Prime Minister Narendra Modi performing Ganga aarti pooja after cleaning Assi ghat on 8 November 2014 in Varanasi, India. (Ashok Dutta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • When he seeks re-election in 2019, Narendra Modi can rightly claim to have done more for cleaning the Ganga than any previous prime minister.

Inaugurating his ambitious Ganga Action Plan (GAP) at Varanasi’s Dashashwamedha ghat in June 1986, the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi, had promised to make “the holder of our spirituality and our traditions”, the Ganga, “completely clean (bilkul saf) once again” by 1990. But nearly three decades after it was launched with much fanfare and public support, the programme ended in a failure, leaving India’s longest and holiest river more polluted than it was in 1986.

So when Narendra Modi, then the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial face of the Bharatiya Janata Party, promised on the campaign trail in Varanasi in 2014 to make the Ganga nirmal and aviral, it was seen as another pre-poll soap that may never materialise. And although the launch of Namami Gange and the allocation of Rs 20,000 crore in the 2015 budget proved that the government was willing to move on its promise, the approach it would adopt to clean the Ganga, and if it would learn the right lessons from the colossal failure of GAP, remained unknown.

Four and a half years later, is there any evidence that the Modi government has found effective solutions to the challenges of governance, infrastructure shortage and minimum flow that the previous governments failed to address?

Infrastructure

Development of infrastructure to intercept and treat waste water finding its way into the Ganga was one of the core aims of the GAP. Now consider this: according to the 2011 census, Kanpur — the city which dumps most untreated waste water into the Ganga — has over 5.5 lakh properties and the Kanpur Nagar Nigam says only 1.76 lakh of these were linked to the sewer network by 2013. This corresponds to little over 32 per cent of sewerage coverage. In Prayagraj and Varanasi, the other two cities along the most polluted stretch of the Ganga river, the sewerage network was limited to just 20 to 30 per cent of the area of these cities. What exist are open nalas, which drain untreated waste water into India’s holiest river.

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The lack of sewerage network is significant because, according to a 2013 report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), around 2,723 million litres per day (MLD) of domestic sewage is generated in 50 cities along the banks of the holy Ganga. It forms around 85 per cent of the total pollution load in the river.

The missing sewerage network, in turn, led to the underutilisation of treatment infrastructure as only a fraction of the total sewage reached plants. CPCB states in its report prepared in 2013 that less than 60 per cent of the capacity was put to use in 51 out of 64 Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in Ganga’s catchment.

Add to this the fact that the infrastructure existing at this time, in most cases, was insufficient to treat the amount of sewage being generated.

The estimation of sewage generation in cities along the Ganga, under GAP, was based on the assumption that 80 per cent of the water supplied to cities is returned as wastewater, says a paper authored by Raghu Dayal in 2016.

However, in cities like Kanpur and Varanasi, the coverage of piped water supply is 40 per cent and 60 per cent, respectively. Which means that a large number of houses used water from other sources, which were apparently not taken into account. This resulted in underestimation of the sewage generated in many cases. A flawed estimation of the volume of sewage generated led to commissioning of insufficient treatment capacity under GAP.

The CPCB says actual discharge of waste water into the river was over 120 per cent higher than the estimated discharge. In Varanasi, for example, sewage generation was estimated at 233 MLD. The CPCB had found the city discharges into the Ganga around 410 MLD — double the official sewage estimates.

To address these issues under Namami Gange, the government has sanctioned at least 133 sewerage infrastructure projects. Under these projects, sewage treatment capacity of 3,969 MLD will be built and sewerage network of over 4,870 km will be laid down.

The programme, however, made slow progress in the first two years. But interestingly, those responsible for execution are not in denial.

“Initially, the movement was slow, as is the case in all programmes of this size. Before Namami Gange, there was no coordination between agencies or a coherent policy. Fixing these issues took some time,” an officer at the Nitin Gadkari-led Ministry of Ganga Rejuvenation, who did not wish to be named, told Swarajya, adding that work is now “moving at a quick pace”.

As far as numbers are concerned, there’s little scope to disagree. Till date, completion of at least 26 projects, which also include rehabilitation of old and non-operational infrastructure, has brought online a treatment capacity of 328 MLD and a sewerage network of around 2,000 km.

The latest addition to these numbers came on 16 December, when Prime Minister Modi inaugurated 175 km of sewerage network in Prayagraj, which accounts for one-fourth of UP’s pollution load in the Ganga. At least 44 other sewage infrastructure projects are at advanced stages of completion to create new capacity of around 855 MLD. In comparison, only 1,098 MLD sewage treatment capacity was created under GAP in nearly three decades, 869 MLD under the first phase and 229 MLD under the second phase.

According to CPCB, 6,087 MLD waste water is discharged untreated into the Ganga. Over the last few decades, at least 84 STPs with treatment capacity of 1579 MLD have been commissioned along the river under various programmes. Given only 1,208 MLD of this was operational in 2013, there was a gap of nearly 80 per cent between treated and untreated waste water finding its way into the river, says a report of the New Delhi-based Centre of Science and Environment.

When the 3,969 MLD capacity sanctioned under Namami Gange till November 2018 comes online, the total treatment capacity would go up to 5,548 MLD, bringing down the gap between treated and untreated waste water (2013 estimate) to around 10 per cent. This suggests infrastructure gaps left under the GAP will largely be filled under Namami Gange.

And some gains are already visible. One, in Kanpur, the biggest sewage drain, Sisamau Nala, has been fully tapped and diverted to treatment plants. This 128-year-old drain discharged nearly 140 MLD of untreated waste water into the Ganga river. Two, at multiple points where the water quality of the Ganga is monitored, improvement, although inconsistent, has been noted in terms of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) and Dissolved Oxygen (DO), as reports of the UP Pollution Control Board show.

What apparently remains unchanged, however, is the process of sewage estimation. As under GAP, the assumption that 80 per cent of the water supplied returns as waste water remains the bases of sewage estimation under Namami Gange. Estimation based on this assumption under GAP were inaccurate.

But managers of the programme argue that estimation of the volume of sewage generated has become much more accurate now.

“Things have changed significantly since the Ganga Action Plan days. We now have in place arrangements which give us accurate data to make various estimates more precisely,” the officer quoted earlier argued.

This may be true, as a close look at the guidelines issued in 2018 shows that some provisions have been made for taking into account sources of water supply such as bore wells, hand pumps and tube wells while adopting a rate of water supply, on which estimation of volume of sewage depends.

Governance And Centre-State Coordination

Poor governance and lack of coordination between various bodies implementing GAP undid most of the little that was achieved under the programme. For example, Urban Local Bodies had very little role to play in the implementation of the programme and the operation of the infrastructure built under it but the ownership of these assets rested with them. This, a report prepared by consortium of seven IITs in 2011 says, made proper operation and maintenance of these assets difficult.

The disastrous effects of lack of governance and coordination are well documented. In 2013, CPCB found four of the eight STPs in UP exceeding the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) level - the amount of dissolved oxygen needed by aerobic biological organisms. A BOD level above the permissible limit indicates polluted water. Similarly, in Bihar and West Bengal, one and three STPs, respectively, exceeded the BOD limits. Moreover, 14 STPs out of 64 were found non-operational. In many cases, critical infrastructure was left handicapped due to lack of resources. For example, in Kanpur, a plant near Jajmau, a suburb of Kanpur home to large number of tanneries, had to discharge untreated water into the river due to regular power cuts.

GAP also lacked a viable financial model, and did not have effective performance-linked incentives, disincentives and penal provisions.

Apart from involving States and grassroots level institutions such as Urban Local Bodies and Panchayati Raj, and having a three-tier project monitoring mechanism (at Center, State and District level), the government has adopted a Hybrid Annuity based Public Private Partnership model for projects under Namami Gange.

Under this model, up to 40 per cent of the capital investment will be made by the government through construction-linked milestones. This would ensure timely completion of projects. The remaining capital will be paid over the life of the project as annuities along with operation and maintenance cost expenses, and will be linked to the performance of the STP. This would ensure continued optimal performance of the infrastructure commissioned under Namami Gange. The government has also adopted the One-City-One-Operator concept under which a single operator is made responsible for the entire sewage infrastructure of a city to ensure single point accountability and limit the possibility of incoordination.

Six STPs, which will have a combined treatment capacity of around 319 MLD, are already being constructed under this model in Varanasi, Haridwar, Mathura, Kanpur, Unnao, Farrukhabad and Parayagraj, some of the most polluting cities.

The STP coming up under this model in Mathura will supply two crore litres per day of treated sewage water to the Indian Oil refinery in the city, reducing its dependence on the water-stressed Yamuna river. The refinery will bear the entire cost of operations and maintenance of the Tertiary Treatment Plant to be built for this purpose.

“We have used this model to promote a market for reuse of treated waste water in India, which will further help in sustaining the operation of the infrastructure created, a need-of-the-hour in the sewage sector,” the official said.

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If the plan works out well, the Indian Railways and various power plants in the region would be using treated waste-water for non-potable purposes soon.

Minimum Flow In The Ganga

Another major issue that lead to the failure of GAP was the diminished flow of water in the river. Maintaining minimum flow in Ganga is necessary to keep the riverine ecosystem, which acts as a self-cleaning system, alive. Little to no effort was made under the GAP to maintain the minimum quantity of water — or ecological flow, as it is called in scientific circles. A large part of the water in the river is diverted for irrigation using the Upper and Lower Ganga Canals in Haridwar and Aligarh, respectively. The scale of diversion from rivers in the Ganga basin can be gauged from the fact that nearly 40 per cent of the irrigated land in India lies in the Ganga basin.

Namami Gange, however, lays special emphasis on aviralta or continuous flow to keep the riverine ecosystem alive. The Centre has, in a notification issued in October this year, mandated the minimum quantity of water that various stretches of the holy river must necessarily have all through the year.

Under the new norms, hydropower projects located along the river will have to modify their operations to ensure they are in compliance. This change is unlikely to have any impact on power generation and, therefore, tariff.

“The (hydropower) projects actually did not generate much energy in the lean season. The plant load factor showed that even in the unrestricted scenario (e-flow of 10 per cent or less) there was no water to make energy in the lean season,” Dayal has pointed out in his paper.

The notification also mandates Central and State authorities to implement demand side management plans to reduce water withdrawal from the river.

River Basin Approach

The Ganga has ten major tributaries, along with which it drains 26 per cent of India’s total geographical area. Untreated waste water which finds its way into its tributaries, including Yamuna - one of the world’s most polluted rivers, reaches Ganga at some point. Therefore, any strategy which does not take into account this waste water is bound to fail in achieving the aim of clean Ganga.

Unlike GAP, which was mostly focused on the abatement of pollution along the main stretch of river Ganga, Namami Gange adopts a holistic approach with river basin (the area drained by a river and its tributaries) as the unit of planning.

At least 30 projects have been sanctioned for tributaries of the Ganga in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Haryana, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh to create treatment capacity of 1353 MLD and laying of 436 km sewerage network.

This approach, the Centre says, has already started to show results. It claims that manual and real-time monitoring at 124 locations shows that water quality trend has improved in Ramganga and its tributaries before its confluence with Ganga.

The CPCB appears to support the Centre's claims in its Biological Water Quality Assessment of the River Ganga for 2017-18.

“Biological water quality of tributary Ramganga d/s of Moradabad improved from Heavy (2014-16) to Moderate Pollution in the following year (2017-18),” CPCB’s report claims. “Biological water quality of River Varuna was found to be improved from Severe to Moderate pollution after monsoon (2017-18),” it adds.

Sanitation

Although eradicating open defecation was one of the many aims of GAP, little was achieved on this front. However, under Modi’s Swachh Bharat Mission, 99.93 per cent villages lying on the banks of Ganga have been declared Open Defecation Free. More than 2.7 million toilets have been constructed in over 4,000 such villages, also known as Ganga Grams, with the aim of reducing the level of faecal coliform, a bacterium that enters the water through the faeces of warm-blooded animals.

Results of this effort are visible at some of the most polluted stretches of the Ganga. In 2014, level of faecal coliform at Bithoor in Kanpur, according to a CPCB report titled ‘Microbial Characterisation of Ganga’, was 3,500 per 100 ml against the maximum permissible limit of 2,500 per 100 ml. In 2017, data collected at the left bank, mid-stream and right bank at Bithoor’s showed the level of faecal coliform was 49 per 100 ml, 49 per 100 ml and >1600 per 100 ml, respectively. Similar improvement was seen Rajghat in Kannauj, Dalmau in Raebareli and other places.

However, some concerns remain. One, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had, in its December 2017 report, pointed out that states had failed to get the ODF status of 1,144 villages verified through their own teams or a third party. And two, in areas where there is no sewerage network, most toilets use on-site arrangements like septic tanks for disposal of waste. Due to the absence of a formalised faecal sludge management system, safe disposal of septage will be a challenge in the long run. If not disposed safely, it may undo the progress made on this front.

Therefore, even with its share of problems, Modi’s Namami Gange seems to be turning a corner. Prospects of Ganga being nirmal and aviral again have never looked brighter. And when he seeks re-election in 2019, Modi can rightly claim credit for this.

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