The Ganga has been revered through the ages. Apart from mythological references, the constant flow and presence of certain organisms in its waters have bestowed a special status on it. The holy river has nurtured civilisation along its banks from time immemorial. But, in return humans along the riverside, and beyond, kept inundating it with waste. And the Ganga continued to carry it all quietly down the stream. With time, the garbage burgeoned. Despite the awe and reverence the river evoked, people did not think twice about polluting its waters. Over the years, an enormous amount of money has been poured into India’s holiest river to clean it up yet the level of toxins in the waters of the Ganga has not reduced.
Despite generating more than 40% of India’s GDP in the densely populated Ganga Basin, the river is facing threats impacting water quality and flow. In some places, like Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, the quality of water is affected by effluents from industries while in Bihar’s capital of Patna, the river’s flow has shifted away from its earlier banks for a long stretch.
This year, a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) mentioned that the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited had failed to meet its deadline for use of funds to improve the sewage infrastructure. The report, tabled in the Bihar Assembly on March 30, 2021, said that the Bihar State Ganga River Conservation and Programme Management Society had utilised only ₹1,349.04 crore of the sanctioned ₹5,487.76 crore till December 31, 2020, leaving a substantial part of the fund unused.
It was reported that the C&AG observed that only 16% to 50% of funds were being utilised annually during the financial years 2016-2017 to 2019-2020. The audit is also said to have pointed out that the state capital’s drainage system was in bad shape.
According to Minister of State for Jal Shakti Bishweswar Tudu, the audit of annual accounts of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) is carried out by the office of the C&AG. The audit for the financial year 2021-22 was undertaken over August 8-26, 2022. The audit report was received from the office of the C&AG on October 25, said the minister’s statement on December 8, 2022.
A report by the C&AG mentioned that the Bihar Urban Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited had failed to meet its deadline for use of funds
While answering a question, Tudu informed the Lower House that under the Namami Gange Programme, a comprehensive set of interventions such as wastewater treatment, solid waste management, river front management (ghats and crematoria development), flow, afforestation, biodiversity conservation, public participation and so on had been taken up for rejuvenation of the Ganga and its tributaries. So far, he added, a total of 406 projects had been taken up at an estimated cost of ₹32,897.83 crore.
The programme was launched in June 2014 for a period up to March 31, 2021. A total of ₹13,624.86 crore was provided for this in the budgets between the financial years 2014-15 to 2020-21. Out of this amount, ₹10,217.02 crore was released to the NMCG.
The Namami Gange Programme was subsequently extended upto March 31, 2026, the minister said, adding that ₹4,700 crore had been provided for the project in the budgets for the financial years 2021-2022 and 2022-2023.
Cleaning the Ganga
The Ganga Basin is the largest of its kind in India in terms of catchment area. It constitutes over a quarter of the country’s land mass and supports more than 40% of the total population. The sprawling Ganga Basin provides over one-third of India’s surface water and includes the country’s largest irrigated area.
Hurtling down the Himalaya, many headstreams and tributaries pour their water into the river before it splashes through the plains in Uttarakhand and then meanders south to meet the Yamuna in Prayagraj (Allahabad). Then it flows eastward, letting tributaries and rivulets branch off on its way, and enters Bihar, and then West Bengal, before emptying into the Bay of Bengal. It also continues into Bangladesh as the Padma, but eventually drains into the same estuary.
Well over three-quarters of the Ganga Basin is in India, with the rest in Nepal and Bangladesh. In India, apart from Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, it includes Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, and Delhi too. Over 80% of the pollution load flowing into the Ganga comes from untreated domestic wastewater from towns and cities along the river and its tributaries, according to the World Bank.
A Ministry of Science and Technology statement in December 2021 shared the highlights from a study by a team of experts that found the water quality in the lower stretches of the Ganga “alarming”. With the support of the Department of Science and Technology (DST) –Water Technology Initiative, the experts conducted a study to assess the state of health of the river.
The team was led by Professor Punyasloke Bhadury from the Integrative Taxonomy and Microbial Ecology Research Group (ITMERG) at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. The scientists monitored nine sites comprising 59 stations along 50 km of the lower stretch of the Ganga over two years to understand the dynamics of key environmental variables, including forms of dissolved nitrogen along with biological proxies. Their findings, published in Environment Research Communications journal recently, came up with the Water Quality Index (WQI) of the place—a key metric that helps understand the health and ecological consequences in the lower stretch of the river.
Critics have pointed out drawbacks of the Environment (Protection) Act. While it gives the Centre broad powers, state governments are given none
The study said that WQI values of this stretch of the Ganga were “continuously deteriorating irrespective of the season of sampling”. The scientists also identified the point sources along with types of pollutants, in particular forms of nitrogen with effect on biota along the stretch that required immediate intervention for effective river basin management.
Saying that the experts reported a “continuous deterioration of water quality”, the ministry statement warned that the water quality in this stretch “was found to be in an alarming situation” by the team. It inferred, “Rapid human pressure and anthropogenic activities has resulted in release of untreated municipal and industrial sewages along with other forms of pollutants in the River Ganga. In particular, the lower stretches of the River Ganga, close to the megapolis Kolkata, are heavily influenced by anthropogenic factors, mainly due to intense population pressure on both sides of the river banks. As a result, there has been marked increase in discharge of untreated municipal and industrial sewages in the lower stretch of River Ganges with consequences for many unique and biodiversity ecosystems such as the Sundarbans mangrove and endangered charismatic species such as the Gangetic Dolphin”.
This deterioration, reported in a scientific paper, comes even after the Environment (Protection) Act, which was passed in 1986 with the primary goal of protecting and improving the environment and matters related to it. The 42nd Amendment to the Constitution stipulated conservation of the environment, including forests, lakes, rivers, and animals, as a duty of the people of the country. In February 2009, the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was established under the Act as a planning, funding, monitoring, and coordinating agency to control pollution and protect the Ganga by using a river basin approach to comprehensive planning and management. The NGRBA was intended to make efforts to effectively reduce pollution and conserve the Ganga.
Critics have pointed out certain drawbacks in the Environment (Protection) Act. They include the fact that while it gives the Centre broad powers, state governments are given none. It has also been said that the Act makes no mention of public participation in protection of the environment. Moreover, it does not address pollutants such as noise, overcrowded transportation systems, radiation waves, and similar issues that damage the environment.
It was perhaps to provide fresh impetus that the Narendra Modi-led government recast the old initiatives under a new moniker called Namami Gange. The project is intended to be an integrated river conservation mission that envisages pollution abatement, conservation and rejuvenation of the Ganga and its tributaries in a holistic manner. It is focused on treatment of wastewater, along with preservation of ecology and biodiversity of the river. Special emphasis is also placed on wetland conservation and spring rejuvenation. The NMCG is the implementing arm of the Namami Gange Programme.
In October 2016, the NMCG became an Authority, which empowered it under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act to push for speedy implementation of the Namami Gange programme. The Authority Order envisages a five-tier structure at national, state and district levels to take measures for prevention, control and abatement of environmental pollution in the Ganga and to ensure continuous adequate flow of water so as to rejuvenate the river.
This structure includes the National Ganga Council headed by the prime minister, the Empowered Task Force headed by the Union Minister for Jal Shakti, the NMCG, State Ganga Committees and District Ganga Committees. The NMCG is headed by the director general, an additional secretary-level officer.
Namami Gange focuses on the restoration of ecology around the entire Ganga basin and communicating to the people the social, religious as well as economic relevance of the holy river. At the time of the launch, the budgetary outlay of the Namami Gange programme was ₹20,000 crore for a period of five years. The budgetary allocation for the second phase of the Namami Gange programme till 2026 is ₹22,500 crore. Executed by the NMCG, the “5-R” Concept of Circular Economy is at the helm of policy decisions being taken. This includes Reducing Wastage, Recycling Water, Reusing Water, Rejuvenating Rivers and, most importantly, Respecting Water.
Under the Namami Gange programme, a total of 406 projects have been taken up at an estimated cost of ₹32,897.83crore. Of these, 224 projects have been completed. The Ministry of Jal Shakti has reiterated that cleaning of rivers is a continuous process and the Centre is “supplementing the efforts of state governments in addressing the challenges of pollution in Ganga and its tributaries by providing financial and technical assistance under Namami Gange Programme”.
The World Bank has been supporting the government’s efforts through the ongoing National Ganga River Basin Project, which helped set up the NMCG as the nodal agency
The government has assured that the projects “have now taken their pace and efforts are now being made to complete the projects by their scheduled completion timeline”. The ministry statement has also cited the impediments faced during the implementation of the project. It included delays in obtaining permissions for road-cutting, railways and national highway crossings, land procurement, forest clearances, change of sites, abnormal floods, and so on.
Ganga Water Quality
Meanwhile, river water quality is being assessed for primary water quality criteria notified for outdoor bathing. As per best-use water quality criteria for drinking water specified by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), river water can be used for drinking purpose only after appropriate treatment. The CPCB is carrying out studies for water quality assessment of the Ganga at 97 locations in the five main stem states. The assessment is being done through the respective State Pollution Control Boards (SPCBs).
It has been officially stated that water quality assessment in 2022 (January to September) has indicated that the median value of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) has been found to be within acceptable limits of notified primary bathing water quality criteria and “satisfactory to support the ecosystem of river for almost entire stretch of river Ganga”. Value of DO is an indicator of river health. The median value of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) has been found “within the acceptable limits except marginal exceedance” in some places. Such locations include the stretch from Kannauj upstream to Kala Kankar, and downstream Mirzapur to Tarighat, Ghazipur (except upstream Varanasi, Assighat) in Uttar Pradesh, and at Shitalatala, Palta in West Bengal.
In Uttar Pradesh alone, about 139.419 million litres per day (MLD) of effluents are being discharged into the Ganga. Based on manual water quality assessment by the CPCB in 2021 (January to May), pH (median) and DO (median) “are meeting the primary water quality criteria for bathing at all the monitoring locations in Uttar Pradesh”.
“Faecal Coliforms (median),” added the Jal Shakti ministry’s statement, “is meeting the primary water quality criteria for bathing in the entire stretch of river in Uttar Pradesh except upstream Kanpur (Ranighat), Shuklaganj downstream to Bathing Ghat (Jajmau bridge), downstream Mirzapur to Tarighat, Ghazipur (except upstream Varanasi, Assighat).” Indeed, at Varanasi’s Assighat, where scores of boats dotted the river surface with tourists taking joyrides in the twilight, the Ganga water appeared cleaner than a few years ago. Navigating his vessel through the river traffic, boatman Sunil reiterated that the water quality had indeed improved.
“I’ve literally been brought up in the lap of Mother Ganga. My family have been boatmen for four generations,” he said, emphasising that he is witness to the water turning dirtier and then, “in the last few years”, becoming “much cleaner”.
The World Bank has been supporting the government’s efforts since 2011 through the ongoing National Ganga River Basin Project (NGRBP), which helped set up the NMCG as the nodal agency to manage the river, and financed sewage treatment infrastructure in several riverside towns and cities.
In July 2020, the World Bank and the Government of India signed a loan agreement to enhance support for the Namami Gange Programme. This was the second NGRBP to help stem pollution in the iconic river and strengthen the management of the river basin which is home to more than 500 million people. The $400 million operation comprises a loan of $381 million and a proposed guarantee of up to $19 million.