As the Ganga emerges from the glaciers and glides along the foothills of the mighty Himalayas through the towns and cities with their sprawling ghats, engineered embankments, hydroelectric dams, and interrupted flows at barrages, the icy chilliness of its waters is lost. Pilgrims swarm its bank to pay obeisance to the holy river but the river continues to be treated as a dump yard for human waste, dirt and rubbish. Civilisations have developed along its banks but cities and villages today dispose of industrial and municipal waste making it the second most polluted river in the world.
The Ganges serves over 500 million people in over a hundred cities and towns and thousands of villages, more than any other river in the world.
The source of the river today is diminishing. The rate of retreat of Gaumukh, the snout of the Gangotri glacier has increased sharply since 1971. The rise in rainfall, heightened temperature and dwindling snowfall in the area has led to the melting of the glacier. Small glacial lakes like the one in Chorabari that led to the June 2013 flood in Kedarnath have formed on top of the glacier.
The Knightlabs storymap 'Ganga in trouble' can be viewed here
Barrages built on the Ganga through colonial times such as at Haridwar, Bijnor, Narora and Kanpur to serve the irrigation requirements of vast tracts of the area have diminished the river flow, reducing its ability to assimilate waste. Downstream of these, the Farakka barrage, originally built to divert fresh water into the Hooghly river to maintain the Kolkata port, is a cause of tension between Bangladesh and India.
Hydel projects cause harm to the living ecosystem
As per reports, 300 dams are planned on the Ganges and its tributaries in the near future. This, despite a government-commissioned green panel report’s (2012) recommendation on scrapping 34 dams citing environmental concerns. Expressing doubts about plans to expand hydropower generating capacity in Uttarakhand, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) too had recommended in 2013 that the dams planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers, the two main tributaries of the Ganga in Uttarakhand, should not be allowed as they will cause irretrievable harm to the river by submerging substantial areas and tampering its ecology. Dams and the ensuing fragmentation of rivers pose a threat to fish species, in both mountain areas and plains.
As it passes through the Gangetic plains, the river collects untreated municipal sewage water and industrial effluents from countless tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, coal plants, slaughterhouses, and hospitals. Though industrial effluents constitute only 12 percent of the total volume of effluent reaching the river, they are a cause of concern because they are toxic and non-biodegradable. The stretch from Kanpur to Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh) and from Dakshineshwar to Uluberia (West Bengal) show very high pollution levels.
Ganga rejuvenation flawed: From GAP to Namami Gange
The Ganga Action Plan or GAP was first launched in 1985 and saw two extensions. Thousands of crores of rupees were spent on the world’s most ambitious river cleaning programme in over 30 years but the river continued to get dirtier. Sewage accounts for 85 percent of its pollution load while 500 million litres of untreated industrial waste is added to the river daily. These pose a significant risk to the people and the environment. The flow of the river is hardly maintained and hence, dealing with pollutants is impossible.
Sewage treatment plants, the mainstay of GAPs, were rendered dysfunctional due to faulty planning and execution, frequent power cuts and inadequate capacity of treatment plants to handle sewage. The sewage treatment plant at Kanpur lay idle owing to design issues and the gravity sewers were unable to carry the treated discharge to the Ganga.
In 2009, a new body called the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was set up. It was allocated Rs 7,000 crore for Ganga clean up. The Ganga was accorded the status of a national river and for the first time, the entire river basin formed the basis for planning and implementation. The ecological flow of the river was also taken into account. The goal? By 2020, no untreated municipal sewage or industrial effluent will flow into the Ganga.
A Parliamentary Committee on Environment and Forests in 2015 noted that the project was a failure as “the water quality of the Ganga has not shown any significant improvement either and it is deteriorating day by day. The quality of Ganga water downstream at several important locations, such as Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna continues to be a major concern for the environmentalist as well as the common man”.
A report of the consortium of Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) responsible for drawing up the Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP) suggests that at least 30-35 percent of the total volume of the waters of the Ganga needs to maintain a minimum flow. This flow was never maintained nor was the cleaning up of the river anywhere in sight, even with the Prime Minister swearing to clean up the river. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, rebuked the government for not being proactive on the issue. It would take 200 years to clean up the river at the current pace, the court noted.
The government in 2016 finalised the Namami Gange plan with much fanfare and an allocation of Rs 20,000 crore was made for the next five years. This is five times the total expenditure made so far under all the GAPs. It submitted a blueprint to the apex court outlining its plan to clean up the polluted river within 18 years. This comprised short, medium and long-term measures to clean the Ganga. A proper mechanism was to be put in place for the river in three years.
A performance audit of Namami Gange by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has revealed “underutilisation” of funds and “delays” in project approvals between 2014-15 and 2016-17. The National Mission on Clean Ganga (NMCG) was unable to finalise the long-term action plan even after more than six-and-a-half years of the signing of an agreement with the consortium of the IIT. “It is because of the lack of action plan that the NMCG does not have a river basin management plan, even after a lapse of more than eight years of the National Ganga River Basin Authority notification,” the CAG report notes.
Government’s new interest and its dreadful impact
There has been a shift in government investments—from expensive sewerage infrastructure in towns and cities to that on the waterway. A key thrust of the government is to convert the Ganga into a navigational channel with a series of barrages (every 100 km) and uniformly dredge the river to a depth of three to five metres. Barges can then ply coal, bauxite and even hazardous cargo from Varanasi to Haldia port.
Such tampering with the ecology of the river through dredging, channelisation, river straightening, building of barrages, locks, gates, terminals and concretising is unjustified. The project is continuing without environment clearances from the MoEFCC as it is not mandatory for the maintenance dredging of navigation channels in inland waterways.
These projects will be counterproductive for the Namami Gange programme. The IIT consortium which had prepared a detailed report for the government on how the Ganga could be cleaned up to restore its continuous and unpolluted flow has also objected to this. Steps for restoring the river’s ecology include restricting riverbed farming, stopping the plying of noisy vessels and dredging and also ending bank modifications as per the consortium report. There is a need to maintain the river’s ecological flow, tighten industrial pollution norms and rethink conventional sewage networks.