Municipal waste is the major source of pollution for the river Ganga, which passes through 66 districts, 118 towns and 1,657 gram panchayats. Although the quantity of industrial effluents is lower, experts close to the ‘Clean Ganga’ movement feels that these effluents are more harmful.
Now the question arises as to why our current laws and sewage treatment plants are not enough to clean the Ganga. There are a couple of reasons — one of them is insufficient number of sewage treatment plants (STPs). Incidentally, creating STPs was at the core of the Ganga Action Plan that began in 1985. Around 1,000 million litres of STP capacity per day was set up, but the lackadaisical attitude of state governments and lack of maintenance by municipal authorities has kept a large part of this capacity on paper alone.
Cleaning the Ganga will be one of the most important tasks for the government. Around one-third of India’s population of 1.2 billion lives on the floodplains of the 2,510 km-long river. Shockingly, only 45 per cent of the 11 billion litres of sewage that flows into the river from 118 towns is treated.
Another major challenge that stops the Ganga from being clean are these shocking facts: around 1.1 million litres of human excrement is discharged into the river every minute, 140-200 tons of incompletely cremated bodies are dumped into the Ganga every year and around 15,000 tons of ash is released annually.
A state-wise analysis suggests that Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal together generate over 7,300 million litres of sewage per day that flows directly or indirectly into the river.
About half of this comes from Tier-I and Tier-II towns like Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi. Currently, the five states together have the capacity to treat only about 3,300 million litres of sewage — or about 45 per cent of the total. The rest flows into the river untreated.
This volume might be actually greater than we assume, as large parts of major urban centres like Kanpur and Varanasi are not even connected to the sewage network, and their waste remains unaccounted for.
In addition, it’s not only urban sewage — rural sewage also has its share. The sewage that 1,650 gram panchayats generate goes directly to the banks of the Ganga, which is untreated.
Uttar Pradesh alone accounts for around 667 of a total of 764 grossly polluting industries on the main stem of the river. These include tanneries, paper and pulp industries, sugar mills, dyeing factories, distilleries, and cement plants. Effluents from all these industries flows directly, untreated, into the river. Tanneries near Kanpur alone generate about 25 million litres of effluents daily.
Meanwhile, out of the 667 industries, around 270 have already received a closure notice. These were operating without consent or effluent treatment plants (ETPs). The number of people gainfully employed in these mentioned industries is more than 10,000 (direct employment) and 50,000 are employed indirectly. Therefore, closing these industries would mean that sources of fresh employment will have to be created for the dislodged workers.
Finally, political will is needed to work towards the river cleansing process; a clean river will ultimately add to the revenues of the states concerned in terms of tourism, and also improve their health indices. The current political scenario indicates that this decision will not come in a hurry.