How will Prime Minister Narendra Modi face Maa Ganga whom he vowed in 2014 that he would clean up by 2019? A perceptibly clean Ganga could enhance Modi’s credibility as someone who can be trusted to deliver. But, as the Green Tribunal recently rued, “Not a single drop of the Ganga has been cleaned”.

The government admitted in Rajya Sabha recently that the river doesn’t meet even bathing quality in Haridwar, districts Kannauj to Allahabad, and Berhampore (Murshidabad district) to Diamond Harbour (South 24 Parganas).

Again, the CAG’s December 2017 report reveals that coliform levels in all river-abutting cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal were up to 334 times higher than the level deemed acceptable by the Central Pollution Control Board. It added that project reports for 1,397 mld (million litre/day) STP (sewage treatment plant) capacity have not been finalised, which were committed to be completed by September 2016.

As the clean-Ganga mission has been in place for 40 years, it is known what went wrong and what was needed to be fixed. Instead, the Namami Gange project continued to languish in lethargy and inertia. The main issues got lost in specious technicalities, flagrant violation of laws, ubiquitous corruption, and absence of co-ordination between the Centre ans States.

It has gathered momentum only after Minister Nitin Gadkari was entrusted with the Ganga Rejuvenation project. But his claim at the recent Global Business Summit in Delhi that the Ganga will be 80 per cent cleaner by March 2019 appears exaggerated.

Three-fourths of Ganga’s pollution emanates from municipal sewage of some 100 cities and towns, , besides thousands of villages located along its banks, stretching over 2,525 km. As the Census 2011 revealed, there are at least 18 million septic tanks and 10 million pit latrines around the main Ganga stream, which dispose of untreated faecal sludge into the river. As much as 12 billion litre of sewage flows into Ganga and its tributaries every day; 53 per cent of it untreated.

Draining into the Ganga

Construction of around 1.5 million toilets in rural areas along the Ganga, besides another 1.45 million toilets in urban areas under the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, are likely to produce 180 mld of faecal sludge which too will find its way into the Ganga. Then there is the run-off from the 6 million tonne of fertilisers and 9,000 tonne of pesticides used in agriculture within the basin.

The stretch between Rishikesh in Uttrakhand and Rajmahal in Bihar poses major problems. A cluster of some 400 tanneries around Kanpur spew highly toxic effluents into the river. The 13 drains at Allahabad discharge about 120 mld of sewage; Naini and Phulpur industrial areas compound the problem.

Over 80 per cent of Varanasi’s 36-lakh population remains un-sewered; one-third of it lives in slums; 15 per cent having no access to toilets. Patna chokes the Ganga with urban sewage, industrial waste, sand and brick dust. Kolkata adds another about 1,350 mld of sewage into the Hooghly, besides some 150 large industrial units belching effluents, and over 300 drains carrying sludge into the river.

Cremation in Kashi and immersing ashes in the Ganga have been a matter of faith for generations. Some 33,000 bodies are cremated annually on its banks in Varanasi alone. Thousands of animal carcasses and hundreds of human corpses are released into the river every day.

Albeit an approved outlay of ₹20,000 crore for Namami Gange, which includes an integral element focused on “strengthening public participation” and improved Centre-State coordination, the high decibel clean-Ganga campaign could well have been seized by the BJP to galvanise its followers, associating faith with rendering holy river swachchha , making it a people’s movement.

There are several lessons to be learnt from a project that has been pursued for decades. Besides trying out some of the proven indigenous and affordable technologies, there is need to first plan for drains that discharge into the Ganga, before planning STPs.

So also the need for plans for treated effluents: not to treat and put back treated waste water into open drains, where it is again mixed with untreated waste. It is well known how the STPs lie dormant. With a view to integrating the existing sewage treatment infrastructure in a city with new STPs to be built under PPP mode, the Union Ministry has now planned that the selected contractor will be paid 40 per cent of the amount initially, and the balance over 15 years, to ensure that the STP is maintained “properly and meets the Ministry’s affluent discharge norms”.

Rivers have a self-cleansing ability. The minimum flow is the very life-blood to sustain riverine ecosystems.

As Ganga reaches the plains, it receives only waste, and turns into a sewer. Large barrages at Haridwar, Bijnor and Narora divert the river flow. Scores of hydropower projects planned on the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi in Uttarakhand pose a threat to Himalayan ecology and acutely impact Ganga’s aviral dhara.

The main chink has been ineffective implementation of policies. In UP, for example, almost all industries inspected by the CPCB in 2013 were in breach of the standards. It is imperative to stamp out wanton breach of the laws and rules with effective deterrence, and ruthlessly deal with official connivance or neglect.

The benefits of a clean-up

Cleaning up the rivers requires to be freed from the clutches of bureaucracy. A clean Ganga will not only provide multiple user benefits by way of recreation and health, rise in land value, but also enable increased yields for farmers, fishermen and labourers. Each STP can function as a resource recycling unit, producing energy, manure, poultry feed.

India Inc. needs to be enticed to forge public-private partnerships for installing and maintaining large STPs, besides launching schemes for cultural and tourist-interest activities, including development, maintenance and management of ghats, without impairing the sanctity and dignity of the river.

As Victor Mallet in his River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future says, even some of Modi’s strongest supporters are disappointed that he has not done more. Timely and successful completion of the clean-Ganga project would raise the country’s stature and yield enormous political dividend to the government. But mere platitudes will not help. What is needed is grit and determination.

The writer is a former CMD of Concor