The Ganga Basin is the largest in the country, housing more than 40 per cent of India’s population. During the course of its journey of 2525 muddy kms from the pristine hills to the turbid seas, it is constantly and unthinkingly polluted with municipal and industrial effluents apart from toxic pesticides from the agricultural fields, not to mention open defecation, cattle wallowing, carcass dumping, etc. Dotting Ganga’s banks are over 30 large cities with populations well over a lakh and nearly 80 Class II and III cities with significantly high populace. Ganga, revered yet abused, is treacherously polluted, assuming perhaps that it would somehow remain unscathed. A cleaning programme, the Ganga Action Plan was launched in June 1985 to address the humongous problem, but it fell short of expectations as its implementation was piecemeal and focussed more on municipal sewage. Since then the challenges of unabated pollution too have risen with marked growth in industrialisation and urbanisation – leading to an unrelenting discharge of untreated wastewater into the river. The problem is compounded by inadequate flows – further exacerbated by deforestation in the catchment area with compounded soil erosion leading to river bed siltation and flooding. Also there are major apprehensions from large scale hydro electric projects coming up in the upper reaches of the river. The threat of global climate change and the effect of glacial melt on the Ganga flow raise issues that need a comprehensive response. Addressing such concerns in a holistic and integrated manner, a new approach on the basis of river basin planning was sought. Thus constituting a National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) is expected to rejuvenate the sacred Ganga.
Recognising the threat of environmental pollution of the river Ganga, the Central Government initiated the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985 for cleaning the river. Under GAP Phase I (1985-2000), pollution abatement works were taken up in 25 Class I towns of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal with an expenditure of Rs 452 crores, which among other works, created 869 million litres per day (mld) of sewage treatment capacity. Under the ongoing GAP Phase II, which commenced from 1993 in 59 towns of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, an expenditure of Rs 345.1 crores has been incurred on the pollution abatement works of the Ganga main channel, and a treatment capacity of 130 mld has been created. Apart from this, GAP-II also includes works on tributaries like Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and Mahananda.
GAP has been a mixed success – without doubt the situation would have been worse without the intervention. Bio-chemical oxygen demand (BOD) and dissolved oxygen (DO) values of water quality monitoring compared to pre GAP period show improvement, but the faecal coliform exceeds acceptable standards at major locations. A very significant factor, besides the critical deficiencies in the treatment capacities, is the inadequate flow in the river due to water extraction for various purposes including irrigation, drinking water supply and industrial use. A large proportion of the Ganga flow is diverted into the upper and lower Ganga canals resulting in meagre flows – the Hardwar-Allahabad stretch of the Ganga is indeed vulnerable.
Inadequate operation and maintenance has been a major cause of concern. Under utilisation of the Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs), in some instances due to non conveyance of the sewage to the STPs, particularly in the absence of upstream systems such as branch sewer and house sewer connections, is also a serious constraint. Lack of coordination among various agencies at the centre, state and local levels, delay in acquisition of land, contractual issues, court cases, erratic power supply, inadequate capacities of local bodies/agencies, are some of the other bottlenecks. The spread of the resources under the programme has also been thin keeping in view that GAP was merged with the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP) in 1996, which now covers works on 35 rivers in 164 towns spread over 20 states.
In the Ganga basin that represents 26 per cent of the Indian landmass, approximately 12,000 mld sewage is generated, for which there is a treatment capacity of 4,000 mld at present. Approximately 2,600 mld of sewage is discharged into the main channel of the river Ganga from the Class I and II towns located along the banks, for which a treatment capacity of 999 mld has been created till date under GAP Phase I and II. The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 per cent but due to its toxic and non biodegradable nature, this assumes great significance. The industrial pockets in the catchments of Ramganga and Kali rivers and in Kanpur city are significant sources of industrial pollution. The major contributors are tanneries in Kanpur, distilleries, paper mills and sugar mills in the Kosi, Ramganga and Kali river catchments.
It is difficult to maintain the ecological flow of Ganga, especially when a large proportion of it gets diverted into the upper and lower Ganga canals resulting in meagre flow downstream in the main channel. The STPs as per existing technologies treat wastewater upto BOD of 30 mg per litre. This requires ten times dilution to reach the bathing standards of 3 mg per litre of BOD. In addition, the discharge of industrial effluents having high BOD requires greater efforts for bringing the water quality to the prescribed bathing standards. The flow of the Ganga, therefore, assumes significance making it desirable to take up augmentation of water in the river through storage projects.
National Ganga River Basin Authority
The central government decided that the river basin would be the unit of planning that would integrate actions related to pollution abatement and sustainable use of water. Consequently, in February 2009 the NGRBA was set up at the national level as a planning, coordinating, financing and monitoring authority for the Ganga River under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 with the Ministry of Environment and Forests as the nodal Ministry. The central government would place a corpus with NGRBA to enable it to initiate the implementation of its mandate. The activities to be taken up by the Authority will include – carrying out detailed studies and surveys for development of river basin management plan, including determination of pollution loads and minimum ecological flows in the Ganga; and taking up priority river conservation works in pollution hotspots and important towns like Haridwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, etc within the shortest time.
The NGRBA would identify the pollution sources, build a database using scientific methods, analyse the data and ensure its sharing. The Authority will coordinate with the central and state governments to promote optimum utilisation of central and state budgetary sources for river conservation and pollution abatement works by dovetailing the existing schemes. It will encourage the state governments and the urban local bodies (ULBs) to tap the resources of the private sector and financial institutions. Since the existing allocations for pollution abatement and other required works in the Ganga Basin under the central and the state schemes are inadequate, and the objective of cleaning the river to the desired standards is to be achieved in a time bound manner, providing requisite budgetary support would be essential. Since water quality is directly impacted by abstraction, NGRBA may issue directions for taking appropriate measures with a view to ensuring minimum flows in the river in the interest of pollution control and environmental management. The Authority will also encourage states, ULBs, industry and farmers to increase water use efficiency and reuse wastewater after proper treatment.
The NGRBA is be chaired by the Prime Minister with chief ministers of the riverine states and the ministers of the relevant central ministries as members. The NGRBA would draw upon professional expertise within and outside the government for advice on techno-economic issues. The state governments may set up the State River Conservation Authorities (SRCAs) for coordinating and implementing the river conservation activities at the State level. These would function under the chairmanship of the chief minister. Based on the integrated basin management plans drawn by the NGRBA, the state governments will take steps for comprehensive management of the river in the states through their respective authorities.
The river cleaning programme can succeed with the active participation and ownership by the states. The state governments/ULBs are expected to generate resources through taxes, levies, cess, user charges, etc., for abatement of pollution in the rivers and for proper organisation and management of the assets created.
The State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs) created under the Water Act have also been delegated powers under the Environment (Protection) Act. Compliance of the environmental norms by the industries discharging the wastewater directly into the river Ganga is under the purview of SPCB, but due to capacity constraints, they are unable to effectively regulate pollution. It is, therefore, important to strengthen the SPCBs, with the Central Pollution Control Board coordinating on pertinent technical and regulatory matters. Community involvement will also be sought in river cleaning by the NGRBA. Local entities could be useful partners in implementation on account of their standing in the community and innovative, local level technological interventions and solutions will assist easy adaptation by the stakeholders.
Inputs: National River Conservation Directorate, Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt. of India (MoEF 2008-09/6)