Foxed by the Ganga

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The Sisamau Nala in Kanpur discharges the largest amount of untreated waste into the Ganga

In a shocking lapse of duty, the NGT has found that those responsible for the Namami Gange project were not only ignorant about basic information about the river but had conflicting versions of it 

By Ramesh Menon

What is the status of the humongous Rs 20,000 crore that the center allocated under the Namami Gange project to clean the polluted Ganga? How much has been carelessly spent? Are they any results to show? This and many other vexing questions were raised by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in a series of back-to-back hearings this fortnight.

The Tribunal was hearing the views of various parties that were called in after a petition was filed by environment activist and lawyer MC Mehta who claimed that the pollutants in the Ganga were violating the fundamental rights of people who lived around it. He said that all the authorities responsible for the cleaning had done nothing till date and had been sitting on funds allocated by the central government. He was referring to the first phase of the project which was to cover a stretch of 180 km from Haridwar to Kanpur, which is one of the most polluted.

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POINTED QUESTIONS

When the matter came up before the NGT, the Court asked pointed questions to the authorities concerned like the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), UP State Pollution Board, UP Jal Nigam, the government of Uttarakhand and others. These were:

  • How many industries are there in UP?
  • What is the quantum of discharge of the industrial waste & sewage?
  • What is the content of affluent of industrial waste and sewage?
  • Which are the functional drainage lines and where do they discharge?
  • What is the actual quantum of effluent?
  • Is all the polluted water treated under the Zero Liquid Discharge policy which means that the water can be cleaned and recycled for use?

Interestingly, various government authorities provided conflicting figures to the Court and these changed with every hearing. Initially, the UP government said that it had 6,671 industries. Out of them, 1,585 are highly polluting ones, 2,103 were less polluting and 1,899 were non-polluting as per the environmental norms. In the next hearing, the figures changed. The highly polluting ones rose to 2,208 and the less polluting ones shot up to 2,290. The non-polluting ones fell to 1,887.

Ragpickers collect plastic waste from the Ganga. Photo: UNI
Ragpickers collect plastic waste from the Ganga. Photo: UNI

Chairperson of the NGT Justice Swatanter Kumar pulled them up and said that they should not play with the Tribunal’s patience as it would not hesitate to send the officers to jail if they erred with their information. He said: “We regretfully know that the knowledge of the officers of the subject is pathetic and we order the state to take action against all those useless officers and submit a report to the tribunal.”

Justice Kumar said the authorities did not even know how many drains were being emptied into the Ganga and did not even have basic information about pollution sources that were damaging the river. It was the duty of the Pollution Control Board to check and control the effluents that flowed in the drains, he said.

BRAIN-DRAIN?

The observation came after the CPCB told the NGT that there were 30 main drains which flowed into Ganga or its main tributaries like East Kali, Kosi and Ramganga. However, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board claimed there were 172 drains, of which 150 directly joined Ganga and its tributaries. The UP Jal Nigam claimed there were 83 drains that flowed into the Ganga. According to the UP government, 1,382.36 million liters of sewage is generated every day, but only 300 million liters get treated. The rest flows into the river untreated, destroying aquatic life and endangering life.

Earlier, the Tribunal had imposed a complete ban on the use of plastic from Gomukh to Haridwar along the river and imposed a penalty of Rs 5,000 per day on erring hotels, dharamshalas and ashrams spewing waste into the river.

A recent RTI query by Aishwarya Sharma, a 14-year-old Lucknow girl, revealed that Rs 2,958 crore had been spent in the last two years to clean the Ganga.

The bench hearing the case pointed out that the Tribunal could not come to any conclusion until the quantum and quality of sewage details are available. This was a moot point as the authorities have a statutory duty to maintain records.

DIFFERENT VERSIONS

As there were conflicting figures and the officials were not ready to stand by them, Justice Kumar constituted a committee to identify how many drains emptied into the Ganga and its tributaries. The members of the committee are: member secretary, CPCB, chief engineer, Jal Nigam and senior environmental officer, UP Pollution Control Board. Their job would be to identify the drains and the effluent content in the stretch between Haridwar to Kanpur.

Effluents from tanneries pollute the Ganga in Kanpur
Effluents from tanneries pollute the Ganga in Kanpur

Angered by the casual attitude of officials from Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand who could not provide reliable details of pollution in the river, the NGT had asked the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation through the National Ganga River Basin Authority not to release funds to both states without its approval.

The case will now be heard daily as it has reached the stage where the Tribunal is hearing the final arguments by various authorities on the mechanism to clean the Ganga. The Tribunal came down heavily on the Uttar Pradesh government for wasting crores of public money on Ganga rejuvenation and restrained it from spending on any major project except maintenance work on the stretch from Haridwar to Kanpur. Clearly, officials will now have to seriously focus on the work at hand if any more money is to be released for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project.

COLOSSAL WASTE

A recent RTI query by Aishwarya Sharma, a 14-year-old Lucknow girl, revealed that Rs 2,958 crore had been spent in the last two years to clean the Ganga since the Modi government came to power. The query showed that funds that the center had allocated for this period had not even been fully spent.

Another RTI query revealed that a whopping Rs 43.85 lakh was spent on one meeting of the National Mission for Clean Ganga at Vigyan Bhawan in Delhi. Out of this, Rs 26.7 lakh was spent on accommodation for guests, Rs 8.8 lakh on their travel, Rs 5.1 lakh on advertising the event and Rs 75,000 on floral decorations. Attempts to get official reactions to the misuse and lack of coordination in the project met with no response.

The Ganga is a lifeline for more than 500 million people along its banks and the ecosystem it supports. Noted environmentalist Vandana Shiva had said: “If the Ganga lives, India lives. If the Ganga dies, India dies.”                                

—With inputs from Kamran Alam

Lead Picture: The Sisamau Nala in Kanpur discharges the largest amount of untreated waste into the Ganga