WHILE in Varanasi to file his nomination papers for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi, then the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial nominee, had declared with his characteristic bravado, “I have not come here on my own. I have been invited by mother Ganga.” He said it was his destiny to serve the Ganga ma and he would do so by cleaning the river in the next five years.
Arguably, this was one promise that must have lit up a billion hearts because the Ganga is revered by Hindus across the globe. The river, which criss-crosses almost half of the breadth of India in its 2,525-kilometre journey, also nurtures almost 40 per cent of the country’s population. Apart from its religious associations, it has huge social, economic and ecological significance for the country. Earlier attempts to cleanse the river had not been successful, though hundreds of crores of public money were squandered away.
Shortly after he took oath as Prime Minister, Modi announced the ambitious Namami Gange project, which involved cleaning the ghats, ridding the river of biological contaminants, improving rural sanitation, and promoting afforestation in the river basin. The works were to be undertaken in the States which straddle the length of the river—Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. Together, these States were discharging 12,000 million litres a day (mld) of sewage into the river basin, while the treatment capacity was only for 4,000 mld. Treatment for only 1,000 mld was actually operational. Around 80 per cent of the pollution in the Ganga is because of untreated sewerage, and 20 per cent because of industrial pollution from tanneries in Kanpur and sugar and paper mills in Uttar Pradesh.
Four years have passed since Modi’s announcement, and the river remains as dirty as ever. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) 2017 report titled “Performance Audit of the Rejuvenation of River Ganga” revealed deficiencies in financial management, planning, implementation and monitoring, huge delays in approval of projects, huge unspent balances, and failure to achieve 100 per cent target of “Open Defecation Free” villages in the river basin area. These were the prerequisites for cleaning the river.
The report, which was tabled in Parliament, noted that the award of work for sewage treatment plants of 1,397-mld capacity was to be completed by September 2016, but as of August 2017, it was still being worked out. Only 35 of the proposed 86 sewerage treatment plants (STPs), it said, had been completed. The report noted that this meant unusually high levels of faecal coliform in the water. The CAG, which measured the faecal coliform level in Varanasi, said upstream of the river in Varanasi near Assi Ghat, faecal coliform level was 3,000 MPN (most probable number)/100 ml while downstream it increased to 46,167 MPN/100 ml. For water to be considered safe for bathing, the faecal coliform measure should not exceed 500 MPN/100 ml.
According to the CAG report, the faecal coliform level across the river was found to be six to 334 times higher than the prescribed level. Incidentally, it was this alarming level of the pollution in the river Ganga that prompted the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to comment in its last hearing in July that the government should consider putting a health warning on “Gangajal” (Ganga water) now.
A financial audit of the Namami Gange project in March this year exposed the perfunctory manner of its execution. An amount of Rs.20,601 crore had been sanctioned under the programme for 193 projects. Only 20 per cent of this amount, Rs. 4,254 crore, was actually spent. Only 24 of the 64 entry level schemes had been implemented. In the last three years, the audit found, 1,114. 75 km of sewer line had been laid out against the target of 4,031.41 km. What this actually means is that a huge volume of untreated sewage, chemical effluents, dead bodies, and excreta continue to flow into the river. In May 2014, there were 31 STPs with 485 mld capacity. In May 2018, 94 projects with 1,928 mld capacity are still under way, another indication that the Namami Gange project has been a non-starter.
If the holy city of Varanasi was expected to receive any extra attention, a reality check by Frontline brought up disappointing results. Varanasi, at the most, can boast of cosmetic changes to the ghats, which have been spruced up and cleaned. No substantial work has been done to handle the sewage problem. The city generates about 350 mld of sewage and still has only three STPs, which were built in 1986 during the initial stage of the Ganga Action Plan that Rajiv Gandhi initiated as Prime Minister. The three plants together have a capacity to treat only 102 mld of sewage, which means more than 50 per cent of the city’s sewage flows directly into the river near Assi Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat.
Interestingly, these two ghats have seen the most “beautification” in recent days, with new lights and shining dustbins. “But just below these spruced up ghats you have the nullahs discharging tonnes and tonnes of sewage into the river,” said Professor B.D. Tripathi, chairman of the Ganga River Water Monitoring Centre, which is run under the aegis of Benares Hindu University. According to him, 33,000 bodies are cremated every year on the banks of the river in Varanasi, using 16,000 tonnes of wood. This generates 800-900 tonnes of ash, which is immersed in the river. Besides, a large number of semi-burnt bodies are dumped in the river at Harishchandra and Manikarnika Ghat every day.
Tripathi, who has been doing research on the Ganga since 1972, was also an expert member on the panel of National Ganga River Basin Authority, which was constituted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2009. “The government talks of creating better infrastructure to handle this problem. But there has been only one electric crematorium in the city for ages, and even this functions sporadically,” he said. According to him, quality changes in the river have been nil, despite all the hype about cleaning the river.
He said this was partly because the volume of water flowing down the river had reduced, decreasing its dilution capacity and hence pushing up pollution levels. “The river flow has decreased because dams have been built on its tributaries like Alaknanda, Mandakini and Bhagirathi, in the upper reaches,” he said. Another reason for this is that water is diverted towards Delhi at Haridwar and exploitation of groundwater in the river basin for irrigation by building lift canals continues unabated.
“While the water flow has reduced considerably, the volume of pollutants has increased multifold, but the treatment facility remains the same as in 1986,” he said. He added that the river could be cleaned only if its flow was increased.
Prof. V.N. Mishra, Professor of Electronics at Benaras Hindu University and head of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which has been monitoring Ganga water quality for 30 years, is also of the opinion that Namami Gange has basically been reduced to a slogan and has not resulted in any improvement in water quality. Data collected by the foundation in June 2016 showed faecal coliform levels at 41,00,000/100 ml near the Assi confluence and 53,00,000/100 ml at the Varuna confluence. The rivers Assi and Varuna, which flow through the city and have given it its name, have turned into nullahs now and carry the city’s sewage to the Ganga.
According to Prof. Mishra, the government has not taken a practical approach to the problem. Varanasi has only one functional sewer line which is over 100 years old. The second one is being built, but against the slope, which means a pump would be required to carry the sewage to the plant when it is ready. With power supply being erratic, even if this sewer line and the pump become functional, it is anybody’s guess how effective they will prove.