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Cleaning up the Ganga

By Rashme Sehgal

In Varanasi alone, 2,000 million litres of sewage are dumped into the Ganga every day. And there are 47 other large towns situated along the Ganges. Mahant Virbhadra Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation explains his alternative plan to clean up the river

Time magazine has called him a "Hero of the Planet". Several other international organisations have praised Mahant Virbhadra Mishra's efforts to clean up the river Ganga. When President Clinton, during his visit to India, spoke on environmental issues in Agra it was Mishra who was asked to make the introductory speech.

A professor of hydraulics at Benaras Hindu University, Mishra is also the mahant of the famous Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

Mishra, who lives in Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi, rues the fact that India's holiest river has turned into a dirty drain. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP), kick-started by Rajiv Gandhi, was put in place to clean up the 2,500-km-long river. But, after the first phase of the plan was completed, not much has been happening on the ground.

Now that we have entered the second phase of the Ganga Action Plan, how is it working on the ground?
Rajiv Gandhi's Ganga Action Plan (GAP) started with a great deal of fanfare. The reason why this scheme was launched from the Dasahwamedh Ghat in Varanasi was because he (Rajiv Gandhi) wanted to highlight the city's importance.

The UP Jal Nigam was given the responsibility of conceptualising the plan. During the first phase, the government spent Rs 293 crore, of which Rs 50 crore was earmarked for Varanasi. During the second phase, launched in 1994, Rs 94 crore was allocated.

But what is the situation on the ground now?
The situation has become worse. The first phase of the GAP was completed between 1986 and 1993. No additional work has been done since to improve the situation. Systems that were put in place only serve to adversely affect the river.

Can you explain that in greater detail?
To be more specific, the systems that were put in place are not working at any level. There are 48 large towns situated along the Ganga. Of these, 29 have a population of over 100,000. We have been demanding that in all these bigger towns, including Kanpur, Mirzapur and Allahabad, sewage flowing into the river should be diverted into oxidation ponds. This is most urgently required in Benaras, as people sip water from the Ganga. They carry it home and keep it in their temples.

Few cities have such a blend of cultural tradition and science and technology as Benaras does. The Varanasi Nagar Nigam should be invested with the power to take care of the city's environment as also clean up the river. The 74th panchayati raj amendment was passed to strengthen local municipalities. Corporators took a unanimous decision, some years ago, to demand that the entire sewage flow between the Assi and Varuna rivers be stopped. This seven-kilometre stretch is where all the major ghats and religious temples are located. In fact, it forms the religious and cultural crucible of the nation.

The state and central governments should have heeded this decision. Unfortunately, the buck is being passed from one agency to another all the time.

My own NGO, the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF), offered an alternative solution to intercepting and diverting the flow of sewage. We devised a cost-effective and safe system of treating sewage and rotting human and animal carcasses by creating an advanced integrated wastewater pond system. This system does not rely on electric power but moves sewage into the ponds by force of gravity. The sewage is then treated biologically.

We need to put watertight interceptors in place so that the sewage can be taken outside the city. The present sewage pumps can hardly be described as effective as they do not work for over five months in the year. They do not work when there is no electricity, and we go without electricity for six to eight hours every day.

We believe that in Varanasi alone 2,000 million litres of sewage are being dumped into the Ganga, but officers belonging to the Central Board of Pollution claim the amount is 240 million litres per day. We have prepared our own data, based on population increase and other such details, but the central government prefers to go by the data prepared by the Central Board of Pollution.

Do all our rivers face the same problem?
As a scientist I must point out that river surface water remains our safest and cleanest water source. Groundwater today contains high levels of pollutants. The country needs to take a conscious decision not to allow our rivers to be used as dumping grounds for pollutants. Garbage dumping, sewage dumping, industrial dumping must all end. The government needs to take a statutory decision that our rivers will not be carriers of waste.

To turn the question around, let me explain it in a different way. Dumping waste into a river is taking the easy way out. Bangalore has no river and yet the municipality there has found a way of getting rid of its waste.

At present there are 114 major cities lining some of our larger rivers. During the first phase of the GAP, it was calculated that around 1,400 million litres of sewage were being dumped every day into the Ganga. Today, we can safely say the amount has substantially increased.

When so much waste is being dumped into the river, there are two significant fallouts. Levels of oxygen drop, and there is an increase in faecal coliform bacteria, which is the root course of all waterborne bacterial diseases. There is no aquatic life left in the water.

Why has the situation been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent?
There seems to be a merging of interests between politicians and the corporate sector. The local public has no voice in any of these schemes.

Your Sankat Morcha Foundation is in conflict with the UP Jal Nigam and you have taken them to court. All this litigation has put roadblocks in the cleanup of the Ganga...
We seriously question their approach. UP Jal Nigam have upped their ante and, from an initial Rs 43 crore, are now asking for Rs 245 crore to clean up the river. Our own plan costs are Rs 150 crore, with an annual maintenance cost of Rs 3 crore. UP Jal Nigam, on the other hand, are demanding Rs 12 crore as annual maintenance costs. We seriously question the setting up of the Dinapur plant to treat sewage. It has ended up with handpumps spewing black water in that area. We believe that four wastewater pond systems should be set up in Sota, located four kilometres from the Ganga. The water from the river can be pumped into the pond. Our integrated wastewater pond system is open to technical appraisal from any organisation.

The river is not polluted in its entire length. Just six to seven kilometres upstream from Benaras, faecal coliform levels are 70,000; but towards the end of the city levels are as high as 15,00,000.

At the moment the entire cleanup operation is being financed by a Japanese consortium...
The government has now set up a National River Conservation Directorate, and both the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Japan Bank of Cooperation are expected to give Rs 550 crore for the cleanup project. They do not want to use our expertise. They do not want to use cheaper technology, so let us see where it goes from here.

(Rashme Sehgal is a Delhi-based writer and journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2005