Cleaning Ganga is Not Impossible

Failure of the Clean Ganga action plan is a shocking tale of official apathy and corruption. Government must opt for a treatment plan, based on activated sludge process

Efforts to clean the Ganga started way back in 1979. The Central Pollution Control Board was directed to undertake a comprehensive survey, and its report ultimately formed the basis for setting up of the Central Ganga Authority in February 1985. The Government also decided to set up the Ganga Project Directorate as a wing of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, with a budget of Rs350 crore, to administer the cleaning-up of the Ganga and to restore it to pristine condition. The first phase of the Ganga Action Plan was launched by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986.

In the span of three decades, about Rs2,000 crore have been spent on cleaning the river by various Governments. However, there is not much to show on the ground and the Ganga remains as polluted as before. Meanwhile, the Ganga Action Plan has earned various nicknames, such as the ‘Ganga in-action plan’, ‘pumps and pipes scheme’; and the media has often referred to it as ‘gaping holes in the GAP’. In other words, cleaning the Ganga has been a colossal failure.

Like all Central schemes, this plan too was dreamt, designed, executed and administered by the babus and their team of assorted experts.  The failure of the Clean Ganga plan is yet another shocking tale of official apathy and corruption, with most of the money going down the drain, as the key element, which is accountability, was missing at vital levels of execution and operation.

From 1993 onwards, the second phase of the GAP was formed to cover four major tributaries of the Ganga — the Yamuna, the Gomti, the Damodar and the Mahananda. With the inclusion of other rivers in 1995, the plan was re-named as the National River Conservation Plan. Unfortunately, without reviewing the results, 34 other rivers were also taken up for cleaning with the same failed model of GAP.

Explanations are numerous. Those reviewing the project appropriate the blame for the failure of this plan to the State, various stake holders and others in the chain of command and execution. Over the last three decades, the Central and the State leadership as well as the staffing in GAP has seen innumerable changes and the organisation has only stumbled without any vision or commitment.

No less than six initiatives were planned to clean the Ganga. Starting with the construction of interception and diversion of the drains which would channel all city sewage into a series of Sewage Treatment Plants, to ensure that it gets treated and is pollution-free before being discharged into the Ganga. While the I&D project had a lion’s share of 52 per cent, 34 STPs account for almost 37 per cent of the funds spent. Other minor, though equally important, initiatives were low-cost sanitation projects, riverfront development plans, environment-friendly crematoria along the Ganga and public participation and awareness programmes.  

However, in a typical bureaucratic approach, the accent has been more of an organisational structure — monitoring, setting up of various electronic gizmos and an inspector raj, rather close supervision of construction of scores of I&Ds and ensuring efficient operation of STPs, which unfortunately remained a State prerogative with its own inefficient ways of working .

An estimated, 75 per cent of the river pollution is contributed by municipality sewage, while industries located along the Ganga account for about 25 per cent. Though attempts have been made to involve all stake holders, most of them have shown little or no interest in the mission preferring to make token inputs for pollution control with the usual incentive to make the inspector look the other way.

Perhaps in this regard, the Diesel Locomotive Works, Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has a unique model to offer. Its STP, with a capacity of over 12 million litres a day, handles all the sewage from a 25,000-strong township. Another industrial effluent treatment plant of three MLD capacity re-cycles water for lawns, treated water from STP storage is used for irrigation of lawns such as the Surya Sarovar and other ponds located in the complex.

The STP working on the ‘activated sludge process’ was built at a cost of Rs2.54 crore in 1989 and has performed flawlessly since then while industrial pollutants such as waste oil, lubricants and grease are separated based on the design of the American Petroleum Institute. Not a drop of industrial effluent or sewage has ever flown from DLW complex into the Ganga for the last 25 years.

 RC Acharya | in Oped (The writer is a former Member, Railway Board)