The Clean Ganga Mission and a Filthy Holy River

Thousands of crores of public money has been spent on the mission, and a substantial chunk of the outlay on publicity, but the Ganga is anything but clean

The Ganga in Varanasi; it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world
The Ganga in Varanasi; it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world

Pankaj Chaturvedi

How rich the wave, in front, imprest/ With evening-twilight’s summer hues,/ While, facing thus the crimson west,/ The boat her silent path pursues. // Glide gently, thus forever glide,/ O Thames…

When William Wordsworth wrote those lines in 1798, he must have had a pristine river flowing in front of him.

Circa 2023. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi last month flagged off river cruise ‘Ganga Vilas’ at Varanasi, the Ganga could hardly have been the sight to inspire a poet to wax lyrical. All the efforts to clean the India’s holiest river have literally and metaphorically gone down the drain. Because the human habitations along the Ganga continue to drain their filth into the river.

Back to the cruise. The ‘floating five-star hotel’, as the small cruise ship with a capacity to carry just 36 tourists was described, set off from Varanasi on 13 January to Dibrugarh in Assam, via Bangladesh. It will be covering a distance of 3,200 km over 51 days. By the first of February, Ganga Vilas had already entered Bangladesh. According to reports, the average fare per person is about Rs 25,000 per night.

While the Modi government’s ambitious ‘Namami Gange’ project has seemingly floundered, the emphasis has shifted from cleanliness and sanitation to what the government now calls ‘Arth Ganga’, which is geared towards tourism, economic livelihood and conservation. The tourism ministry was tasked to develop a comprehensive plan for developing tourism circuits along the Ganga and promote organic farming and cultural activities.

The rechristened project Arth Ganga officially has six components. The first is chemical-free farming on 10 km on either side of the river and ‘promotion of cow dung as fertiliser through the Gobardhan scheme. The monetisation and reuse of sludge and waste water for irrigation, industry etc. is the second. Setting up haats on river banks for people to sell local products, herbs, medicinal plants and Ayurvedic medicine is said to be the third.

Promoting cultural heritage and tourism potential of the river, adventure sports, increased public participation and improved water governance are the other thrust areas.

Aviral Ganga, Nirmal Ganga, Where?

It’s not just the environment enthusiasts who are annoyed at the all-round apathy towards the river and its ecosystem. In September last year, the Allahabad High Court came down heavily on the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) for “throwing dust in the eyes” (a Hindi proverb which means hoodwinking others) and doing “little work to clean the river”. The NMCG had become a tool to disperse money and no one was serious about cleaning the river Ganga, the bench headed by the chief justice rued.

Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, the high court noted, was the executing agency in the state but claimed it did not have qualified engineers to oversee the projects. The state pollution control board had power to prosecute those responsible for Ganga pollution but seemed reluctant to take any action.

The observation received little media attention although in an earlier hearing last year, the court had been equally harsh. “We all know that thousands of crores have already been spent to clean the Ganga under the Namami Gange Project but with hardly any result,” it had noted. Significantly, the case was first filed way back in 2006 in which the petitioner had alleged that water quality in the supposedly holy river was of poor quality and full of pollutants. But although the court has been hearing arguments and poring over reports, with at least four hearings in 2022, not much appears to have changed.

Since 2014, say reports in the media, close to Rs 30,000 crore were sanctioned for the marquee project; they were meant to build and improve sewerage, putting up sewage treatment plants (STP) and undertake river rejuvenation activities. Updated estimates from the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) last year indicated that out of 408 projects sanctioned under the programme, 228 had been completed while 132 were still ‘in progress’. Other reports claim that although Rs 30,000 crore were sanctioned, only Rs 20,000 crore were released and Rs 13,000 crore spent till October 2022.

Reports submitted to the court by the UP Pollution Control Board and the UP Jal Nigam point to large scale irregularities. While the task of the various government agencies is mostly confined to sanctioning funds and approving projects, the execution has apparently been outsourced to private bidders with or without any previous experience in the field. Monitoring by government agencies is clearly lax because despite periodic complaints, the agencies have not even initiated penal provisions.

The court observed that the STPs were being run by private operators and the contracts drawn up for them absolved them of any responsibility if the river continued to receive untreated or polluted water. The fine print in the contracts mention that the operators would run STPs to their maximum capacity but would not be responsible if the STPs were fed polluted water ‘beyond their capacity’. No penal clause had apparently been included. Expressing its surprise and dissatisfaction the court had observed that there was no wonder the river remained as polluted as ever.

Dysfunctional STPs

In February 2021, a committee comprising representatives of UP State Pollution Control Board, the central government and an amicus curiae among others had also reported after inspecting various sites that large volume of untreated water was still flowing into the river and huge sums of public money had been wasted. The court had then taken note of complaints that the STPs were shut down by private operators for long periods, presumably to save energy costs, allowing untreated water to pass through.

The committee also apprised the court that use of plastic bags continued to be extensive in the cities on the bank of the river and plastic waste was also choking the sewer lines. The drains were emitting foul smell and the process of treating sewerage water by ‘bioremediation’ did not appear to be effective. What’s more, half the existing ‘nallahs’ were either not connected to the STP or, if connected, were overflowing.

The NMCG website acknowledges the failure of Namami Gange project. But it justifies it by pointing to rising population and growing number of industrial units. A passage on the website reads, ‘[The] Ganga in some stretches, particularly during lean seasons, has become unfit even for bathing. The threat of global climate change, the effect of glacial melt on Ganga flow and the impacts of infrastructural projects in the upper reaches of the river, raise issues that need a comprehensive response.’

It then goes on to admit, ‘In the Ganga basin approximately 12,000 million litres per day (MLD) sewage is generated, for which presently there is a treatment capacity of only around 4,000 MLD.’ Not a pretty picture after eight years of hype and publicity.

It candidly admits that ‘approximately 3,000 MLA of sewage is discharged into the main stream of the Ganga from the Class I and Class II towns located along the banks, against which treatment capacity of about 1,000 MLD has been created till date. The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 per cent, but due to its toxic and non-biodegradable nature, this has much greater significance…the major contributors are tanneries in Kanpur, distilleries, paper mills and sugar mills in the Kosi, Ramganga and Kali river catchments’.

The NMCG claims that out of the 245 existing STPs in five states along the Ganga, only 226 are functioning. It also claims that these STPs are working at 68 per cent of their capacity. After spending Rs 800 crore in eight years in Kanpur, the UP Pollution Control Board admits that water at various places is highly contaminated.

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