In times of the Covid-19 pandemic, when washing hands and maintaining hygiene is the norm, is our country really in a position to ensure clean water to our fellow countrymen? Take the example of the State of West Bengal. The rivers there are under immense stress from the ever-increasing pollution load, reveals data by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board (WBPCB) from 17 rivers .
An analysis of the monthly data from the years 2013–2018 and its comparison with the designated best use class [i] by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and subsequent information received from the relevant authorities under the Right to Information Act, 2005, reveals a gruesome picture.
BOD [ii] and Total Coliform (TC) [iii] are the two critical parameters which are considered part of the analysis. It has been found that although there is a decreasing trend in BOD levels from 2013–2018 in 7 out of the 14 monitoring stations of the Ganga, the level has however not touched the quality desirable for ‘Class B’  and ‘Class C’ .
For example, in Dakshineswar, the average BOD levels have remained highest at all the locations throughout the study period of 6 years. Dakshineswar is a major pilgrim site and is one of the top 10 domestic travellers’ destinations in West Bengal (Anon, 2014–15), with an annual footfall of 1.4 crore visitors and nearly 50,000 devotees on any given day. Biotic waste, i.e. flower petals of puja offerings, food waste generated, etc. can be a contributor to biological waste in the location which results in such high levels of BOD; however, any cleanup has hardly taken place.
Two other monitoring stations at Baharampore and Palta Shitaltala have recorded higher readings (based on the average value of 2013–2018) during the monsoon than any other season, which is quite alarming because a well-known proverb says ‘dilution is the solution to pollution’. Therefore high levels of pollution load during monsoon compared to other seasons indicates the severity of the situation.
Not only BOD, but the TC levels of Ganga have also not shown any significant improvement. A yearly trend analysis (2013–2018) of TC levels in places like Bahrampur and Tribeni show an increase in the concentration over the years. On the other hand, in places like Dakshineswar, Diamond harbour, Durgachak (near Pathikhali), Garden Reach, Gorabazar, Howrah-Shivpur, Khagra, Nabadip Ghoshpara (near Monipurghat), Palta, Serampore and Uluberia, concentration has decreased but failed to reach even the ‘Class C’ level, let alone the superior ‘Class B’ or ‘Class A’ .
|Monitoring Station||Total Coliform (MPN/100ml)||Total Coliform to meet ‘Class C’ Use (MPN/100ml)|
|Garden Reach||461833||< 5000|
|Howrah Shivpur||251667||< 5000|
The presence of coliform bacteria in the water indicates the presence of sewage waste or faeces from untreated effluent of the sewer line. In Dakhineshwer untreated sewage discharge and non-functional Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) are the reason behind the high level of coliform count .
Damodar River is comparatively better in terms of BOD levels; however, the concentration of TC does not give hope. The average value remains higher than the permissible limit. The average seasonal value touched as high as 47,500 MPN/100 ml post-monsoon in 2018 in Narainpur and 34,567 MPN/100 ml during monsoon in 2018 at Mujher Mana Village. The untreated sewer line can be a major contributor to the pollution load in the area.
In Asansol, Burnpur, Jamuria, Kulti and Raniganj a total of 62 drains flow into the river without any treatment as no STP is operational in the area except one in Durgapur . There is a decrease in TC levels at some locations; however, it fails to reach ‘Class B’ or sometimes even the ‘Class C’ level.
Mahananda River in North Bengal has also recorded an alarming two-fold increase in BOD levels and reached up to 9.79 mg/l, which is way higher than the standard for ‘Class B’ and ‘Class C’. The river Kaljani, Karola and Mahananda have recorded a decreasing trend in TC levels over the years. However, the concentration has remained between 10416 MPN/100 ml and 280000 MPN/100 ml which is way above the standard needed for even ‘Class C’, i.e. 5000 MPN/100 ml.
Kasai River at Medinipur has shown an increase in levels of BOD up to 4.61 mg/l, which is higher than the quality desirable for ‘Class B’ and ‘Class C’. The total coliform level at River Rupnarayan, Barakar, Kansi, Silabati and the River Dwarka have also remained higher than the permissible limit of ‘Class C’ throughout the study period of 2013–2018. In Tarapith, wastewater from the markets leads to the river directly. To add to it, a total of six sewer lines discharge into the river without any treatment, because STPs and Effluent Treatment Plants (ETP) are not yet functional .
The yearly average of BOD levels has shown a decrease from 2013–2018 in the River Churni, Jalangi and Mathabhanga. In contrast, the river Bidyadhari recorded a higher value than the quality desirable for ‘Class B’ and ‘Class C’.
Such incremental change in the rate of decrease of TC levels is not going to transform the way it is affecting the public at large. With this rate of improvement, it will take about a generation to achieve the desired water quality.
It is important to remember that the State of West Bengal was the first in acute diarrhoeal deaths in the year 2011 (Tripathi, Bhasker 2019) and the scenario had mainly remained the same in the year 2018. In 2011, the State recorded approximately 23% of total deaths nationwide, whereas in 2018, the State recorded 14.33% of the total deaths over five years from 2013 to 2017 (Tripathi, Bhasker 2019).
According to WHO, each year diarrhoea kills around 5,25,000 children under the age of 5. Globally, there are nearly 1.7 billion cases of childhood diarrhoeal disease every year. WHO reports that causes such as septic bacterial infections are likely to account for an increasing proportion of all diarrhoea-associated deaths. Children who are malnourished or have impaired immunity, as well as people living with HIV, are most at risk of life-threatening diarrhoea (WHO factsheet 2017).
This reveals the shocking fact that the death of children under the age of 5 will affect the economy at large. If immediate action is not taken, a whole generation is on its way to be exposed to highly polluted water. In India, 600 million people face “high to extreme water stress”, according to a 2018 government report, and 2,00,000 people die each year from lacking or contaminated water. By 2030, according to the same report, India will have only half the water it needs (Wallace-Wells, 2019). Given this, cities should proactively come forward to rejuvenate its riverine channels.
It is surprising to see both the WBPCB and the respective urban local bodies do not issue any advisory warning against bathing in any of the bathing Ghats, or on any other activities being practised along these rivers. Neither have they come out with a comprehensive programme for the prevention, control and abatement of the pollution of streams and wells in the State. Instead, they have wrongly classified the river stretch.
For example, in the case of the river Ganga, river stretches have been classified wrongly at 13 locations. At Serampore, the WBPCB has reported bathing and fishing as the two visible activities, which means the water quality has to be maintained for ‘Class B’ category use (as per CPCB Classification), whereas the WBPCB has noted this stretch as ‘Class C’.
Designating the right use-based class is a prerequisite for mitigating pollution because the permissible limit of different parameters is different for each use-based class. For example, the level of TC needs to be brought down to 500 MPN/100 ml if the water has to be made suitable for ‘Class B’, whereas for ‘Class C’, the total coliform can remain at 5000 MPN/100 ml.
This means the WBPCB will be more than relieved even if they bring down the level of TC to 5000 MPN/100 ml and that might be the reason that they are not quoting the right class of usage despite their own visual observation. This difference is significant from the human health perspective also because a higher level of TC indicates the presence of disease-causing organisms (pathogens) (Anon, 2016). This shows the lackadaisical approach of these regulatory agencies and lack of willingness to ensure clean water to the public at large.
People in multiple locations of rivers are practising daily chores along these rivers without even knowing about such high levels of pollution. Financially weaker sections of society, who have no other options other than taking a bath in the river, fisherfolk whose fish yield is mainly dependent on the water quality, are the most affected groups in the absence of any alternative arrangements. Treatment of water for supplying as drinking purposes also needs an immense cost involvement owing to the presence of high level of pollution.
Ensuring clean water in times of the Covid-19 pandemic is an important aspect which we cannot ignore any more. We talk about frequent hand washing. But how can that be possible, if we cannot ensure clean water in the rivers or taps?
 For prevention and control of pollution under the power vested in the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974 under Sub-section 1(c) of Section 17, SPCB shall collect and disseminate information relating to water pollution and the prevention, control or abatement thereof.
 Class B – Outdoor Bathing
 Class C – Drinking water source after conventional treatment and disinfection
 Class A – Drinking water source without conventional treatment but after disinfection
 Based on response received under the RTI Act, 2005 from office of Municipal Councilor, Kamarhati dated 4th June, 2019
 Response received from Asansol Municipal Corporation and Durgapur Municipal Corporation dated 8.7.19 and 11.7.19 respectively under the RTI Act, 2005
 Based on response received under the RTI Act, 2005 from Tarapith Rampurhat Development Authority dated 17.7.2019.
[i] CPCB has developed a system of water use classification to define the level of wholesomeness of any watercourse. Under this system, water uses are classified into 5 classes. In a water body or its part, water is subjected to several types of uses. Depending on the types of uses and activities, water quality criteria have been specified to determine its suitability for a particular purpose. Among the various types of uses there is one use that demands highest quality of water or purity, which is termed as ‘Designated Best Use’ in that stretch of water body.
[ii] The amount of oxygen consumed by microorganisms in breaking down the biological components in water is known as the biochemical oxygen demand or BOD. The BOD value is inversely proportional to the Dissolved Oxygen value in water, hence an important indicator of Water quality.
[iii] Total Coliform: a group of related bacteria that are (with few exceptions) not harmful to humans. EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) considers total coliforms a useful indicator of other pathogens for water. Most pathogens that can contaminate water supplies come from the faeces of humans or animals. It is therefore important to consider Faecal Coliform and E coli which is a subset of Total Coliform. Faecal contamination in waters is associated with an increased risk of gastrointestinal (GI) illness and less often identified respiratory illness. GI illness includes severe diarrhea, nausea, and possibly jaundice as well as associated headaches and fatigue.
(Wallace-Wells, 2019) The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells; Chapter — Freshwater Drain; Pg No. 88
(Anon, 2012) Living rivers, dying rivers: Rivers of West Bengal, Orissa & Indus system. [Accessed on 24 April 2019].
(Anon, 2014-15): Annual Final Report of Tourism Survey for the State of West Bengal (Ministry of Tourism, Government of India Annual Report West Bengal.
(Anon, 2016): Coliform Bacteria and Drinking Water, published by Washington State Department of Health.
(Das, Amrita, 2017): Comparative Study of Pollution Status of Two Main Rivers: Karola and Tista of Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, India
(Bandyopadhyay et al 2014): Bandyopadhyay, Sunando; Kar, Nabendu Sekhar; Das, Sayantan and Sen, Jayanta (2014). River Systems and Water Resources of West Bengal: A Review. 10.17491/cgsi/0/v0i0/62893
(Bhasker Tripathi) “Diarrhoea Took More Lives Than Any Other Water-Borne Disease In India.”
(WHO factsheet 2017) “Diarrhoeal Disease.” 2 May 2017 World Health Organization, World Health Organization.