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Ganga water quality has worsened due to untreated sewage, govt should have prioritised clean-up project, says chief of NGO

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to clean up River Ganga before contesting the 2014 Lok Sabha election from Varanasi. Now, five years later, the Ganga is more polluted than ever.

The Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF), an NGO that has been monitoring the quality of the river water for over three decades, released the findings of its most recent study in mid March. The study showed that levels of faecal coliform, a form of bacteria, in the Ganga had risen substantially, while levels of dissolved oxygen had dropped.

Professor VN Mishra — SMF chairperson and head of the Department of Electronics at Banaras Hindu University — rues the fact that the government has shown no commitment to cleaning up the river, and when evidence is provided to show the deteriorating quality of the river water, the local Jal Nigam skirts the problem with its unwillingness to accept this proof.

This correspondent spoke to Mishra about the poor state of the Ganga. Here are edited excerpts of the interview.

 Ganga water quality has worsened due to untreated sewage, govt should have prioritised clean-up project, says chief of NGO

File image of waste accumulation in the Ganga. AFP

Why is the Ganga so polluted in Varanasi even though the government allocated over Rs 20,000 crore to clean it up?

I don't want to jump into this debate right now. My focus is specifically on Varanasi.

The SMF office is located at Tulsi Ghat, which is on the western bank of the Ganga. In Varanasi, not a drop of sewage should be allowed to enter the river, but there are 33 sources of pollution at present. So in a stretch of 5 kilometres, there are 33 points where raw, untreated sewage flows into the Ganga.

To give some perspective, SMF has played a pivotal role in focusing on pollution levels of the Ganga. We have set up a state-of-the-art laboratory for this purpose and have a dedicated team of scientists monitoring the quality of the river water. In the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan, which was launched in 1986, three Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) with a capacity of 102 million litres per day (MLD) were set up at a cost of Rs 43 crore. (Congress leader) Kamal Nath had told my late father Veer Bhadra Mishra that the Ganga was clean, but my father showed him the results of our lab tests, which showed that the river contained high levels of faecal coliform.

The problem was that the amount of sewage entering the river exceeded the 102 MLD that these plants could treat. The other problems with these STPs were their dependence on electricity, the supply of which was erratic, their high operation and maintenance costs and their inability to remove the faecal coliform bacteria from the sewage.

You are quoting 1986 figures. What are the current figures of the amount of sewage that flows into the Ganga?

At present, the estimated sewage generation in Varanasi is around 350 MLD. The amount of sewage and wastewater collected and diverted for treatment is only a third of the total. The remaining two-thirds of sewage gets discharged into the Varuna and Assi rivers through drains and sewers, both of which end up flowing into the Ganga.

What is the essence of the problem? Why has the government failed to treat the sewage? What obstacles hinder tackling related problems?

There are various types of technologies available in India to treat wastewater. The activated sludge process is one; there are also Membrane Bio Reactors, Up-flow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket Reactors and Waste Stabilisation Ponds. There are some question marks regarding their operation and maintenance costs, energy needs and effectiveness in removing pollutants, including metals and vectors.

We conducted our own research and found that the Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond System technology, which was developed by the University of California-Berkeley, is probably the most effective for our conditions. This system requires the creation of four ponds through which the water is treated, and in doing so, it gets rid of bacterial pathogens as well as human viruses, protozoans and parasites. This reclaimed water can be used for irrigation as well as for industrial and environmental reuse. This technology has been implemented successfully in many parts of the US.

Has it been tried in India?

The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change asked SMF to prepare a pilot project for an initial design capacity of 37 MLD at Ramana in Varanasi. We prepared a detailed progress report way back in 2011 at a cost of Rs 51 crore, and then brought the amount down to Rs 49 crore, giving them details of the life cycle costs. The Jal Nigam had asked us to build this project to treat only 20 MLD and later reduced the figure to 2 MLD. Is this some kind of a joke? I wrote several letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi regarding our proposal, but I have not got a reply to date.

Modiji did inaugurate an STP in Dinapur in Varansai last November, which can treat 14 crore litres of wastewater every day. The biogas-powered treatment plant uses the activated sludge process and was supposed to treat between 50 and 60 MLD of wastewater. We were told another plant at Goitha will treat 120 MLD per day, but because of lack of connectivity, the two only treat 10 MLD of sewage at present.

The problem with both STPs, as I already mentioned, is that they do not treat faecal coliform, and that will remain a major problem.

SMF was in the midst of a controversy because its recent findings said faecal coliform levels in the Ganga had risen, while biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) levels had dropped, but the Jal Nigam later came up with a study claiming that this was not the case. What do you have to say about this?

Our database is place-specific. If the Ganga water is tested 15 kilometres downstream, it will be found to be cleaner. We work as a watchdog and have an extremely sophisticated laboratory. The quality of the water in the Ganga has worsened in the past three years. When we tested the river water, we found that faecal coliform had risen from 4.5 lakh upstream at Nagwa and 5.2 crore downstream in Varuna in January 2016 to 3.8 crore upstream and 14.4 downstream in February 2019.

Similarly, BOD levels have risen from 46.8 mg/1 in January 2016 to 54 mg/1 in February 2019. Besides, the level of dissolved oxygen, which should be 6 mg/1 or more, declined from 2.4 mg/1 to 1.4 mg/1 in the same period.

Also, the high presence of coliform bacteria is extremely harmful for human health.

The other aspect is the time at which the water is tested. We have a peak time, which begins at 5 am, and then between 6 pm and 8 pm. If the water is taken 5 to 10 metres from the west bank, the result will be different.

What do you think is the way out?

Stop domestic sewage from reaching the Ganga. Doing that will check 95 percent of the river's pollution. People should not be allowed to discharge either treated or untreated wastewater into the Ganga from any of the sources. Tapping sewage at the point sources should be stopped and diverted to fields to be used as manure.

Given how the prime minister is planning to contest the election from Varanasi once again, a clean Ganga should have been a priority for him and his government.

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Updated Date: Apr 04, 2019 21:29:21 IST

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