FOR countless millions, the ‘tripathgamini’ Ganga, the story of India’s civilization, is a river of eternal faith and deliverance, a ‘baitarni’. The promise to purify ‘the mother Ganga’, declared one among 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 (WR, RD and GR) and launched the Namami Gange Programme for rejuvenation of the Ganga in May 2015. The drive to clean the Ganga is not new as the Ganga Action Plan-I (GAP-I) was first started in 1985 and augmented in 1993 (GAP-II). Taken together, the Government of India invested Rs 4,168 crore on pollution control, maintenance of environmental flows and conservation. Since the measures proved grossly deficient and mindful of the enormity of the challenge, 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 purpose.
The consortium of seven IITs which prepared the Ganga River Basin Management Plan estimated that total sewage generation of the 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 MoEF&CC, total estimated sewage offloaded into the Ganga is 7,301 as against the available capacity of 2,126 MLD, leaving a gap of 5,175 MLD. There are 764 grossly polluting industries such as tanneries, pulp and paper, sugar, textiles, chemicals, etc., generating 501 MLD of waste water, substantial part of which is being allowed to flow into the river. Notably, the 11 Ganga basin states account for 45 per cent of the total chemical fertilizer consumption in the country, amounting to 10 million tonnes per year. The agricultural runoff poses serious danger as nitrogen and phosphorus eventually drain into surface and subsurface water which feed the Ganga river system, including the aquifers. Whether the occurrence of arsenic in the Gangetic plains down Unnow in UP, adversely affecting millions of people, is due to geogenic or anthropogenic reasons or both, is yet to be established. Another major pollutant is the Municipal Solid Waste, an estimated 14,000 tonnes per day, generated from cities/towns situated on the main stem of the Ganga, which, if not treated and disposed of properly, enters the water bodies and the rivers, choking them and threatening aquatic life.
Interception, diversion and treatment of sewage is therefore required before the treated water is discharged back into the river. But due to unconscionable delay in land acquisition, adverse weather conditions, court cases and want of funds, etc., the work of STPs at Badrinath, Deoprayag, Karanprayag, Rudraparyag, Joshimath, Kannauj, Begusarai, Buxar, Hajipur and Munger sanctioned between 2008 to 2010 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 punishment.
Interestingly, as testified by experts, human excreta if thrown in the soil become manure and if discharged into water, poison the water. Toilets need more water to flush the excreta and the flushed excreta pollutes the water in a big way and it involves a huge and recurring cost to convert the polluted water into pure or semi-pure water. The problem is likely to aggravate as India becomes from a water-stressed country to a water-scarce country.
NIRMALTA and aviralta require an adequate environmental flow (e-flow). An environmental flow, the soul of the river, is a water regime needed to maintain the ecological integrity of a river for survival of its biota from onslaught of anthropogenic interventions. E-flow helps in self-purification of the river, sustains aquatic life and vegetation, recharges ground water and supports livelihood. As early as 1916, the Britishers were compelled by Pt. Madan Mohan Malviya and the Indian Princes to secure release of 1000 cusec water continuously at Haridwar to ensure the ‘Aviral Ganga’. The agreement subsists in view of article 363 of the Constitution but only in breach. Shockingly, no norms for e-flows have been stipulated as yet. Different institutions / committees have suggested e-flows ranging from 20-50 per cent during the lean season and 20-30 per cent, during the non-lean season for the Ganga. Since the Ganga remains dry over long stretches and the unbearable pollution load, many aquatic species are on the verge of extinction or have disappeared. Worse, the dams have divided the Ganga into two separate parts, obstructing aquatic movement and spawning. Hydrologists like Prof. Tare of IIT Kanpur and Prof. U.R. Chaudhary, founder of Madan Mohan Malviya Institute of River Hydrology and ex-professor IIT Mumbai and BHU and, other experts who deposed before the committee, termed free aquatic movement as the barometer of the health of the river.
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. Such water bodies recharged the groundwater and the groundwater in turn charges the river in lean months The Indian irrigation system was based on sound traditional water management techniques. The ancient system of water preservation in ‘tals’ ’khals’ and ‘chals’ and ‘bawries’, etc, was an effective time-tested method of rainwater harvesting. The water so collected, met local needs round the year, created forest cover, charged the groundwater and was a steady source of water to the tributaries. For instance, such a community revived the ‘Gad Ganga’, extinct for 70-80 years in Uttarakhand. Experts were unanimous in their view that tanks, lakes and water bodies in the catchment areas are an integral part of the hydrological cycle which must be restored and conserved.
Whether navigation would affect the purity and flow of the Ganga, the Shipping Ministry submitted that navigation is a non-consumptive use of water and, therefore, navigation would neither be helpful nor harmful for rejuvenation of the Ganga. It was also stated that maintenance dredging for navigation purpose in totality does not affect significantly the hydro-morphological parameters of the Ganga. However, according to one view, the movement of barges/inland vessels in the rivers improves the BOD by agitation of the water. It was also submitted that the current practice of sand mining in the river Ganga and its tributaries is seriously damaging aquatic flora and fauna. Since sand and gravel filter and purify the water, there is a strong need for evolving a sand mining policy for the Ganga and its tributaries.
About the impact of river front development and beautification, Prof. Tare and Prof. Chaudhary said that the Ganga should flow in its natural form and as far as possible. ‘Channelizing and plastering will not be good for the health of the river’. Hydrologists were unanimous that the natural sand embankments and the flood plains must not be altered, damaged or encroached upon so as to conserve the self-cleaning character of the river. Experts also clarified that burnt human ashes, instead of polluting, purify the river.
The Ganga bears no comparison with any river of the world because of its highest point of origin, steep gradient, kinetic energy and water quality. Prof. Chaudhary referred to the difference of 75 km between the origin points of the Ganga and the Yamuna and the material difference in the colour of their waters, Ganga water is completely ‘whitish’ and Yamuna water ‘blue’, signifying that the quality, quantity and dynamics of every river system like the human system is different. He regretted that dams have been built without adequate knowledge of the anatomy, morphology and cross section of the river. Himalayan rocks are sedimentary, fragile; the region has steep slopes and is an active seismic zone. For example, the height of the Three Gorges Dam (TGD) in China is 181 metres and the Tehri Dam is 260.5 meters but the reservoir of TGD is 660 km and of Tehri Dam, 44 km. The Himalayan slopes are 18 times steeper than the slopes of TGD. Slope defines energy but due to the 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 18000 MW in TGD. Creation of huge water bodies in active seismic zone induces seismicity. Incontrovertibly, reservoir sedimentation increases water density, changes the water colour and reduces, more markedly, its oxygen content deteriorating the water quality.
Another matter of constant concern in Parliament has been the proposed construction of 450 big and small hydro power projects in Uttarakhand. Malika Bhanot of Ganga Ahwaan, an Uttarkashi based NGO, rued the construction of bumper-to-bumper hydro projects. It was claimed that 53 per cent of river Bhagirathi is completely affected, impacted and gone, despite the assurance of ecological flow and aviralta of the Ganga. Cutting, crushing, blasting, tunneling and mining in the sensitive-fragile Himalayas is 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 in despair. Besides, due to blasting, many water springs have disappeared.
The witness also quoted from the affidavit filed in the Supreme Court by the Government containing the findings of an expert committee. It was submitted that ‘the construction of hydro power projects in ‘Ganga, Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins has overburdened the local ecology’ and 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 hydro power projects’ enhance landslides and other disasters.’
IT’S shocking that 115 km of the Ganga has been diverted completely into tunnels and lakes in Uttarakhand, depriving the people of the glimpse of the Ganga. People have to plead with the construction companies to release some water for performing the last rites of their deceased dear ones or other sacred religious ceremonies.
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, the Ganga waters after Rishikesh is no longer the same legendary Ganga jal. Though the Ministry of Power attempted to clarify that the survey 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 other findings and concerns remain unaddressed.
The nation needs energy and hydropower gives clean, green and renewable energy. The nirmalta and aviralta of the Ganga and the hydropower can go hand in hand with suitable structural changes in dam designs. 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. The article is based on the 15th Report of the Estimates Committee, 16th Lok Sabha.