‘Namami Gange’, the national mission to clean the Ganga river, has failed to deliver on most of its promises. It has become more about sewage and effluent management and a lot less about improving the quality or quantity of flow across the river’s length of 2,500 km. During the Kumbh Mela from January to March, clean water flowed in the river because the UP administration let water originating from only the Himalayan mountains into its path, for bathing rituals. The plan worked and no disease epidemics were reported; it also won Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath many political points.
Given the importance the Bharatiya Janata Party government attaches to cleaning the Ganga, it must take stock of the situation, addressing progress and stumbling blocks credibly and beyond rhetoric. For one, it needs to abandon the belief that the river will be cleaned anytime soon and reorganise under a more realistic plan. This includes reassessing the mission’s priorities. It has accorded undue prominence to establishing sewage and effluent treatment plants, shifting the focus away from the river’s minimum flow.
The concept of ‘sewage-free’ water need to be seriously considered, which would mean all treated waters will need to be recycled and reused in the towns and cities that produce them, even as the river’s flow is completely supported by water from the Himalaya, currently stored in reservoirs in the river’s upper reaches.
The fixation with treatment plants, toilets and beautification has made it more of an infrastructure project with little concern for nature’s hydrological cycle. It’s time to understand the Ganga more deeply from a hydrological perspective, through automated flow gauges and water quality sensors, linked to automated reservoir operations that ensure minimum flow in across different sections of the river. This will help flush the pollution loads.
The decision-making hierarchy should help identify reservoirs needed to maintain minimum flow and identify those that need to be decommissioned, to minimise the risk of flash floods and landslides.
In effect, the project design needs to incorporate externalities linked to mining, environmental degradation, the climate emergency, seismicity, floods, landslides, flood-bank encroachment, marine environment and groundwater recharge.
Wishing away climatic disasters, such as unseasonal storms, landslides, droughts, etc., would be a major blunder. The pressure to spend Rs 20,000 crore on treatment plants, beautifying the banks and other small interventions needs to be substituted with a commitment to keeping the river clean and flowing, which in turn will flush pollutants better.
The government should place measurable indicators of the performance of the Clean Ganga in the public domain. The success needs to be measured in terms river discharge, colour, floating matter, pollution load, odour, livelihood, fish varieties and availability of water for bathing. The centralised decision-making needs to be turned upside down, adopting a bottom-up approach to set up need-based solutions. Ultimately success should be measured through issues that resonate with stakeholders, not by counting the number of structures erected or the amount of money spent.
Overall, the project of cleaning the Ganga needs to be broken down into several smaller and more manageable problems, each of which is addressed with its own customised solution (not limited to treatment plants. Local bodies should be empowered to participate in decision-making as well as to recycle all the treated sewage for secondary use.
Large treatment plants are like nuclear reactors: easy to build and difficult to tame. India has always been bad at operating treatment plants. Even when one does work, the treated water is considered unsafe because it contains organic contaminants, fine sediments, bacteria, viruses, toxins and heavy metals.
Global practices have moved beyond centralised sewage systems because they are unsustainable. Decentralised and energy-neutral sewage treatment plants that can recover fertilisers, bio-plastics, cellulose and even protein are the way to do. India needs to develop a business model to recover secondary products, including water, to enable a sewage-free Ganga. It also needs to develop economic models that help local bodies maintain the systems and so reduce the risks of failure.
K.A.S. Mani is a groundwater engineer.