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Pollution In Ganga: Of Irresponsible Citizen Action And Government Plans

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By Tanima Banerjee:

The Ganga River is the longest river in the country, running across a total length of 2,525 km, across large areas of Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. It passes through 9 states, supporting 29 Class I cities, 23 Class II cities, 48 towns and thousands of villages, serving around 400 million people. It is considered the country’s lifeline, and it is considered the sacred symbol of purity and virtue for the countless Hindus in India. Yet the river which is worshipped because of its purity has been subjected to dumping of sewage, industrial effluents, run-off from chemical fertilizers and pesticides from agricultural fields in the basin. Not to forget the thousands of animal carcasses and human corpses which have been dumped in the river across the ages! In addition, it is a common practice for Indians to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganga, which in turn pollute the river furthermore. The inevitable result of this onslaught on the river’s capacity to receive and assimilate waste has been an erosion of river water quality, to the extent that, by 1970s, large stretches (over 600 km) of the river were virtually dead from an ecological point of view, and posed a considerable public health threat to the religious bathers using the river every day. The polluted river water also tends to affect the health of those who live along the Ganga basin and use the water for drinking and other household purposes.

The defilement of the river starts as it enters Rishikesh. It is observed that Uttar Pradesh alone is responsible for over 50% of the pollutants entering the river along its entire journey to the sea. The condition in Varanasi and Kanpur is even worse. The amount of filth along and in the river still continues unabated. Polybags are tossed in publicly and casually, becoming the private dumping garbage dump of industries and individuals alike. Enormous amounts of chemical wastes run into the river from textile dying and brass making industries. And by the time the Ganga enters Bihar and West Bengal, the river carrying tons of decayed material, piles of refuse and untreated sewage is not even close to being termed clean and “holy” as it is at its inception. We are actually insulting the purity of the river by worshipping it on one hand, and misusing and mistreating it on the other.

The Ganga River is mainly polluted because of the presence of fecal coliform bacteria, a certain subgroup of coliform present in warm blooded animals. Drinking water with high fecal coliform counts can lead to pathogenic diseases, including typhoid, viral and bacterial gastro-enteritis, ear infections and hepatitis A. Recent tests done in the river and well water of the villages in the basin indicate that the fecal coliform levels range from 21,000 to 80,000 colonies per 100 ml. Ideally ,for drinking purposes, it should be zero colonies, and 150 colonies per 100 ml maximum for bathing. This just shows the extent to which we have reduced the life-giving water to completely inhumane levels. The main sources of pollution identified by the NRCD (National River Conservation Department) in 2006 were classified into point sources and non-point sources. In the point sources category, municipal sewage accounts for 75% of pollutants in the river, while industrial pollutants constitute the remaining 25% of pollutants. Among the non-point sources, it identified large quantities of run-off from solid and medical wastes and agricultural fields, disposal of dead bodies and carcasses, and open defecation and cattle wallowing as the pollution causing agents. According to the CPCB survey report, the total municipal sewage generated in the identified 25 towns in 1985 was of the order of 1340 million liters per day (mld), 260 mld of industrial wastewater, runoff from 6 million tons of fertilizers and 9,000 tons of pesticides used in agriculture within the basin, large quantities of solid waste, including thousands of animal carcasses and human corpses were being released into the river every day.

There have been various campaigns launched for a cleaner Ganga from the 1980s. The Swatcha Ganga (Clean Ganges) Campaign was founded by ‘the Sankat Mochan’ Foundation in Varanasi in 1982 to evoke people’s responsibility towards cleaning Ganga. It succeeded to draw the Government’s attention to the problem posed by the unclean waters of the river, which created the Central Ganga Authority (CGA) and the Ganga Project Directorate (GPA) in 1985. This ultimately led to the launching of the Ganga Action Plan in 1986, with its main objectives to abate pollution and improve water quality, to conserve biodiversity and develop an integrated river basin management approach, to conduct comprehensive research to further these objectives, and to gain experience for implementing similar river clean-up programs in other polluted rivers in India.

The plan actions developed to implement these objectives were divided into ‘core sector’ and ‘non-core’ sector, depending upon the direct and indirect sources of pollution it addressed respectively. Core sector schemes included the interception and diversion of domestic wastewater including the construction and rehabilitation of sewers and pump houses, while non-core sector schemes consisted of the installation of crematoria, river front development and aesthetic improvement, implementation of low cost sanitation systems, and miscellaneous activities such as water quality monitoring, research programmes, and identification and management of waste from grossly polluting industries. A total of about Rs. 400 crores (out of which Rs. 50 crores were spent in Varanasi) had been spent to intercept and divert the sewage coming into the river, to treat the sewage, and to create a distribution system to allow the treated sewage to be used by farmers for agricultural purposes. Water quality monitoring centers have been set up at around 37 ghats of India. Activities for construction and improvement of bathing ghats to provide a clean and hygienic access to the river were also part of the Action Plan.

Pollution of the river from grossly polluting industries has been monitored and controlled under the existing Environmental Laws without any public investment except for a common effluent treatment plant (CETP) at Kanpur. The programme intended to address to the recovery of resources like biogas for power generation and sludge as bio fertilizers from the sewage treatment operation. The treated sewage which contained nutrients was proposed to be used for irrigation wherever feasible. These steps were aimed at revenue generation form such resources to minimize the operation and maintenance cost burden.

The programme envisages scheme specific and site specific applied research with a view to improving the river water quality. The research projects were undertaken on the approval of a Research Committee. Training programmes were also envisaged under the scheme for engineers and operators engaged in the design and operation & maintenance of the systems.

But all these heavy promises have fallen short with time, as the GAP has failed to implement these actions effectively, reflecting major flaws in its working, owing to corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. The water quality hasn’t improved much, and the ineffectual GAP has left a lot wanting in its part to salvage the situation. Though the GAP has succeeded in development of technologies of sewage treatment, effluent treatment plants, improved oxidation ponds, sewage treatment through plantations, aquaculture and pisciculture.

Yet most of its initiatives haven’t been inculcated as soundly as it should have by now. The GAP was renamed as NRCA (National River Conservation Authority) in 1996. It sought to work with state agencies like Public Health Engineering Department, Water and Sewage Boards, Pollution Control Boards, Development Authorities, Local Bodies etc. for actual implementation of the plan. Ganga was declared as ‘National River’ by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in order to achieve the objectives of the clean-up operation. The cleanliness drive for Ganga is still not a dead agenda.

Very recently, the Centre and the UP government teamed up to approve a Rs. 497-crore project to set up infrastructure, including a sewage treatment plant of 140 million liter per day capacity, 34km of sewers and three pumping stations, under Mission Clean Ganga of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Unlike the original Ganga Action Plan, which focused primarily on municipal sewage treatment, the Ganga River Basin Authority aimed at broad-basing the river management efforts, and integrating pollution control with measures for sustainable use of water and flood management.

Though the various programmes and initiatives continue to mobilize volunteers from across the world, and spreading awareness through campaigns in the media, like television, radio and internet, but it cannot succeed until we actively participate in it. There is a need to realize that the only way to accomplish the mission of a clean Ganga is if all the people of India work together as individuals as well as a part of the community to achieve this end. We need to spread awareness about keeping the river clean. We need to stop dumping wastes and garbage in the river, and also stop others from doing the same.

We need to work with activists and organizers of cleaning Ganga campaign to inspire others as well to clean the waterways we depend on for life. There is need to educate the masses as well as the government agencies, to work with fluidity and proper organization. It is true that a pollution-free Ganga can’t be achieved overnight, but one must take small baby steps and work hand in hand to make a flawlessly clean and pure Ganga a lived reality.

Image courtesy: http://explore.org/photos/609/ganga-river-bathing

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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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