River plays a vital role in religious ceremonies and rituals and to bathe in Ganga is a lifelong ambition of many who congregate in large numbers for festivals such as Kumbh Mela and numerous Snan (bath) festivals.

Reading up on the status paper on the River Ganga, by the National River Conservation Directorate Ministry of Environment and Forests a few fun facts stand out:

* The entire Ganga basin system effectively drains eight states of India.

* About 47 per cent of the total irrigated area in India is located in the Ganga basin alone.

* It has been a major source of navigation and communication since time immemorial.

The map below shows you exactly where the river flows.

Location map of India showing the Ganga river

Source: Water Pollution Control - A Guide to the Use of Water Quality
Management Principles ( © 1997 WHO/UNEP)

As we know in India, it is galloping population figures and exponential growth of industrialization and urbanisation that has exposed the water- ways, of the country to shocking levels of degradation. Realising that the rivers of the country were in a serious condition of turning into open sewers if something was not done immediately, a beginning towards their restoration was made with the launching of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985.

To make a visual picture of where the River Ganga flows for the reader, the basin lies between East longitudes 73°30 and 89° 0 and North latitudes of 22°30 and 31°30, covering an area of 1,086,000 sq km, extending over India, Nepal and Bangladesh. It has a catchment area of 8,61,404 sq. km in India, constituting 26% of the country's land mass and supporting about 43% of population (448.3 million as per 2001 census). particularly in the stretch between Kannauj and Allahbad say figures taken from GAP

Looking at its source, the Ganga has many tributaries, in the Himalayan regions before it enters the plains at Haridwar and further downstream before its confluence with the Bay of Bengal. The months os December to May are when the river receives the least inflow of water. According to research figures, the Ganga has been assessed as holding 525 billion cubicmeters (BCM). Due to excess drawing of water for irrigation, power generation and drinking water this has lowered the quantity of water in the river particularly between the areas between Kannauj and Allahabad.

Realising that something had to be done to clean up the polluted river, The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 by the government. The main objective was to reduce pollution and thereby improve the water quality in the river. The programme included 261 schemes spread over 25 Class I towns of U.P., Bihar and West Bengal. The main focus of the Plan was to control, divert and treat sewage generated from these identified towns. 34 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) with a treatment capacity of 869 mld were set up under the Plan. GAP I was completed in March 2000 at a massive cost of Rs. 452 crores.

Map of India showing the route of the Ganga river

Source: Water Pollution Control - A Guide to the Use of
Water Quality Management Principles ( © 1997 WHO/UNEP)

Then GAP II was started in 1993 which covered 59 towns located along the river in the five states of Uttarakhand, U.P, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. 319 schemes had been initiated under the Plan, out of which 200 were completed. Again , a massive expenditure of Rs. 370.40 crore was expended and sewage treatment capacity of 130 mld was initiated. Then realising the need of the hour, GAP II was expanded in 1996 into the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP), which presently covers polluted stretches of 36 rivers in 20 States in the country.

The Ganga river water quality was evaluated by GAP on the basis of pollution indicators (DO (Dissolved Oxygen), BOD (Bio-chemical Oxygen Demand ) and coliform) According to their evaluation, the dissolved oxygen levels have improved in the main stem of Ganga. The values they have found by testing are mostly above the recommended value of 5.0 mg/l, except in the stretch between Kannauj and Kanpur where values below 5.0 mg /l have been noticed on several occasions. BOD values are also within stipulated limits in the upper and lower reaches of the Ganga but tend to be higher than 5.0 mg /l in the middle stretch from Kannauj to Varanasi. This they consider the critical stretch.

GAP had found that it was the contamination of faecal matter that had exceeded the permissible limits of 2500 MPN/100 ml at most cities except in the upper reaches up to Haridwar. This is shocking in the light of the fact that people bathe and drink this water considering it holy. According to the paper produced by GAP, discernible improvement (in terms of DO and BOD) has occurred in the river over the pre-GAP period. Today they state the improvement has not been substantial because this should be seen through the lens of a steep increase in population which has unfortunately contributed to a steep increase in organic pollution load.

They believe that the success of GAP has been in preventing further deterioration of water quality, generally maintaining it and improving it in some places, even though the pollution load draining into the river has substantially increased due to population growth, rapid industrialization and urbanization. Patting themselves on their backs they say that it can be inferred that if the pollution abatement programme had not been implemented, there would have been an inevitable deterioration in the quality of river water posing threat to public health and ecology. A positive outcome of the programme has been an increased public awareness of the need to protect our rivers.

In view of the fact that water quality has not yet reached the prescribed standards for bathing, especially in the stretch from Kannauj to Varanasi, there has been a lot of criticism of GAP in the media and by civil society. But on the other hand, there have been independent studies by academic institutions which have concluded that the programme has produced positive results.

National River Conservation Directorate Ministry of Environment and Forests has stated that GAP has been a mixed success. Though the programme yielded good results in many stretches, the problem of pollution in river Ganga has not been fully addressed. GAP was only the first step in river water quality management and it brought about quick and effective results, but for a sustainable intervention a lot more control had to be exerted on the polluting factors.

The studies carried out by the CPCB in 1981-82 revealed that pollution of the Ganga was increasing but had not assumed 'serious proportions', except at certain main towns on the river such as industrial Kanpur and Calcutta on the Hoogly, where urgent interventions were warranted. They suggested that the factors responsible for these situations had to be targeted for swift and effective control measures. This strategy was adopted for urgent implementation during the first phase of the plan under which only 25 towns identified on the main river were to be included.

Simple pointers with regards to possible solutions have been published in a paper by the Ganga Project Directorate, New Delhi called " Water Pollution Control - A Guide to the Use of Water Quality Management Principles" published on behalf of the United Nations Environment Programme, the Water Supply & Sanitation Collaborative Council and the World Health Organization. The studies had revealed that:

75 per cent of the pollution load was from untreated municipal sewage.

88 per cent of the municipal sewage was from the 25 Class I towns on the main river.

Only a few of these cities had sewage treatment facilities (these were very inadequate and were often not functional).

All the industries accounted for only 25 per cent of the total pollution (in some areas, such as Calcutta and Kanpur, the industrial waste was very toxic and hard to treat).

A good point to note by the Ganga Project Directorate, was though industrial pollution constitutes around 20% of the total pollution load by volume, its contribution to polluting the river Ganga is much greater, due to the higher concentration of pollutants. This problem was sought to be addressed by focusing on Grossly Polluting Industries. The term 'grossly polluting' was any industrial unit, discharging into the river effluent having BOD load of 100 kg/day or more and/or is involved in the manufacture and use of hazardous substances, is classified as grossly polluting. Such units were identified and asked to install Effluent Treatment Plants. Presently, 154 grossly polluting industrial units were identified on the main stem of River Ganga. Of these, 94 units have Effluent Treatment Plants (ETPs) operating satisfactorily, 22 have ETPs but they do not operate satisfactorily and 38 Units have closed down. The total number of grossly polluting units along river Ganga and its tributaries is 478. Of these, 335 units have ETPs operating satisfactorily, while in 64 units ETPs do not operate satisfactorily and 79 units have been closed down.

So sadly, the river pollution plan being "action" orientated, work towards long-term town planning, which is where environmental sanitation could be tackled immediately. This should be handled by the city authorities. The need for research to develop indigenous technology, to treat effluents without leaving residues detrimental to the aquatic life needs to be done on a war footing. This is an aspect difficult to control in surface waters in tropical areas, but it is very important for the Ganga because the river water is used directly by millions of devotees.

The Ganga Action Plan could be called a knee jerk reaction begun as a "cleanliness drive" but its effectiveness could however be stamped for posterity, if the measures are integrated within the long-term objectives and master plans of the cities, which are constantly being formed without adequate attention to the disposal of wastes. It IS possible, rules must be structured and forced into place and the public must be sensitised on their role in the scheme of a cleaner and purer mother Ganga.

( Marianne de Nazareth is a Freelance science and environment journalist and adjunct faculty, St Joseph's College of Media studies, Bangalore. )






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