Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Ganga: Purifying the Purifier

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This mission, also called Namami Gange, was started in May 2015 with an outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore and aims for complete rejuvenation of the Ganga. But that seems easier said than done.

By Devender Singh Aswal

The story of the Ganga is the story of India’s civilization. For countless millions, the “Tri-path-gamini” (traveler of the three worlds) Ganga is a river of eternal faith. The promise to purify mother Ganga, declared one of the 10 most polluted rivers of the world, galvanized the electoral campaign of the 16th Lok Sabha. Elected to power, the new government rechristened the Water Resources Ministry as the Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, demonstrating its commitment to restoring its pristine form.

TOXIC RIVER- The Ganga has been converted into a sewer, carrying all manner of city waste and industrial effluents
TOXIC RIVER- The Ganga has been converted into a sewer, carrying all manner of city waste and industrial effluents

The drive to clean the river is not new as the Ganga Action Plan-I (GAP-I) was launched in 1985 and augmented in 1993 (GAP-II). Taken together, the government invested Rs. 4,168 crore on pollution control, maintenance of environmental flows and conservation under GAP-I and GAP-II. As the measures proved grossly deficient, the government constituted an Integrated Ganga Conservation Mission, called the Namami Gange in May 2015 with an outlay of Rs. 20,000 crore for the next five years. Namami Gange, aiming complete rejuvenation of the Ganga and its tributaries, is a convergence of all existing schemes and new interventions.


MATTERS OF FAITH- Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharati performing aarti at the Gandhi Ghat on the banks of Ganga in Patna
MATTERS OF FAITH- Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharati performing aarti at the Gandhi Ghat on the banks of Ganga in Patna

Rapid urbanization, industrialization and demographic pressures continue to pollute the Ganga. Seven IITs which together prepared the Ganga River Basin Management Plan estimated that total sewage generation of 11 basin states is 12,051 MLD as against the available treatment capacity of 5,717 MLD, leaving a gap of 6,334 MLD. As per the latest figures of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF & CC), the total estimated sewage offloaded into the Ganga is 7,301 MLD as against the available capacity of 2,126 MLD, leaving a gap of 5,175 MLD. There are 764 grossly polluting industries (GPIs) such as tanneries, pulp and paper, sugar, textiles and chemicals generating 501 MLD of waste water, a substantial part of which is allowed to flow into the river.

The tragedy of Ganga is that it has been converted into a sewer, carrying all manner of city waste, dangerous industrial effluents, toxic agricultural run-off and other non-point pollution. Notably, 11 Ganga basin states account for 45 percent of the total chemical fertilizer consumption, amounting to 10 million tons per year. The agricultural run-off poses serious danger as nitrogen and phosphorus eventually drain into surface and subsurface  water  which  feed  the Ganga river system. The occurrence of arsenic in the Gangetic Plains down Unnao in UP has severely affected millions of people.

Another major pollutant is the Municipal Solid Waste, an estimated 14,000 metric tons per day, generated from cities and towns situated on the main stem of the Ganga. This, if not treated and disposed of properly, enters water bodies and rivers and threatens aquatic life. This has to be treated. But due to unconscionable delay in land acquisition, adverse weather conditions, court cases and want of funds, the work of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) at Badrinath, Devprayag, Karnaprayag, Rudraprayag, Joshimath, Kannauj, Begusarai, Buxar, Hajipur and Munger continues to languish. Besides, there is sub-optimal performance of STPs and Sewage Pumping Stations (SPS), non-availability of funds for Operations & Maintenance (O&M) of sewerage works, erratic supply of electricity, unavailability of qualified manpower, lack of motivation for O&M staff and the reluctance to work in O&M plants which is seen as a punishment.

Also, an environmental flow is needed in the river. This is a water regime which is needed to maintain the ecological integrity of a river for survival of its biota (ecology) from the onslaught of anthropogenic interventions. E-flow helps in self-purification of the river, sustains aquatic life and vegetation, recharges ground water and supports livelihood. Incessant flow is the soul of the river.

WRONG POLICIES- It's said that 115 km of the Ganga have been diverted completely into tunnels and lakes in Uttarakhand, depriving the people of precious water
WRONG POLICIES- It’s said that 115 km of the Ganga have been diverted completely into tunnels and lakes in Uttarakhand, depriving the people of precious water


As early as 1916, Britishers were compelled by Pt Madan Mohan Malviya to secure the release of 1,000 cusec water continuously at Haridwar to ensure “Aviral Ganga” (free-flowing Ganga). The agreement subsists in view of Article 363 of the constitution but is being breached rampantly. It’s shocking that no accepted norms for e-flow have been stipulated as yet.  Different institutions and committees have suggested different quantities of e-flows ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent during the lean season and 20 percent to 30 percent, during the non-lean season respectively in the Ganga. As the Ganga remains dry over long stretches and has unbearable pollution load, many aquatic species are on the verge of extinction or have disappeared. Further, dams have divided the Ganga into two separate parts, obstructed aquatic movement and adversely affected the spawning of certain types of fish.

Water bodies such as lakes, ponds, tanks and streams play an important role in rejuvenating rivers. They accumulate rainwater and recharge groundwater, which in turn charges the river in the lean months. A renowned activist, Anupam Mishra, working in the field of water management and rejuvenation of water bodies, testified that there were 25 to 30 lakh ponds before the British came to India. The Indian irrigation system was based on sound traditional water management techniques. The ancient system of water preservation in tals, khals, chals and baweries was an effective time-tested method of rainwater harvesting.

According to one view, the movement of barges and inland vessels in the rivers improves the BOD (biochemical oxygen demand) by agitation of the water. It was also submitted that the current practice of sand mining in the Ganga and its tributaries is seriously damaging the aquatic flora and fauna. As sand and gravel filter and purify water, there is a strong need for evolving a sand mining policy for the Ganga and its tributaries. Hydrologists and experts were unanimous that natural sand embankments and flood plains must not be altered, damaged or encroached upon so as to conserve the self-cleaning character of the river.


Dams have been built without adequate knowledge of the anatomy, morphology and cross-section of the river. Himalayan rocks are sedimentary and fragile, the region has steep slopes and is an active seismic zone. For example, while the height of the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) in China is 181 m, that of Tehri Dam is 260.5 m. But the reservoir of TGD is 660 km and that of Tehri Dam, 44 km. The Himalayan slopes are 18 times steeper than the slopes of TGD. Slope defines energy but due to a high degree of sedimentation, comparatively small reservoir capacity and landslides in the Himalayas, the energy generation is much less—800 MW in Tehri as against 18,000 MW in TGD. Creation of huge water bodies in an active seismic zone induces seismicity, posing a threat to the structure as well as to human settlements. Besides, due to sedimentation of the dam reservoir, the density of water increases, its color changes and more markedly, its oxygen content.

Another matter of constant concern in parliament has been the proposed construction of 450 big and small hydropower projects in Uttarakhand. Malika Bhanot of Ganga Ahwaan, an Uttarkashi-based NGO, rued construction of bumper to bumper hydro projects and long dry stretches of the river bed due to water diversion. It was claimed that 53 percent of the river Bhagirathi is completely affected, impacted and gone. She said there was a prevailing sense of trepidation over the ongoing cutting, crushing, blasting, tunneling and mining in the sensitive-fragile Himalayas which were doing incalculable and irretrievable damage to the Himalayan ecology.

The locals, whose houses have developed cracks or have been pulverized by the blasting of the Loharinath-Pala, Pala-Maneri and Bhairon Ghaati projects, are despairing and anguished. Due to the blasting, many water springs had also disappeared.


Govind Pokhriyal of Ganga Ahwaan also quoted from an affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the government which contained the findings of an expert committee where it was submitted that “the construction of hydro power projects in Ganga, Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins has overburdened the local ecology”. It also said that there are “clear sightings of irreversible damages of environment in terms of loss of forest, degraded water quality, geological and social impact” and that these hydropower projects enhanced landslides and other disasters.

GROSS NEGLIGENCE-Dams like Tehri have been built without adequate knowledge of the anatomy, morphology and cross-section of the river
GROSS NEGLIGENCE-Dams like Tehri have been built without adequate knowledge of the anatomy, morphology and cross-section of the river

It’s shocking that 115 km of the Ganga have been diverted completely into tunnels and lakes in Uttarakhand, depriving the people of precious water. It was also submitted that by tampering with the waters right at the source, the most significant quality of the Ganga is being destroyed and therefore Gangajal after Rishikesh is no longer the same legendary Gangajal. Though the Ministry of Power attempted to clarify that surveys conducted by HNB Garhwal University, Botanical Survey of India and NEERI indicate that the Tehri reservoir has no adverse impact on the ecology of the surrounding area, yet the other findings and concerns remain unaddressed.

The nation needs energy and hydropower for clean, green and renewable energy. Ganga’s nirmalta and aviralta (purity of the water and unimpeded flow) and hydropower can go hand in hand with suitable structural changes. The committee has made a wide range of recommendations for rejuvenation of the Ganga.  Hopefully, the recommendations will receive earnest consideration and get implemented in mission mode for the success of Namami Gange.

—The author is Additional Secretary, Lok Sabha.

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