Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
How clean are our waters?
It is said that the rivers of India have a natural capacity to cleanse themselves. With growing urbanisation, agricultural demands for water increasing and sewage spewing into our depleted river systems, this innate capacity to rejuvenate is being sorely tested. The Yamuna, which in the lean months is reduced to a trickle and the Sabarmati, are the most polluted rivers of the country. Pollution levels rise phenomenally when the water in the rivers decreases.
There are also disturbing reports of the Ganga drying up because the Gangotri glacier, its main source of water, is receding at the rate of 10 to 30 metres a year. The actual disappearance of the river that sprang from the locks of Lord Shiva's head may take 5,000 years, but for a country whose entire tradition and religious ethos is woven around this sacred river, this would be a sad day.
Dr. R. C. Trivedi of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), who is monitoring water quality at 507 points on all major rivers in the country, is extremely concerned about the fate of our rivers. The horrifying fact is that all government efforts to rejuvenate the water bodies have come to naught. No bureaucrat will, however, agree. If, indeed, we are serious about saving our rivers, the public at large, people who revere our rivers, have to take on the challenge of keeping them clean.
Most rivers are facing a water shortage and that is a major problem, heightening the pollution level. In the last 20 years, the area under agriculture has been augmented with increased irrigation drawn from our rivers. The use of fertilisers and pesticides has increased in a big way and this in turn has pushed up the demand for water for irrigation.
In the non-monsoon period it is the underground water that comes into rivers to recharge them. The subterranean aquifers are the biggest contributors to the water flow of the rivers in the lean months. Over the last two decades there has been a mushroom growth of tube wells in and around the major river basins of the country and they have drained the water from the underground reservoirs of our water basins. The water table has dropped by two to three metres in most parts of the country. In Gujarat it is down by four to five metres.
The depletion of underground water is matched by overuse of surface water. All our major rivers have been dammed at several points and water diverted into canals for irrigation. What were magnificent, perennial rivers 20 years ago have been reduced to seasonal ribbons of water now, says Dr. Trivedi.
In fact, the water pollution scenario is quite frightening. With the population explosion, urban centres are spreading and there is greater generation of waste water. Our municipalities, even if they have the most honourable intentions, are not able to find the resources to treat waste water.
Dr. Trivedi says 16,000 mld (million litres daily) is generated from class 1 cities, with a population of over 1,00,000. From class 2 cities (population of 50,000 to 1 lakh), 1600 mlds are generated. Since 1978, the CPCB has been maintaining a ten-year inventory of waste water produced.
Of the 17,600 million litres of waste water generated in the country every day, only 4,000 million litres are treated. Vast quantities of untreated waste water are getting into our water bodies and the environment.
If, however, you look at the river system in totality, the problem does not seem that acute. Of the 45,000 km length of our rivers, 6,000 km have a bio-oxygen demand (BOD) above 3mg/l (milligrams per litres), which means they are unfit for drinking, says Dr. Dilip Biswas, chairman of the CPCB. The Sabarmati has a BOD of 15 to20 mg/l and the Yamuna, a critically sick river, a BOD of 35 to 40 mg/l. The coliform content in the Yamuna is as high as in raw sewage, says R. P. Sharma, adviser to the National River Conservation Authority in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. In fact for all practical purposes the Yamuna is dead.
In Punjab and Haryana where the sewage is farmed, 90 per cent of the waste water is used for irrigation and does not get into the water system. In Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, too, waste water is used for irrigation. While some environmentalists may be willing to justify the use of waste water for irrigation, others point out that the high content of pathogenes in waste water would affect the purity of tomatoes and other vegetables even while providing them nutrients for their growth.
We have leap-frogged into the 21st Century and are upbeat about our prowess in information technology, but we are in the bullock cart age in management of our sewage. A large number of our cities have no sewer lines so sewage accumulates in ugly, smelly cesspools that attract mosquitoes, then leach into the groundwater. Some cities have sewer lines but they are choked by garbage and the accumulated waste water then percolates into the groundwater.
In India the main source of river pollution is city sewage. However, industrial pollutants are on the rise. In the current year it is estimated that some 30,000 million litres of pollutants are entering our river systems every day, 10,000 million litres from industrial units alone. With industrial development on the rise, industrial pollution accounts for 33 per cent of the total pollution as against 20 per cent a decade ago.
According to the CPCB, the rivers in the south are cleaner than the rivers in the north - an important reason being the civic authorities are functioning better in the south than in the north. Civic systems are in place in Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad. The population of the southern cities is less and probably more literate and civic conscious. In fact Kerala has been flagged as non-polluting by the CPCB. Environmental activists of the south may find this difficult to accept but both air and water in Kerala are clean.
Whatever happened to the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) initiated with great fanfare by Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1985? Some Rs. 500 crores was spent on cleaning up this huge river alone in U.P., Bihar and West Bengal. I remember being taken to Kanpur and Varanasi to see first hand the operation clean up. The tanneries of Kanpur were being pulled up and in Varanasi electric crematoriums and sewage treatment plants were being constructed. Turtles were released into the Ganga to clean up the sacred river of half burnt carcasses and dead dogs and cattle. Little children were given kits and taught to monitor water quality of the river. But the euphoria disappeared quite quickly. I remember Mr. Saifuddin Soz as minister for environment and forests lamenting over the lethargy and corruption that had ruined a dream project.
Under the GAP, sewage treatment plants (STPs) were to be put up in 27 Class One cities. By the time they were constructed the amount of sewage generated by the city had doubled in some places and the plants just could not handle the load. The maintenance of the STPs was poor. It is the responsibility of States to maintain them but they claim they did not have the funds to maintain them. Since the Centre had created the assets, the States felt it was its responsibility to maintain them.
The power supply was irregular, and continues to be so in both U.P. and Bihar. The STPs need uninterrupted power supply because bacteria that degrade the waste need a continuous supply of oxygen. Without oxygen the bacteria die.
Working the biodegradable system on intermittent power supply is just not possible. Bihar has just thrown up its hands in despair. When the GAP started in the mid-1980s, the Centre spent Rs. 55 crores. Of the seven STPs that were to be set up only five were completed. Even those completed are not functioning because the Bihar government was not able to maintain them.
Of the Rs. 5 crores needed annually for maintenance of the STPs, the State government could raise only a little over a crore of rupees. For five hours continuously there was no power and the State did not have the resources to put in generators to run the plants. Efforts are on again to get the State to put its act together.
In the 10th five year plan Rs. 3,000 crores has been earmarked for cleaning up rivers under the National River Action Plan. The plan will focus on 149 cities along these rivers. Instead of power-dependent STPs, low cost oxidisation ponds are proposed in place of the STPs. However, even this plan has its drawback. Huge chunks of land are required for drying out the sewage and Class One cities just do not have that kind of space for treating municipal waste.
The two most polluted rivers of the country are the Yamuna and the Sabarmati and the guilty cities are Delhi and Ahmedabad. With a growing population, Ahmedabad is pouring both sewage and industrial pollutants into the river.
Delhi alone generates 2,250 mld of sewage, which is more than that of all the Class Two cities. The low level of the Yamuna and the huge quantity of waste it receives have given it the dubious distinction of being the most polluted river of the country. Ten to 15 years ago, a large quantity of Delhi's sewage was used for irrigating agricultural lands. Today residential colonies have come up on what were agricultural lands and drainage of waste water is not possible in the Capital. Some 3.5 lakh people live in the 62,000 jhuggies that have come up on the Yamuna river bed and its embankments. Under the national river action plan there are plans afoot to rebuild and repair the sewage system and the drains that empty into the river over the next five years. But there are no plans to shift the jhuggies. It will also be difficult to raise the Rs. 2,000 crores needed to rejuvenate just this one river.
The Delhi government is seriously considering a proposal to collect the sewage of the city at the point where it falls into the river and take it by underground canals or pipes to Haryana. Calcutta, one of the biggest cities on the Ganga, has been able to handle its sewage better than a lot of other cities. It diverts a large part of the sewage to the wetlands where it is used for pisiculture. In Delhi there is no land for developing wetlands and pisiculture. Haryana would have to share Delhi's burden of dirty sewage and actually put it to good use. Industrial pollutants from smaller units continue to be a problem. While most of the large and medium industrial units have put up treatment plants and are using them, 40 per cent of the industrial waste - a whopping 4000 mld - is from small scale industries in cities and residential colonies.
There is no space in the cities to put up treatment plants for these small, scattered residential units. It is just as well that Urban Development Minister Jagmohan is trying to move them out of Delhi. These include electroplating, textile and dyeing, small pharmaceutical and even paper making (from bagasse) units. Now there is talk again of putting together these small industrial units in clusters and giving them a common effluent treatment plant.
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