River Ganga has been revered in India. It is not only regarded highly as Mother Goddess Ganga in Hindu mythology, but has found special significance in almost all the religions. Yet it continues to be in a dilapidated state with it being used as a means of washing away dirty, toxic and chemical waste from factories. Sewage, dead bodies, animal and human excreta – all find their way into the Ganga, so much so that the word holy in its case has become an oxymoron.
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The Ganga Action Plan (GAP)
The Uttarakhand government has submitted its Rs 9,478-crore action plan to the Centre to clean the Ganga from Gaumukh to Haridwar.
Officials of the Uttarakhand government submitted the plan to the Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti in Dehradun on Wednesday, September 17, 2014. The plan that talks about 13 broad proposals for cleaning up of the river, however, hasn’t enlisted any plan for cleaning the Rispana and Bindal in Dehradun that are sources for polluting the Ganga.
According to a report in a leading financial daily, the state government said it would create new sewage systems at 132 locations in the state at a cost of Rs 7,634 crore. Besides, it also pledged to construct 590,000 new toilet facilities at 730 locations at a cost of Rs 219 crore. Bio-digester mobile toilets along the Chardham yatra route would also be constructed.
The government said it will create new solid waste management systems at a cost of Rs 829.66 crore but did not elaborate how it will collect the garbage in the state where millions of pilgrims and tourists visit every year.
Incidentally, it’s not the first time that state and centre governments have come together for cleaning up of the river Ganga. In fact, the Ganga Action Plan dates back to 1985, but the river continues to be in filthy state after all these years.
The History of GAP
According to the PIB, Ganga Action Plan (GAP) Phase-I was launched in 1985 to improve the water quality of river Ganga and was completed in March 2000. Phase-II of the programme was approved in stages from 1993 onwards, which included tributaries of the river – Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahananda. Pollution abatement works undertaken included, interception and diversion of raw sewage, setting up of sewage treatment plants, creation of low cost sanitation facilities, setting up of electric/improved wood crematoria and river front development.
is currently under implementation. An expenditure of Rs. 896.05 crore has been incurred so far on Ganga under GAP and sewage treatment capacity of 1064 mld (million litres per day).
A project under the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) with World Bank assistance for abatement of pollution of river Ganga at an estimated cost of Rs. 7000 crore was approved in April 2011 by the Central Government. The principal objective of the project was to fund creation of pollution abatement infrastructure for conservation and restoration of water quality of the river.
However, despite all these efforts, clearly a lot needs to be done.
Why has the GAP failed?
During the year 2006, a measurement of pollution in the Ganga revealed that river water monitoring over the previous 12 years had demonstrated fecal coliform counts up to 100,000,000 MPN (most probable number) per 100 ml and biological oxygen demand levels averaging over 40 mg/l in the most polluted part of the river in Varanasi. The overall rate of water-borne/enteric disease incidence, including acute gastrointestinal disease, etc and was estimated to be about 66%, says the Wikipedia.
A systematic classification done by Uttarakhand Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board’s (UEPPCB) on river waters into the categories A: safe for drinking, B: safe for bathing, C: safe for agriculture, and D: excessive pollution, put the Ganga in D. Coliform bacteria levels in the river have also been tested to be at 5,500, a level too high to be safe for agricultural use let alone drinking and bathing.
The leather industry in Kanpur which employs around 50,000 people in more than 400 tanneries uses chemicals such as toxic chromium compounds. Effectively, chromium levels have not decreased in the Ganga even after a common treatment plant was established in 1995. It now stands at more than 70 times the recommended maximum level.
A study conducted by the National Cancer Registry Program (NCRP) under the Indian Council of Medical Research in 2012, suggested that “those living along its banks in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the country”.
No doubt, a number of initiatives have been undertaken to clean the river but all failed to deliver desired results. After getting elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to work in the direction. Subsequently, ‘Namami Gange’ project was announced by the Government in the July 2014 budget.
The River Thames model
The ambitious Rs. 2037 crore Namami Gange project was announced by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in July, but according to Dr. P.M. Natarajan, a leading water expert, a model adopted to rejuvenate the Thames by England could be “ideal” for Ganga.
Incidentally, in the mid-19 century the Thames was often referred to as the ‘Great Stink’ for it resembled a dirty drain. In fact, the stink was so high that sessions in the House of Commons at Westminster, that was adjacent to the river, had to be put off.
Finally, according to Dr. Natarajan, a member of the working group of the State Planning Commission, scientific methods of wastewater treatment helped to turn around the Great Stink into a fresh free-flowing river. The initiative was so successful that today it is a major tourist attraction in London.
A concerted effort to contain the city’s sewage by constructing massive sanitary sewers on the north and south river embankments followed, under the supervision of engineer Joseph Bazalgette in the 19th century. Meanwhile, similar huge undertakings took place to ensure the water supply, with the building of reservoirs and pumping stations on the river to the west of London, slowly helping the quality of water to improve.
The Victorian era was one of imaginative engineering. The coming of the railways added railway bridges to the earlier road bridges and also reduced commercial activity on the river. However, sporting and leisure use increased with the establishment of regattas such as Henley and The Boat Race. And all these efforts helped in restoring the lost glory of the Thames.
Given the current “total pollution load” of the Ganga basin at 50,500 million litres per day (MLD), it would be ideal to have treatment plants of 20 MLD capacity each, and “villages have to be connected so as to reach the capacity of each treatment plant,” Dr. Natarajan, was quoted as saying by a leading national daily.
In his interview that was published in July, Dr. Natarajan noted that it was not advisable to “start treating the wastewater and leave it halfway” as it was done in the first two GAPs, that cost the central exchequer Rs. 950 crore, without any results.
The biogas extracted from the processing of wastewater could be used for cooking and generating some electricity. Advocating a multi-pronged strategy, Dr. Natarajan, said, the ‘bio sludge’, another important by-product could be used as manure.
Israel offers a helping hand
Meanwhile, Israel has expressed interest in sharing its expertise for cleaning river Ganga.
“We have already met the Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti and the concerned Secretary few times, we want to be involved. We offered our knowledge, technology and technical know-how (for the project),” Israel’s Head of Economic and Trade Mission Yonatan Ben-Zaken said, recently.
Speaking on sidelines of a seminar on ‘Water Security & Waste Water Management’, he said Israel is known for its capabilities and expertise in waste water treatment, purification and water reuse for agriculture and industry.
“We are in talks and we think that cleaning industrial pollutants from the river (Ganga) should be first priority,” Yonatan was quoted as saying by the media. Hina Arsalan