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Indian Culture And Traditions

Can We Save The Immortal Ganga
By KP Prabhakaran Nair, July 2014

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The  river Ganga is our national heritage. According to legend, when a  sinner takes a dip in the holy Ganga, he/she washes away all the  sins. This author with his family was recently in Varanasi to visit  the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple which was desecrated by the Moghul  tyrant, Aurangzeb, who built a mosque where the temple stood. It was  Rani Ahalya Bai who recovered the Siva Linga from a nearby well and  later got it installed in the new temple; Narendra Modi visited this  temple after winning a landslide victory in the Parliamentary  election.

We  went to witness the aarti on the banks of the Ganga, which starts every evening at 7 p.m. and  is witnessed by lakhs of people, including foreign tourists, who come  to Varanasi to witness this unique spectacle. Narendra Modi had  wished to partake in this aarti before his election, but the UP Government had denied permission.

Along  the banks are the famous Harischandra Ghat and Ahalya Ghat. It is  here that Bharat’s most truthful king, Harischandra, demanded  payment from his wife when she brought the body of their son for  cremation; it is one of the greatest examples in Hindu history of the  value of absolute truthfulness. There are several ghats on the bank  of Ganga. Hindus believe that a human being cremated on the banks of  Ganga gets salvation. Unfortunately, many throw away half-burnt  bodies into this holy river. Now, the pollution of the Ganga is  getting political attention. When Narendra Modi won from Varanasi he  came and witnessed the famous “Ganga Aarti” and later gave Water  Resources Minister Uma Bharati the task to clean the Ganga. What does  it take to clean our holiest river? To understand, let us take a  critical look at the state in which mother Ganga is now in.

Sisamu  Nala: Kanpur’s most polluted and largest open drain, which spews  waste into the Ganga



As  we took a boat ride on the Ganga, we found our boatman fidgety as he  rowed his boat. He had to control himself from spitting the betel nut  juice in his mouth, as that would now invite a penalty of Rs 10000 or  a jail term of three days under the new order of Uma Bharati. One may  wonder what a little spit would do to the Ganga. The following  details will show how the river has become so polluted, including  from human spittle.

In  1986, the government launched the first phase of Ganga Action Plan  (GAP-I) to protect the country’s largest river basin. It selected  stretches of the river along 25 cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and  West Bengal. In 1993, GAP-II was initiated which included the river’s  tributaries - the Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and the Mahanadi. On  February 20, 2009, the Union government gave the Ganga the status of  a National River and re-launched GAP with a reconstituted National  Ganga River Basin Authority.

The  re-launched GAP took into account the entire river basin and  emphasised the river’s need to have adequate water to maintain its  ecological flow. But five years after the re-launch, pollution levels  are still, to say the least, grim. Rivers have the ability to clean  themselves - to assimilate and treat biological waste using sunlight  and oxygen. But the Ganga gets no time to breathe and revive. There  are more settlements and more people living along its banks. All take  water and return only waste. The Ganga dies not once but many times  in its 2,500 km journey from Gangotri in the Himalayas to Diamond  Harbour in the Bay of Bengal (see ‘Highly polluted stretches’  below).



The  July 2013 report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows  unacceptable levels of faecal coliform, (E. Coli, a clear sign of  human excreta, all along the river’s mainstream). It is even more  worrying that faecal coliform levels are increasing even in upper  reaches like Rudraprayag and Devprayag, where the river’s  oxygenating ability is the highest. In these parts, water withdrawal  for hydropower plants has put the river’s health in danger. As the  Ganga flows down the plains, water is taken away for irrigation and  drinking, so much so that during winters and peak summer months the  river goes dry in many parts, and only sewage flows between its  banks. The holy river is, thus, converted into a stinking sewer.

Why  is Ganga so polluted?

Thirty-six  settlements, classified as Class-I cities, contribute 96 per cent of  wastewater draining into the river. According to CPCB’s 2013  report, 2,723 million litres per day (mld) of domestic sewage is  discharged by cities along the river. But even this may be a gross  underestimate as the calculation is based on the water that is  supplied in the cities. As city managers often do not supply all the  water that is used - much is groundwater - the actual sewage is often  higher. This is what CPCB found when it measured the discharge from  drains into the Ganga - 6,000 mld was discharged into the river.

Needless  to say, the capacity to treat this sewage is inadequate. But it is  even smaller if we consider two facts: one, that the gap between  sewage generation and treatment remains the same every year - 55 per  cent. So even as treatment capacity is added, more sewage gets added  because of population growth. The situation worsens if the actual  measured discharge from drains is taken to estimate the pollution  load. Then the gap between what is installed and what is generated  goes up to 80 per cent.

Over  and above this, 764 industrial units along the main stretch of the  river and its tributaries Kali and Ramganga discharge 500 mld of  mostly toxic waste. All efforts to rein in this pollution have  failed.

The  horror does not end here. These cities have grown without planning  and investment, so most do not have underground drainage networks.  Even in Allahabad and Varanasi 80 per cent of the areas are without  sewers. Waste is generated but not conveyed to treatment plants.  There is no power to run treatment plants; bankrupt municipalities  and water utilities have no money to pay for operations. CPCB checked  51 out of 64 sewage treatment plants (STPs) along the Ganga in 2013 and found only 60 per cent of installed capacity was being used; 30  per cent of the STPs were not even operational. So actual treatment  is even less, and untreated waste discharged into the river even  more.

Ganga’s  journey through Uttar Pradesh - from Kanpur through Unnao, Fatehpur  to Rai Bareilly and then Allahabad and Varanasi via Mirzapur - is  killing. The river does not get the chance to assimilate the waste  poured into it from cities and industries. It is only in Allahabad  that some cleaner water is added through the Yamuna, which helps it  to recover somewhat. Then as it moves towards Varanasi, sewage is  poured in again. It dies again.

This  land is where the poorest of India live; where urban governance is  almost non-existent; and pollution thrives. In 2013, CPCB identified  33 drains along the Kanpur-Varanasi stretch with high biological  oxygen demand (BOD), the key indicator of pollution. Of the 33, seven  are big offenders, with high BOD load.

Uttar  Pradesh has 687 grossly polluting industries, the CPCB found. These  largely small scale, often illegal units - tanneries, sugar, pulp,  paper and chemical - contribute 270 mld of wastewater. But what  really matters is the location of the plants. While over 400  tanneries contribute only 8 per cent of the industrial discharge,  they spew highly toxic effluent into the river and are located as a  cluster near Kanpur. So the concentration of pollution is high. And  the law is helpless. In 2013, an inspection of 404 industrial units  by CPCB showed that all but 23 did not comply with the law.  Directions have been issued and closure notices served. But it is  business as usual.

Pollution  has unnerved the people living along the river. After Uma Shankar  manages to rinse his mouth, he says, “We cannot wash or bathe or  catch fish. Why are the drains that pour in the city’s filth not  plugged? People talk of cleaning the Ganga. The slogan should be  ‘save the Ganga’.”

Save  Ganga Movement is a widespread Gandhian non-violent movement  supported by saints and social activists across Uttar Pradesh and  Bihar in support of a free Ganga. The movement is supported by Ganga  Seva Abhiyanam, Pune-based National Women's Organisation (NWO) and  many like-minded organisations and with moral support from many  religious leaders, political scientists, environmentalists, writers  and others. Ganga Calling–Save Ganga is another campaign supported  by Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action (ICELA).

  Ganga  is the largest and the most sacred river of India with enormous  spiritual, cultural, and physical influence. It provides water to  about 40% of India's population in 11 states. It is estimated that  the livelihoods of over 500 million people in India are dependent  upon the river, and that one-third of India's population lives within  the Ganges Basin. Despite this magnitude of influence and control by  the river over present and future generations, it is allegedly under  direct threat from various manmade and natural environmental issues.

  The  river flows through the most densely populated regions, passing 29  cities with population over 100,000, 23 cities with population  between 50,000 and 100,000, and about 48 towns. A sizeable proportion  of the effluents are caused by this population through domestic usage  like bathing, laundry and public defecation. Countless tanneries,  chemical plants, textile mills, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and  hospitals contribute to the pollution by dumping untreated toxic and  non-biodegradable waste into it. It is this sheer volume of  pollutants released into the river daily that are causing irreparable  damage to the ecosystem and contributing to significant sanitation  issues.

  Dams

Built  in 1854 during British rule, the Haridwar dam has led to the decay of  the Ganges by greatly diminishing the flow of the river. The Farakka  Barrage was built originally to divert fresh water into the  Bhagirathi River, but has since caused an increase of salinity in the  Ganges, having a damaging effect on the ground water and soil along  the river. Bangladesh and India face major tensions due to this  barrage. The Government of India planned about 300 dams on the Ganga  and its tributaries in the near future despite a  Government-commissioned green panel report that has recommended  scrapping 34 of the dams citing environmental concerns.

Global  warming

  Gangotri  glacier which feeds the river Ganges is 30.2 km long and between 0.5  and 2.5 km wide, one of the largest in the Himalaya. However, due to  global warming it has been receding since 1780; studies show its  retreat quickened after 1971. Over the last 25 years, Gangotri  glacier has retreated more than 850 meters, with a recession of 76  meters from 1996 to 1999 alone. The UN 2007 Climate Change Report has  suggested that the glacial flow may completely stop by 2030, at which  point the Ganges would be reduced to a seasonal river during the  monsoon season.

Failure  of Ganga Action Plan

The  Ganga Action Plan was launched by the then Prime Minister Rajiv  Gandhi on 14 January 1986, with the main objective of pollution  abatement, to improve water quality by Interception, Diversion and  treatment of domestic sewage and present toxic and industrial  chemical wastes from identified grossly polluting units entering into  the river. The other objectives of the Ganga Action Plan are as  under:

- Control of non-point pollution from agricultural run-off, human  defecation, cattle wallowing and throwing of unburnt and half burnt  bodies into the river.
- Research and Development to conserve the biotic diversity of the  river to augment its productivity.
- New technology of sewage treatment like Up-flow Anaerobic Sludge  Blanket (UASB) and sewage treatment through afforestation has been  successfully developed.
- Rehabilitation of soft-shelled turtles for pollution abatement of  river have been demonstrated and found useful.
- Resource recovery options like production of methane for energy  generation and use of aquaculture for revenue generation have been  demonstrated.
- To act as trend setter for taking up similar action plans in other  grossly polluted stretches in other rivers.

  But  efforts to decrease the pollution level in the river became abortive  even after spending Rs 9017.1 million, so the plan was withdrawn.  Ganga is life, all Indians must join to save it.

  First  published Click here to view

Also  see pics of
1. Gangotri/Gaumukh
2. Devprayag
3. Kashi
4. Prayag
5. Dev Deepavali Kashi

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