A much-delayed project

A much-delayed project

Cleaning THE GANGA

About 144 small town drains discharge 3,535 million litres sewage per day to Ganga while major towns generate 14,000 tonnes of solid waste.

By shifting a “performing” Union Minister of State for Agriculture Sanjeev Balyan to the Water Resources Ministry in the recent ministerial reshuffle, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to give the much-needed push to the Namami Gange program-me for cleaning the iconic Ganga along its 2,500 km route.

His urgency is understandable. The project is delayed and the Uttar Pradesh elections are almost round the corner. Balyan, with his influence amongst farmers in western UP is expected to prepare the ground for the changes that are coming in terms of paid water use and use of recycled water.

Recently, none other than veteran BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi, while releasing the report of the Parliamentary Committee on Estimates on Ganga River Rejuvenation, had expressed dissatisfaction with the progress of the Ganga cleaning programme.

The point he, as panel chairman, stressed was that a variety of stakeholders including the polluting industry, ministries concerned, basin states, urban municipalities and rural panchayats were involved in the task and although Modi heads the National Ganga River Basin Authority, more was needed to be done for an “integrated approach” to implement the Rs 20,000 crore programme.

Ganga, the senior BJP leader pointed out, was dying a slow death from the filth, untreated sewage and industrial effluents being discharged into it. Being from Alla-habad, the former Union minister is well versed with the problem. Joshi’s statem-ent was the first authoritative, public co-mments on the Namami Gange project.

His observations were not far from truth because the real task of unpolluting Ganga is virtually stalled for the last several months as the Ministry of Water Resources, Rivers Development and Ganga Rejuvenation – as the ministry is now called – is in a dilemma. It is in a fix over the revenue model it must adopt for treatment of sewage in 118 towns that discharge the bulk of the domestic waste into the river as it meanders through 11 states along its route.

The impasse is on whether to empower and fund state municipalities to find the land, construct Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) and more importantly, regularly maintain and monitor them, or to go in for a public-private partnership (PPP) model in a hybrid annuity-based implementation over 15 years, which might be costlier.

The PPP proposal conceives setting up of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) under the National Mission for Clean Ganga to serve as a single point company to manage the private sector competitive bidding process and infrastructure facilitation, on the one hand and the involvement of Central public sector utilities and municipalities in the states, on the other.

The government is mulling a plan to offer to private domestic or international bidders an entire city or a cluster of municipalities by paying 40% capital cost upon commissioning and the balance, combined with operations cost, over 15 years, on the condition that the operator meets the prescribed standards. What the proposal lacks, though, is recovery of costs by the government, which on paper is through sale of treated water.

Addressing the media recently, Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti emphasised that almost every project, whether it is development of river front, cleaning of ghats or modifying crematoria etc, will be in the PPP mode. To this, some of the experts have expressed reservations as the sale of sewage treated water, be it for irrigation or industry, is still nascent, controversial and a politically sensitive issue.

Apart from that, the sale of sewage water in itself will require a distribution network, financing of which is hazy in the PPP model and may escalate costs. Some experts feel that the land acquisition process for STPs and related network can stall a project leaving the government paying the annuity installment without getting the asset.

Considering that 55% of the sewage is being treated through conventional methods, the need of the hour is to tighten governance over municipalities to ensure stricter norms and mechanisms. Municipalities also need to think out of the box to generate revenue to become viable and sustainable. Even in a PPP model this task is likely to be done by the government and recovery of costs will lie with public utilities.

‘New direction’

Denying that by creating a SPV the government is withdrawing from the task, Bharti asserts that a “new direction” is being given to the programme to speed up matters and give it “focused attention.” Those around her relate how dear the programme is to the minister. In fact, her return to the BJP and being assigned the water resources portfolio was a natural culmination of the padayatras and campaigns she did against the pollution of Ganga and Yamuna.

Indeed, the task of cleaning the Ganga is formidable. In a way, almost all elements of the society are responsible for polluting the river. Whether it is the industry pouring untreated toxic effluents into the waters or rural and urban populace releasing human waste or those throwing “pious waste” into the river, all are culpable. Perhaps that is why, while there is a universal consent for restoring Ganga to its pristine form, there is no visible participation of people including politicians in what should essentially have been a national effort.

According to official data, almost 45% of untreated sewage is released into the river at various points. About 144 drains discharge 3,535 million litres per day of sewage from small towns while 14,000 tonnes solid waste is generated from major towns on the banks. Pollution load from villages, though diffused, adds to the problem.

Clearly, it cannot be business as usual. The task of cleaning the Ganga has to be participatory and every stakeholder has to play its role. Meanwhile, the government has to quickly make up its mind and be transparent about how it proposes to use the tax payers’ money for the task. The idea cannot wait till elections in UP next year.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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