There are only 4 spots along the 2,510-km-long river, where the water is drinkable after disinfection

Ganga far from clean despite generous flow of funds

Ten days before his death on October 11, environmentalist G D Agrawal (also known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand) penned his last letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, narrating a sense of despondency from the government’s inaction to save River Ganga from a slow death.

The octogenarian wrote that even though his previous letter on saving the mighty river was discussed in the Union Cabinet, there was no significant action and the situation was back to square one, leaving him with barely any option but to give up his life.

As he fixed October 9 as the day for his final Ganga Snan (bath in the Ganga) and stopped taking water and medicines, the government swung into action shifting the former IIT professor to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh where he passed away.

A fortnight later, his followers refuse to abandon the fight. Sant Gopal Das, who is on fast for more than 120 days and gave up water after Agrawal’s death, has been moved to the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh. Das is not alone in the struggle, with Haridwar’s Matri Sadan, where Agrawal was fasting, initiating a fast from this week till all the demands are met.

Cleaning up the Ganga has two aspects – Aviral Dhara (uninterrupted flow) and Nirmal Dhara (unpolluted flow). It is a known fact that unpolluted flow can’t happen without uninterrupted flow. But under the Namami Gange programme, the government separated the two and put its entire focus on the second aspect ignoring the first.

There are 70 existing, under-construction and planned hydroelectric power plants in Uttarakhand that choke the river in its upper stretches, while 790 dams on the main stem and tributaries of the Ganga in the entire basin of 8,62,769 sq km area shackle it in the middle stretches. As a result, the downstream pollution abatement measures barely show any impact.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) observatory, there are only four spots along the 2,510-km-long river, where the water is drinkable after disinfection. Three of them – Rudraprayag, Devprayag and Rishikesh – are in Uttarakhand while the fourth one, Bijnor is on Uttarakhand-Uttar Pradesh border. There are a few more sites in Uttarakhand and west Uttar Pradesh including Gangotri and Haridwar where water can be consumed, but only after disinfection and conventional treatment. For the rest of the river, it’s only red flags.

One of the key demands of Agrawal, who incidentally was the first secretary of CPCB, was to stop mindless hydroelectric projects on the rivers Ganga, Alaknanda and Mandakini.

Currently, there are 17 functional power plants, 19 more are under-construction and another 34 are on the drawing board. Many of them are next to each other. “Out of all the electricity generated from these projects, only 12-14% will come back to Uttarakhand. The rest would be sold for revenue generation,” said Mallika Bhanot, an activist from Ganga Avahan, a non-governmental organisation based in Haridwar.

It’s not that the Modi government is unaware. In a 2016 affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation said, “The biggest issue that has been repeatedly observed is the issue of absolute dry stretches of the main riverbed. Not more than 25% of the river water should be diverted to meet human needs to maintain the river’s ecosystem integrity.” However, in the case of Ganga, it seems that the hydroelectric plants in the upper reaches and the dams in the middle reaches allow almost no release  of  water  in  the  lean season.

But as a solution, the same ministry has now come out with the contentious e-flow (environment flow) notification, which the environmentalists claim is nothing but a mockery of justice.

The October 9 notification says in the dry season, projects in the upper Ganga river basin stretch will have to release 20% of the monthly average flow every 10 days. In the lean period, the number changes to 25% while in the high flow season it is 30%.

This means earlier the hydro-power plants would have consumed the entire water, but now they are mandated to leave at least 20% water in the main channel. It’s too less to keep the river in good health. And the norms are to come into effect after three years, making it meaningless as an emergency measure to protect the river.

The e-flow notification, the greens say, is nothing but an eyewash, which was done to placate the professor on protest. “Ideally, the government should have implemented the 50-60% e-flow norms as recommended by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) consortium instead of this sham. Few hours before his death, Agrawal himself rejected the notification,” said environmentalist Manoj Mishra who runs Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

The downstream cleaning up efforts began too late to show any kind of results. The government identified 97 towns to set up sewage treatment plants (STP) of 3,603 MLD (million litres per day) capacity (estimated for 2035) under the Namami Gange programme. Out of 107 sanctioned STP projects worth Rs 17,800 crore, only 28 projects are complete while the rest are either under construction or yet to be tendered. It is the same story for projects on river front, Ghat cleaning, crematoria and surface cleaning. Too little have been achieved and most of the projects are slated to be completed between 2019 and 2022.

Gangetic river dolphins are one of the victims of such poor river health. In the early 1980s, there were 5,000-6,000 individuals, but the number dwindled to 1,200-1,800 in the recent years, according to an assessment by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Declining water volume and increasing pollution load have wiped them out. “Only 38.7% of the river has a suitable depth of 4 m or more to sustain dolphins and gharials during summer months,” says a study carried out by the Wildlife Institute of India.

Since 1985, the Supreme Court heard numerous pleas on the cleaning up of Ganga and after the National Green Tribunal came into being, it too heard petitions from ecologists on saving the river. “Now it seems even the courts have given up,” said Mishra.

Under the Namami Gange programme, the goal was to ensure sewage management and industry discharge management to achieve a drop in the pollution level. When the Union Cabinet approved the programme, the target dates for tendering of the STPs and completion of the STPs were march 2016 and September 2018 respectively.

A year later when the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) checked the programme’s performance, it was found that even though the treatment capacity gap was 2109 MLD, STP projects having a capacity of only 712 MLD were given consent as on August 2017. Another year later, works on 33 out 107 projects are yet to start and only STPs of 328 MLD capacity are functional. When asked about the non-achievement of the targets approved by the Cabinet, the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation was silent.

The CAG also found that out of 154 detailed project reports submitted to the authorities between 2014-15 and 2016-17 pertaining to various aspects of cleaning the river, only 71 were approved. The delay ranged from 26 days to 1,140 days. Out of remaining 83 detailed project reports, as many as 34 are pending for a period ranging from 120 to 780 days. The National Mission for Clean Ganga does not have a river basin management plan even eight years after the creation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Also, there is no long-term action plan more than six years after signing an agreement with a consortium of IITs to draw up such a plan.

“This is also in flagrant violation of the provision of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, requiring closing of the industries engaged in discharging such effluents as well as prosecution. This is continuing in spite of orders of Courts and this Tribunal for the last three decades. One can express some satisfaction if red signs on the map, which have been displayed on the website of Central Pollution Control Board are converted to green with improvement in water quality. Till then, no one can say that any satisfactory progress has been achieved,” the National Green Tribunal stated in its August 6 ruling, while hearing one of the oldest cases of Ganga pollution that was shifted from the SC to the NGT.

Notwithstanding the Modi government’s promise of adequate resources for Ganga cleaning, CPCB could deploy only 36 automatic water quality monitoring systems as against 113 sites identified along the river for continuous water quality monitoring on real-time basis.

Against the 120 mandatory adequacy assessments required to be conducted by the CPCB of five identified Common Effluent Treatment Plants, only 17 were carried out as of August 2017. Against the mandatory 560 inspections to be carried out for performance evaluation of 67 Sewage Treatment Plants, only 177 were carried out as of August 2017. The programme suffers from a huge manpower crisis ranging from 44-65% and the shortfall goes up to 89% when it comes to state programme management groups. With little manpower and insufficient checking there is no way to know whether the common effluent treatment plant s or the STPs functioning well.

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Ganga far from clean despite generous flow of funds

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