World Water Day: Ganga river gets an Intach hope to free itself from being awash in trash

We do not need the Uttarakhand High Court to inform us that our two premier rivers Ganges and Yamuna are 'living entities'. We have known about that from our childhood. This fact was further reinforced when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, standing for elections from Varanasi three years ago, declared he was the son of Mother Ganges and swore to restore the river to its pristine glory.

 World Water Day: Ganga river gets an Intach hope to free itself from being awash in trash

Coconut coir being used to prevent solid waste from clogging the Assi nallah. Image courtesy Intach

To move away from these platitudes, it must be emphasised that Indians have been trying to clean up the Ganges for the last thirty years. Thousands of crores of rupees have been spent to no avail and the Modi government has also allocated another $3 billion over five years to clean this sacred river.

The reality is that more than one billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial effluents enter the Ganges every day and it is now ranked one of the ten most polluted rivers in the world.

Varanasi with its population of five million has 33 nallahs which are dumping their untreated sewage and muck into the Ganges. Rather than make a grandiose intervention, the head of the Natural Division of Intach, decided a small but meaningful cleaning up operation could make a substantive difference in cleaning up the river.

"We had cut our teeth in cleaning up the Palam nallah in Dwarka in 2012. Prior to that, we had cleaned up the Kushak nallah in Chankyapuri in 2010 and the east Taj drain which crosses the eastern entrance of the Taj Mahal. This was such a foul smelling drain that tourists would cover their nose to enter from this side. This clean up was undertaken last year," said the be-spectacled, grey-haired Bhatnagar sitting in his cabin tucked away in once corner of the Intach office in New Delhi.

The nallahs are storm-water drains but because there are no proper sewer treatment plants (STP) in place in our cities including Delhi, Agra and Varanasi, these are serving as large sewers which are responsible for our rivers becoming highly polluted.

At the suggestion of Intach chairman Major General LK Gupta (retd), it was decided to clean up the Assi river which flows into the Ganges at the Assi Ghat in Varanasi. Assi river appears to be little more than a slushy, dirty drain choked with plastic and muck and it seems difficult to believe the poet and saint Tulsidas wrote his epic poem Ramcharitmanas on the banks of what has become a foul smelling river.

The strategy adopted by the three-member Intach team of scientists led by Ritu Singh who has specialised in forest ecology and environment was to place a large 100 litres of friendly bacteria concentrates along the Assi river. These help degrade organic waste, enhance dissolved oxygen levels and help remove the odour.

The Assi river meanders through very densely populated areas of the city and is discharging some 70 million litres of water into the Ganges which was found to have a biochemical oxygen demand value of 130 mg/l.

"Cone log filters placed in the water help provide surfaces to which the bacteria will cling. This bacteria is used in sewage treatments plants but this is the first time it has been applied to clean up a moving stream," said Bhatnagar.

"We build four weirs using coir log filters at 20 locations to help reduce the velocity of water and for filtration purposes of the suspended solids. Once the velocity of the flow becomes reduced, tubular rafts carrying aquatic plants suck up the pollutants from their roots," he said hastening to add that bacteria concentrates cannot be used to treat industrial effluents.

"We use plastic media which provides a surface to the bacteria to attach themselves. Most of the water going into the river is domestic waste and we have found this method of bioremediation very effective," he said.

This pilot project was conducted between the months of January and February this year. The results have been extremely promising and the result has been a 60-70 percent reduction in the pollution as well as a sharp reduction in the smell as has been confirmed by the state Pollution Control Board in Varanasi and by independent labs.

An extremely inexpensive method of treating domestic waste, Bhatnagar said, "While the cost of installing STPs in Varanasi will run into over Rs 75 crore and these will become functional after land acquisition and after all the houses have been connected to sewage pipes, the cost of bioremediation for all 33 nallahs in Varanasi works out to Rs 3 crore per annum. This will begin showing results within two months of being installed."

Of course, there are hiccups. The Assi river is heavily encroached and building the weirs resulted in some amount of water logging. Said Singh, "The people living on the banks wanted to remove the logs and actually cut the ropes that kept them in place. We had to handle the situation tactfully. Now that the foul smell has gone, they are extremely appreciative of what we have done."

Bathers at Assi Ghat expressed their pleasure at the cleaning up of the water.

Bhatnagar said that theirs is a one-time intervention. "Intach has the expertise to demonstrate this project over a period of one year but after that, the state authorities will have to take over. It has been the same with the Palam, Kushak and East Taj drains. We showed the DDA and the Agra state pollution board how to undertake this cleanup and they have to take it forward from there," he said.

And herein lies the biggest shortcoming of this proposal. In most cases, the state government is not willing to put in the necessary expertise and care to over see these projects on a long time basis. The example of the Hauz Kaus lake is a prime example of this.

This historic water body which is 15 acres wide and located in the heart of south Delhi was revived by Intach and DDA using a slew of techniques including using aquatic plants to absorb the organic waste.

Once Intach withdrew from the project, the bureaucrats in the DDA have not shown the kind of commitment needed to keep the water clean.

The pilot project on the Assi river is being presented to Minister of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharti. Emphasis will be made on the need to start the municipal solid waste collection to be removed by municipal bodies. There is also a need to grow aquatic plants along the banks of our rivers.

When contacted, officials in the Ministry of Water Resources believe the Intach idea is a good one though they caution that a long-term solution to the problem is the setting up of STPs. Intach agrees insisting that the scheme can be proved effective till such time as STPs do not become functional. It is clear that Modi, always agreeable to new ideas, would be keen to implement every novel idea to ensure the Ganga becomes pure again.

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Updated Date: Mar 22, 2017 22:36:19 IST