It is around 40° Celsius in Varanasi. Just climbing a few weathered stairs of the ghats is enough to make one wonder whether the heart is beating or the head. The slow, monotonous drum beating inside one’s body drowns all the noise of the busy chaotic ghats. Even as the sun singes the skin, Uma Shankar, 40-year-old boatman, continues to row his boat against the flow of Ganga. Sweat rains down his body and his mouth is shut tight. Just slow steady breath and the sound of the water hitting his rows say he is still there. Normally, Uma Shankar, a – Nishad (caste) – who according to various mythological stories are known to be children of water, would pause for a break; wash his face and mouth in the river and take tourists around, narrating them stories of Ganga and the 84 ghats. But now, things have changed.
Union water resources minister, Uma Bharti, declared that people found spitting in Ganga could be fined Rs 10,000 or three days imprisonment. Uma Shankar steals glances at me carrying my camera and is scared that a single snap of him washing in Ganga may cost him his boat. So, he sits quietly trying not to spill the betel juice from his mouth and doesn’t take the risk of touching the water that, according to ancient scriptures, he was born in.
At the same time when Uma Shankar is trying hard to not pollute the river by spitting or washing in it, the cities along the river are dumping 7,322 million litres of untreated sewage into Ganga every day.
Ganga was declared National River on February 20, 2009. All of us have heard big names like Ganga Action Plan Phase I, Phase II, Phase infinity… Even after so many years of budgetary allocations and international tie-ups, domestic sewage remains the major cause of pollution in Ganga. Studies by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) indicate that 2,723 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage is generated by 50 cities located along the river, which adds up to over 85% of the river’s pollution load. In Varanasi, the sewage ends up in Ganga through the 31 open drains between Varuna and Assi river.
According to CPCB, the amount of domestic sewage generated is much more than the treatment capacity of the various Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) installed in cities along Ganga. In 2013, CPCB estimated that generation of domestic sewage is to the tune of 2,723.30 MLD. However, the treatment capacity of various STPs was merely 1,208.80 MLD.
In 2013, the CPCB ran a check on 51 of the 64 STPs and found that less than 60% of the installed capacity was being utilised, and 30% of the plants were not even in operation. A year later, CPCB collected data again, and it was found that the actual measured discharge of wastewater into Ganga is 6,087 MLD – which is 123% higher than the estimated discharge of wastewater.
A briefing paper on Ganga by Centre for Science and Environment breaks these numbers down and makes it simpler for us to understand – the gap between treated and untreated waste is not 55%, but 80%!
This is the gap that remained even after spending crores of rupees in various phases, under different names. Clearly, the Sewage Treatment Plants which the government perhaps sees as a magic-wand formula for cleaning the holy river is not so foolproof after all.
Think about it. First of all, several old cities in the country still rely on very, very old drainage pipelines which were built to dispose sewage into the river. When these channels were made, the population was not as much as it is now and so, nobody could even imagine that decades later, domestic sewage would be something of concern. Or maybe, they were short-sighted!
The modern pipelines built to supply sewage to the treatment plants are often made without any planning. On top of that, about 80-85% of Allahabad, Varanasi and Kanpur, does not have underground sewage channels. The ones that exist, require a good pumping system to carry sewage or wastewater to the STPs. Anybody who lives in Uttar Pradesh knows the how irregular electricity supply is. So, these pumping stations need diesel to operate. But, the diesel gets stolen! Yes, you read that right. Diesel theft is a matter of grave concern, especially in states like Uttar Pradesh. So half of the time, neither the pumping stations nor the STPs are working. The sewage keeps flowing into the Ganga through open drains and drainage channels. Every STP needs a certain amount of sewage to operate. When it doesn’t get enough sewage (in absence of drainage channels and pumping facility), it sits as pretty as an expensive, huge vase in your drawing room in which you can’t even keep flowers because you simply don’t have those many flowers.
So, that pretty much sums up what the UPA government did for our holiest of holy rivers, Ganga. Wait a minute! NDA is not to be celebrated so soon.
The NDA government used an even fancier name – Namami Gange Project. Wow! What happened on the ground in the name of Ganga cleaning was the concretization of ghats, installation of fancy dustbins here and there, and surface cleaning drives. Concerned about the wastage of public funds, the National Green Tribunal has recently warned the government that the entire case would be handed over to the Central Bureau of Investigation.
To make matters worse, the government announced Jal Marg Vikas Project – a 1620-km inland waterway from Varanasi to Haldia – to ship industrial goods. The ₹4,200 crore project was flagged off by road transport and shipping minister Nitin Gadkari in August 2016. Our PM, former CM of Gujarat, evidently sees a business opportunity in everything (I am going to be trolled now).
“Funny but yes, waterways! So that whatever Gangetic dolphins are left in the river die because of the big ships and fuel leaks,” says BD Tripathi, a member of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA). Interestingly, NGRBA is a body made of reputed river scientists in the country, and three of its members were so sick of government inaction that they resigned. Rest of the members haven’t met in ages. Visibly peeved Tripathi says that every government ignores the real issues when it comes to Ganga and the word pollution and penalising the poor become a tactic to divert people’s attention from what concerns the river today.
Prof. UK Choudhary, of Ganga Research Centre, Banaras Hindu University, says Ganga can never be rejuvenated if it does not have enough water. Rivers have a self-cleaning ability, which allows for assimilation and treatment of biological waste. But in the current context, where withdrawal from the river is much higher than the discharge of waste, pollution is inevitable, says both Choudhary and Tripathi.
Choudhary explains that Ganga’s originality is threatened. Of the 10,600 cubic ft/sec water at Narora and Bhimgoda barrage, 10,300 cubic feet/sec is diverted. This leaves Ganga starving at a large stretch downstream. The dynamics of the river is destroyed. With the decrease in velocity, its oxygen content is also reduced.
This has increased the sedimentation process, and since the storage potential of the river is destroyed, it is an open invitation to floods, explains Choudhary. Because of change in meandering of the river, the erosion has also increased at the ghats of Panchganga, Ramganga, Manikarnika and Dashashwamedh in Varanasi. The velocity of the river has increased near the ghats with strong currents cutting into the base of the city. Depth of the river has risen from 15 ft to about 20 ft. “If this continues, by 2025-2030, the crescent shape of Varanasi would be lost. It is a great risk to the city, but hardly anybody is looking into the problem,” he says.
Travelling from nalla to nalla, I come across the water pumping station near Tulsi ghat. An activist told us that during floods, the pumps are submerged into the river. Since Assi River or Nagwa Nala is just upstream the water works, what the whole of Varanasi drinks that time could be water with much higher contamination. Well, let me spell it out for you, Varanasi drinks its own sewage!
Varanasi gets its name from two rivers Varuna and Assi. Both of them have now turned into drains.
On a Sunday morning, I decided to walk through the old part of the city, a labyrinth of tattered tenements, connected by narrow cobbled paths. Pilgrims come to Varanasi for spiritual reasons. But here, as I saw, there was nothing spiritual about the open garbage dumps and cobbled paths smeared with animal and human faeces. A large area of Varanasi, especially the banks of the river, is an open defecation ground. Just like the old and dilapidated building, this city of 3.7 million people and a huge floating population of tourists and pilgrims, the garbage and sewerage infrastructure is also on the verge of collapse.
Early morning, near Varuna, I spotted as many as three dead bodies floating in the water. Near Scindia Ghat, I see animal carcasses; and on the adjacent ghat, pilgrims taking a dip in the river.
The Ramnagar Ghat is a new destination for bathers. Since the water near the prominent ghats is dirty, people cross the river to bathe at the Ramnagar Ghat which is the river’s sand bank just opposite Dashashwamedh Ghat. I saw a bunch of youths go wild pulling at each other’s clothes. Much of this (torn clothes, sarees, gamchhas) ends up on the ghat. A stretch of the ghat visible even from the other side of the wide river is a mini dump yard coming up with plastic waste, clothes and garbage left behind by the pilgrims.
This is exactly the reason why I was very surprised to learn that this very crowded, dirty ghat, had been declared a turtle sanctuary by the Uttar Pradesh government a couple of years ago. I came to know of it from a run-down board lying as far as Narad Ghat! At Narad Ghat, I asked a man sitting near the board about the turtle sanctuary. “Sarkar chhore the 400-500 kacchue. Kuchh kacchue to tairte hue doosre shahar pohoch gaye honge. Baaki ko logo ne pakar pakar ke kha liya…(Government released 400-500 turtles in the sanctuary. Some swam to other cities while others were eaten by people)” No wonder, that turtles are nowhere to be seen in this sanctuary. However, since the area has been declared a turtle sanctuary, dredging of sand has been banned. And, since the level of sand is increasing with every passing day, river currents are pushed towards the ghats, eroding them eventually.
So, in Narendra Modi’s constituency, I find very little action on cleaning or preserving the river. What is seen on the ground is panic. When Uma Shankar finally spit the betel juice out into the river and managed to speak, he said: “But it is only the poor who are always taxed in the name of pollution. We cannot wash or bath or catch fish in Ganga. But, the large drains that are pouring the entire city’s filth into Ganga Maiyya are never plugged.”