Flowing over 2,500 kilometres across northern India and Bangladesh, the Ganga is revered as a goddess with thousands of pilgrims thronging its banks every day to take a holy dip. Yet, little has been done to salvage India’s longest river from severe pollution.
“The Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was launched,” warns Rakesh Jaiswal, an activist who has been monitoring a highly polluted stretch of the river in Kanpur, an industrial city in northern India.
Recent Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) figures show that levels of faecal coliform (a harmful bacteria) are above the acceptable limit in all stretches of the Ganga except when it is still in the Himalayas. The river’s water – on which millions of people depend for their survival and which is considered holy by Hindus – is actually unfit for human consumption. Faecal coliform comes from sewage and leads to diarrhoea.
The Ganga originates at the Gomukh glacier in Uttarakhand and flows more or less pristine through the Himalayas before it reaches the foothills. Then it gets an alarming dose of untreated sewage from 52 cities and 48 towns. A 2012 CPCB study reveals that sewage accounts for 85% of the pollutants that enter the river, with 2,723 million litres of untreated sewage being dumped into the river every day. Add a daily dose of roughly 500 million litres of industrial waste, and the cocktail becomes deadly.
To clean the mess, in 1985 the Indian government launched what was then the world’s most ambitious initiative to restore a river, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). The aim was to intercept the sewage and treat it before discharging it into the Ganga. Seven years later, in 1993, the second phase of GAP was extended to include four major tributaries – Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahanadi.
After severe criticism about the failure of the plan, in 2009, the government re-launched it with a reconstituted National Ganga River Basin Authority. The river also got the status of a National River at this time. Despite these efforts, which cost Rs 900 crore (US$147.7 million), environmentalists warn that the river’s condition has in fact deteriorated.
“One needs to come to Kanpur to see how GAP has failed miserably,” says Jaiswal, who founded the NGO Eco Friends in 1993 to take up the cause of the river. “The challenges are many, the most serious being the lack of infrastructure. Kanpur city alone generates 400 MLD (million litres a day) of sewage but the installed treatment capacity is only 150 MLD. Even then the treatment plant is underperforming at the capacity of 90-100 MLD every day. This is because Kanpur doesn’t have sewer lines. So the toxic waste generated doesn’t get to the sewage treatment plant but enters straight into the river.”
Kanpur has a thriving leather industry. Effluents from around 400 tanneries – mostly untreated – add to the pollution. The tanneries generate 40 MLD of wastewater every day, including poisonous heavy metals like chromium. Out of that, only 9 MLD is treated en route to the river.
Kanpur is not the only culprit. CPCB estimated in 2012 that for the 2,723 MLD of sewage generated along the Ganga in the north Indian plains, the installed treatment capacity is only 1,208 MLD, around 44%.
Municipalities lack funds to build and operate sewage treatment plants. Sunita Narain, director general of the think tank Centre for Science and Environment, says the capital cost of a sewage treatment plant has increased from Rs 30-60 lakh/mld (US$50,000-100,000) to roughly Rs 1-1.25 crore/mld (US$164,000-205,000) in the last decade. Current operation and maintenance costs range anywhere between Rs 0.60 to Rs 3 per kilolitre (1-5 cents).
The situation may get worse. In the past, the central government funded all the costs of setting up and running effluent treatment plants along the Ganga. Now, under the National Mission for Clean Ganga, it has decided to fund the plants only for the first five years, after which state governments are expected to do it. They are even more cash strapped than the centre.
In any case, just tackling financial issues will not be enough to save the river. Activists say more than the money, it’s the Ganga’s natural flow that needs to be replenished if the river is to be cleaned. “If you see, due to high demand of fresh water for irrigation and other uses, the river water gets diverted much before it reaches the high pollution zone. So there is not enough water to dilute the toxins,” says Jaiswal.
The 2009 plan envisages the Ganga will flow clean by 2020. At the current rate of progress, that will remain a (dirty) pipe dream.