Muddied Waters

After seeing your action plan, it seems the Ganga will not be cleaned even after 200 years. You have to take steps to restore the Ganga to its pristine glory?

View from the Ganga bridge in Kanpur (Photographs: Sarika Malhotra) View from the Ganga bridge in Kanpur (Photographs: Sarika Malhotra)

After seeing your action plan, it seems the Ganga will not be cleaned even after 200 years. You have to take steps to restore the Ganga to its pristine glory? Please try (to ensure) that the next generation is able to see the river in its original form. We don't know whether we will see it or not": reads an extract from the response of Supreme Court Justices T.S. Thakur and R. Banumathi to a government affidavit on cleaning the Ganga, in September 2014.

The stink from the suburb of Jajmau pervades the air of Kanpur. One of the oldest and biggest leather clusters of India, on the bank of the Ganga, Jajmau houses an official count of 402 tanneries. Their actual number is even higher, around 700, since many homes carry out unregistered tanning operations in their backyards - animal hides can be seen drying in every by-lane. Jajmau's tanneries produce around 50 million litres a day (MLD) of effluent, according to Central Leather Research Institute (CLRI) estimates, of which only nine MLD passes through the single common effluent treatment plant (CEPT) set up in the area in 1994. The rest flows into the Ganga.

Jajmau may well be the single biggest source of pollution of the Ganga, but there are many others. (See What's Polluting the Ganga.) The most polluted stretch in the Ganga's 2,500-km journey from the Gaumukh glacier to the Bay of Bengal is the 750 km between Kannauj and Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh - the state accounts for 667 of a total of 764 'grossly polluting industries' on the main stem of the river. Of these, 442 are tanneries. Vying with the challenge of 500 MLD of industrial waste is that of domestic waste - 50 major cities housing 500 million people also lie along the Ganga's main stem, contributing, according to a World Bank estimate, another 2,200 MLD.

Efforts to clean up the Ganga began in 1985, with the launch of the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), a pet project of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. A second phase began in 1993. In 2009, Ganga was declared a National River and the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was set up. A year later came the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) with the aim of ensuring that no untreated domestic sewage or industrial effluent would enter the river after 2020. Sewage treatment plants (STPs) with a total capacity of 869 MLD were installed under GAP-I and another lot of 229 MLD under GAP-II. Yet another set of STPs to treat 123 MLD have been built by the NGRBA. But, clearly, a good number of these are either under-utilised or do not work, since currently, only four years away from the 2020 deadline, a mere 700 MLD of the total of 2,700 MLD of wastewater entering the Ganga undergoes prior treatment.

In 2014, the NDA government also launched the Namami Gange project, initially with an annual budget of Rs 2,037 crore, later increased to a whopping Rs 20,000 crore over five years till 2019. It is being implemented through state project monitoring groups (SPMGs) in the five major states the Ganga flows through: Uttarakhand, UP, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. (see Renewed Effort).

Is the Namami Gange project any different from its predecessors? Many believe it is no new initiative, but merely a rebranding. "Namami shabd mein shradhha jhalakti hai (there is an element of faith visible in the term 'Namami Gange'), but beyond that it has nothing new," says environmentalist Manoj Mishra, Convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan. Swami Jitendranand Saraswati, National General Secretary of the Varanasi-based Ganga Mahasabha, the historic NGO founded by Madan Mohan Malaviya, which has tracked the Ganga's welfare from the early 20th century. is even more pessimistic. "NMCG, NGBRA, Namami Gange? it is the same set of bureaucrats and technocrats who run them all," he says. "The previous UPA government, which set up the NGBRA with much fanfare, held only three meetings of the authority over five years. It was the same earlier with the GAP. Prime Minister Modi no doubt means well, but Namami Gange has made no difference on the ground."

Jajmau Jam

Jajmau in Kanpur, spread over three sq. km, is a prime example of the complexity of issues involved. It is an ecological nightmare, but it has also existed for a century and a half, employs vast numbers of people and earns considerable foreign exchange. The first tannery here was built in 1868 to manufacture horse saddles. Today, Jajmau has around 50 big tanneries, processing more than 200 hides a day and marked by their huge gates and high walls, and another 80 medium sized ones, handling around 100 hides daily. But much of the business remains small and informal.

Not surprisingly, estimates of the industry's size vary widely - while the CLRI maintains it provides direct employment to 10,000 people and indirect to 50,000, Qazi Naiyer Jamal, General Secretary of the Small Tanners Association there, pegs the latter number at 400,000. There is greater convergence on Jajmau's estimated contribution to export earnings - the CLRI pegs export turnover from leather and leather products out of Jajmau at Rs 6,800 crore, the Small Tanners Association at Rs 5,374 crore for 2013/14.

The sole CETP in Jajmau, set up under the first phase of the GAP, has a capacity of 36 MLD, but this has to comprise industrial waste mixed with domestic in the proportion of 1:3 - it thus processes only nine MLD of tannery waste. The state government and the registered tanneries jointly pay for the CETP's upkeep, which is managed by the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. In addition, every tannery is required to have its own Primary Effluent Treatment Plant (PETP), along with an Online Continuous Effluent Monitoring System (OCEMS). Earlier this year, 60-odd Jajmau tanneries got closure notices from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, for not having installed OCEMS.

A jute mill on the banks of Ganga in Kolkata (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

An OCEMS costs around Rs 70,000-80,000. "The point of making every tannery install an OCEMS is not clear, considering they all have PETPs anyway, which are monitored by the UP Pollution Control Board," says Imran Siddiqui, Director, Super Tannery Ltd. "The first step in cleaning the wastewater happens at our end. Environmental clearances have becoming so critical for the export market that no exporter can risk ignoring them."

There is also talk of introducing CETPs that use Zero Liquid Discharge technology, whereby all the wastewater they treat can be reused, without any of it being discharged. "Since we share the CETP's maintenance cost with the government, such a move will increase the cost of the leather we produce by 15 per cent, making us uncompetitive in the international market," says Taj Alam, Managing Director, Kings International, and former president of the UP Leather Industries Association.

Critics of the tanneries are sceptical of their owners' claims. "The truth is that less than 40 per cent of them have installed PETPs," says Swami Arun Puri, Mahant at Siddhnath Ghat on the Ganga in Jajmau. The capital cost of a PETP, depending on its size, ranges from Rs 25 lakh to Rs 2 crore, while the running cost is between Rs 1,500 and Rs 15,000 a day. "There is also no way to figure out how many of the installed PETPs are in use," Puri adds.

Tannery owners also note that they are not alone to blame for Ganga pollution at Jajmau - the area still does not have a domestic sewage disposal system. Most of the domestic waste its 600,000 residents produce also flows untreated into the river. Jajmau also has two STPs (apart from the CETP for tannery waste) with capacities to treat 130 MLD and five MLD, but in practice these manage no more than around 60-70 MLD together. The entire city of Kanpur is also not much better off - the total treatment capacity of its STPs is just 162 MLD against the 412 MLD of sewage it produces.

No doubt efforts to cope better with domestic waste are being made in UP. A detailed project report for a sewerage system for Jajmau was submitted to the state government in July last year, which includes upgrading the two existing STPs. More STPs are being installed elsewhere in Kanpur under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). There is also talk of a second, 50-MLD CETP.

Beyond Jajmau

The problem of contamination by industrial and domestic sewage extends across the length of the river, varying only in intensity. Non-functional STPs and CETPs are a problem all the way. "Less than 20 per cent of the sewage flowing into the Ganga is treated beforehand," says Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister whose proactive role of trying to save the Ganga during his tenure as minister is acknowledged by all. "The majority of STPs built under the GAP do not work due to lack of maintenance funds." Most STPs and CEPTs have been funded jointly by the Centre and the concerned state in a proportion of 70:30, but they are maintained by urban local bodies or the state water departments, which are all cash strapped.

There is also the curious feature of corpses being dumped in the Ganga - instead of being cremated or buried - which adds to the pollution. Every month, bodies are fished out of its waters, despite a UP High Court order prohibiting such dumping and the UP government providing a grant of Rs 1,600 for the cremation of every unidentified body. "The reason is primarily corruption," says Swami Jitendranand of Ganga Mahasabha. "Many Hindus bring their dead to Varanasi, believing it to be the gateway to moksha. But the electric crematorium here rarely functions, because the contractors who supply the firewood for cremation find ways to disrupt its power supply. Buying wood for cremation proves too expensive for many. The police, too, when they find unclaimed corpses, sometimes dump them in the river so as to pocket the grant."

An elaborate plan for more than 100 crematoriums in the cities along the Ganga - by building new ones and modernising those existing - is, however, being formulated.

Bottomless Pit

Jairam Ramesh, former Environment Minister (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

"I took some unpopular decisions to protect the Ganga's ecosystem. But the approach of the Environment Ministry has now changed"

No one really knows how many thousands of crores have been spent so far on trying to clean the Ganga. The combined expenditure on the two phases of the GAP was Rs 938.57 crore till the end of 2014/15, while the NGRBA spent Rs 1,937.64 crore till end-October 2015. Funding agencies such as the World Bank and Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) have also pitched with soft loans to the NGRBA. The World Bank committed $1 billion in 2011 for river protection infrastructure (of which $66 million has so far been released), while JICA has put in around Rs 500 crore on a project in Varanasi.

But much more has been spent which even the government, apparently, finds impossible to collate - an RTI application by the Ganga Mahasabha seeking to know the total spend has not been replied to. "Investments have been made under different programmes of the government, but since there is no coordination between departments, no consolidated figures are available," says an official in the Ministry of Water Resources - now expanded and called the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation - who does not want to be named. "Each ministry has its own data. States through which the Ganga flows have also contributed. Some of the funds available under the JNNURM have been used, too."

However, some of the projects on which much of the money has been spent are questionable. "The government keeps building STPs and more STPs in the name of saving the Ganga," says Swami Jitendranand. "Sewage treatment is a part of urban development. Why should funds for saving the Ganga be used for it? Don't towns which are not on the Ganga's banks need sewage treatment?" Yet another critic of indiscriminate STP-building is Vinod Tare, Professor at IIT, Kanpur. "If existing STPs are under-utilised or not functioning, what is the point of building new ones?" he says. "The bureaucratic mindset is to just use up funds if they are available under some scheme, without any coordination between departments or independent impact assessment."

Swami Jitendranand Saraswati, National General Secretary, Ganga Mahasabha (Photo: Shekhar Ghosh)

"NMCG, NGBRA, Namami Gange. It is the same set of bureaucrats and technocrats who run them all. Prime Minister Modi no doubt means well, but Namami Gange has made no difference on the ground"

Again, there is no dearth of watchdogs ostensibly engaged in protecting the Ganga. There are the Central ministries of Ganga Rejuvenation and Environment, the NGRBA, the National Mission for a Clean Ganga, the National Green Tribunal and the Central Ground Water Authority, apart from the pollution control boards of the states through which the Ganga passes. The Supreme Court and the UP High Court have also issued orders relating to its upkeep. Why then is the river still in a sorry state? "The challenge is in maintaining the momentum over time and coordinating the different levels of government involved with the rivers as well as the users of its waters," says Genevieve Connors, Senior Water Resources Specialist, World Bank. "River rejuvenation is as much a function of multiple levels of government moving towards a common objective, as it is about competing users of water - sectors and departments - working in unison."

There is no shortage of plans and proposals. Ramesh estimates that more than 60 studies related to saving the Ganga have been carried out by different agencies. There is, for instance, an elaborate Ganga River Basin Management Plan, that cost Rs 16 crore, prepared by the IITs that envisages spending a staggering Rs 1,00,000 crore over the next 15 to 20 years to save the river. "One of our key proposals is building small STPs instead of big ones and locating them close to sewage drains," says Tare, who is also the coordinator of the plan. He is also an advocate of Zero Liquid Discharge. "Treat the sewage and recycle the water," he says. "We should not let wastewater enter the river at all." The initial investment might appear large, but he believes it will be economical in the long term.

But the chances of such unconventional reports being considered - let alone implemented - are dim. "There is no one in the government who has even found the time to read the report," says Tare. It is an indication of the sharp differences over the Ganga that some believe ignoring the IIT report may be the right thing to do. "It offers only technological solutions and technology is just one part of the Ganga's solution," says river activist Himanshu Thakkar, himself an IIT Bombay alumnus. "The core problem is governance. Until proper laws are enforced, Ganga pollution can never be controlled." So what laws are needed? The Ganga Mahasabha has been suggesting a National River Conservation Act and the setting up of a National River Protection Force, apart from demarcating land on either bank of the Ganga that would belong to the river and be unavailable for construction. But even with the right laws, implementation would be a humdinger, given that water is a state subject.

Going with the Flow

There is also more to rejuvenating the Ganga than merely cleaning it up. It requires restoring its total health - or aviral dhara as former minister Ramesh puts it. It has many aspects but the most important is maintaining a 'minimum environmental flow'. "It was the aviral dhara concept that led to the 132-km stretch from the Ganga's origin at Gaumukh to Uttarkashi being declared an ecologically sensitive zone where no commercial activity would be allowed," says Ramesh.

For further protection, he also stalled a number of hydroelectric projects using Ganga waters. "NTPC's Loharinag Pala hydropower project was 40 per cent complete when we took the unpopular decision of cancelling and compensating NTPC," adds Ramesh. Two other such projects, at Bhairon Ghati and Pala Maneri, were stopped, while another, at Vishnugarh-Pipalkoti, was redesigned to ensure more than minimum flow. But Ramesh may have stepped in too late. While environmentalists believe that at least 32 per cent of the original waters of a river constitute minimum environmental flow, and that over 50 per cent is desirable, the Ganga's minimum flow is barely around 5 per cent.

Namami Gange's generous funding notwithstanding, this is unlikely to change. Experts say it is far more important for the government to meet its 2022 deadline of 'Electricity for All' - as promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi - if need be by adding more power projects to the Ganga, than restoring the river's flow. And while none can doubt Ganga Rejuvenation Minister Uma Bharati's sincerity in protecting the river - Ramesh revealed that she was one of the staunchest supporters of his Ganga mission, despite being part of the Opposition then - insiders note that she no longer carries the clout she used to. (Bharati did not respond to repeated Business Today requests for an interview.)

Vinod Tare, Professor, IIT - Kanpur

"The bureaucratic mindset is to just use up funds if they are available under some scheme, without any coordination between departments or independent impact assessment"

Similarly, some environmentalists feel that both the courts and the government no longer accord the kind of priority to saving the Ganga as they did earlier. A Supreme Court order in August 2013 had suggested that no new hydroelectric projects in Uttarakhand's para-glacial region should be considered. "Its interpretation, however, has been since modified by the same court to restrict the ban to only those 24 projects relating to which the earlier judgement was given," says Mallika Bhanot, who heads the NGO, Ganga Ahavaan. "Supreme Court orders passed in August 2014 and November 2015 have opened the scope for new hydropower projects in that area."

Bhanot says, in December 2014, the Ministry of Environment, in a submission to the Supreme Court, had agreed that no new hydropower projects should be allowed in the para-glacial region. "But soon after a meeting of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) in January 2015, six fresh projects are expected to be cleared," she says (see Wrong Signals). The Uttarakhand government's Jal Vidyut Nigam has identified another 450 potential projects - 92 have been commissioned, of which 38 are under construction. "With so many new dams, almost no river flow will be left." Uttarakhand has 76 hydropower projects in the para-glacial region.

Is it worth killing a river just to extract the maximum hydropower from it? "There should be a cost-benefit analysis first," says environmentalist Bharat Jhunjhunwala. He himself carried out such an analysis of one of the hydropower stations, 'Kotlibhel 1B'. He found that while the benefit in terms of power and employment generation was Rs 155.5 crore, the environmental, health and livelihood cost was Rs 798.7 crore. "The problem is that the environmental cost is never monetised," he says. These can be manifold - Jhunjhunwala notes, for example, that the prized mahasir variety of fish in the river has been shrinking in size because it is unable to migrate as freely as before. "Holding the Ganga waters in a reservoir and releasing only a minimal amount is not the same as aviral flow," he adds. He says that the blocking of the original river starts at the Maneri Bhali 1 project on the Bhagirathi River (which later combines with the Alakananda and is called the Ganga).

Indeed, the Ganga's tributaries, too, deserve more attention. "There will be no rejuvenation of the Ganga if its largest tributary, the Yamuna, is not tackled at the same time," says Mishra of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. "The Yamuna runs for 1,400 km, but after its first 178 km, and well before it enters Delhi, it has ceased to exist. What enters Delhi is not the Yamuna but sewage water, since the waters have been diverted to the Western and Eastern Yamuna canals, with only 160 cusecs allowed to pass through at the Hathnikund barrage in the name of minimum environmental flow. Similarly, with the Ganga, there is no flow left after the Narora dam."

Finally, the Ganga's religious sanctity also requires taking its aviral dhara more seriously. "Electricity and irrigation are all very well, but it is the government's responsibility to ensure that the original flow is maintained at all costs," says spiritual leader Morari Bapu. He and others recall a historical agreement the British rulers entered into in 1916, at the insistence of Madan Mohan Malaviya, while they were building the first Ganga canal, by which all Ganga projects planned upstream of Haridwar would have to seek the consent of the Hindu community first. However, this rarely happens.

The NDA government has plans for interlinking rivers and reviving inland river waterways, none of which can work unless the rivers have sufficient flow. Some of these suggestions make no sense to experts. Thakkar recalls that at the Ganga Manthan festival in July 2014, Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Shipping, had said that large stretches of the Ganga would be made navigable, with a barrage every 100 km. "Such barrages will only kill the river further," he says.

Again, the Sabarmati River in Gujarat is often held up by the NDA as an instance of successful rejuvenation, but many have warned that the same approach will not work with the Ganga. "The amount of silt and sand in the Ganga is different, the aquatic life is different, the variations in flow, the pattern of the monsoons in the North and in the West, are all different," says Tare of IIT Kanpur.

Whatever specific solutions are considered, aviral dhara is the key. "If the flow is maintained, the nirmalta (cleanliness and clarity) of the river water is automatically ensured," says Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. "We have spent 30 years trying to clean the Ganga and 20 years doing the same with the Yamuna; both rivers have gone from bad to worse. The mistake was in believing that fixing the sewage would ensure the river's health. It did not. The Ganga is dying due to various factors such as dwindling flow, artificial barriers, loss of catchment vegetation, encroachments on its flood plains, massive extraction of sand from its banks and more. Sewage is far from being the only problem."

Rajendra Singh, hailed as the 'Waterman of India' for his work in greening Alwar district in Rajasthan, and a former member of the NGRBA, notes that the Ganga is repeatedly used as a political tool even as its welfare is neglected. He says that the idea of cleaning the Ganga first came during the 1972 'First Earth Summit' at Stockholm, when PM Indira Gandhi was shown how the Stockholm River was decontaminated. She asked her officers to take note of it, so the Ganga could be cleaned similarly. After her death, Rajiv Gandhi found it in Indira's notes, and that's how, for the first time, Ganga found mention in the 1984 Congress election manifesto. "Narendra Modi played the Ganga card while contesting from Varanasi in the last Lok Sabha poll, mentioned the river in many of his speeches and created a special ministry for it," he says. "But what has the ministry done so far? This government talks of interlinking rivers and building hydropower projects rather than aviral dhara. That is because there is a lot of money in exploiting the Ganga through dams and power projects or even by trying to clean it up. There is little money in letting it flow."