Rivers are lifeline of cities

Cities in India are growing at an unprecedented pace, and rivers are receding with similar rapidity. National and state governments have had lofty plans to revive rivers, but no visible impact can be seen in most of the states. An analysis of the present and past schemes to underline the progress of river rejuvenation

Rivers are in danger, almost everywhere. Whether you talk about Yamuna River in Delhi, Gomti River in Lucknow or Ganges in Varanasi or any other river in any other city of India, the rivers are getting heavily polluted and are in a state of crisis as municipal waste, industrial sludge and other waste are being dumped into the rivers untreated. The importance of rivers and the urgency to rejuvenate them can be gauged from the fact that the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has a Cabinet Minister and two Union State Ministers to look after the works related to river cleaning and rejuvenation programs. Similarly, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation is a separate ministry while earlier, it was just a department under Ministry of Rural Development. It seems, Government does take this issue seriously but

Cleaning programs for the Ganges are looked up at as an example not just because of the religious and cultural importance of the river for a large population but also for the focus of the government in rejuvenating the rivers. The Ganga Basin which is the largest river basin of the country houses about 40% population of India. The river after traversing a distance of 2525 km from its source, meets the Bay of Bengal at Ganga Sagar in West Bengal.

Ganga Action Plan

Ganga Action Plan (Phase-I) was launched in 1985 and covered 6, 4 and 15 Class-I cities in UP, Bihar and West Bengal respectively. The program of river cleaning was extended to other major rivers of the country under two separate schemes of GAP Phase – II and the National River Conservation Plan (NRCP). Yamuna and Gomati Action Plans were approved in April 1993 under Ganga Action Plan Phase – II. Programs of other major rivers were subsequently approved in 1995 under NRCP. After launching of NRCP in 1995, it was decided to merge GAP II with NRCP. A notification of this effect was issued in December 1996. According to the Ministry reports, the Ganga Action Plan besides aiming at improving the water quality of river Ganga is to serve as a model to demonstrate the methodology for improving the water quality of other polluted rivers. Though the river water quality of Ganga has shown discernible improvement, the full impact of the action plan would be visible when the left out works in the 25 class I cities and the works in other class II and class III towns along the river Ganga are taken up. The important tributaries of river Ganga like, Yamuna, Gomati and Damodar which directly discharge into the river Ganga are heavily polluted and are taken up for pollution abatement Programmes. For this purpose, the second phase of Ganga Action Plan was started in stages between 1993 & 1996. Both Central & State Government Provided help and had equal Share that is 50:50 in the working of Ganga Action Plan (Phase II).

After April 1997 Central Government took the full responsibility of this project and sanctioned the total cost under Ganga Action Plan. Other river conservation plans for Yamuna, Gomati and Damodar have also been accepted, and the government sanctioned Rs 2285.48 cr for the same. This money was to help in starting 441 projects in 95 cities under the plan. The funding pattern was later changed to 70:30 between centre and state subsequently.

The mission could be termed a failed one because of no visible impact on the condition of the River. In the following years, the state governments and municipal corporations of the cities which are situated on the banks of the Ganga also initiated some programs but those remained limited to the beautification of the ghaats and providing basic amenities to tourists and banning the use of polythene.

Namami Gange

Namami Gange Programme is an Integrated Conservation Mission, with a budget outlay of Rs 20,000 cr to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of River Ganga. This mission is one of the flagship missions of the current government. The main pillars of the Mission include Sewerage Treatment Infrastructure,    River-Front Development, River-Surface Cleaning, Bio-Diversity, Afforestation, Public Awareness, Industrial Effluent Monitoring and Ganga Gram. The initial review of the program is not encouraging though a couple of initiatives in some parts have brought positive results, but the current proportion of pollution in the river does not tell a good story about the success of the Mission. The major problem of dumping sewage into the river by municipal corporations and industries remained unresolved.

Innovative yet cost-effective options

Cleaning of rivers in Indian cities is a critical challenge for municipal corporations because lack of resources at their end resulting in disposing of municipal sewage into rivers or in other water bodies. Sewage Treatment Plants in many of our cities are either defunct or do not exist at all. Municipal Corporations do not have sufficient funds and technical resources to invest in ‘expensive’ technologies to treat their sewage. There is a need to look beyond conventional methods of treating wet waste. Kolkata based ecologist and wetland warrior Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, who died recently, set an excellent example through his work on the East Kolkata Wetlands (EKW) and its wise use in treating the city’s wastewater.

According to an article published in the Indian Express, Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, an engineer in the state’s planning board, was assigned the task of how to gainfully use Kolkata’s sewage. He travelled across the country to study the feasible option. He ambled along the 28-km channel that carried the city’s sewage eastwards, along with the slope, to where the salt marshes once stood. Here, he saw shallow ponds that turned the city’s sewage into algae. Then, the algae-rich water was let into nurseries, to be eaten by fish, that was then sold in the city. A marvel of recycling, of turning waste into food. The wetlands, often called the city’s kidneys, treat its sewage and garbage for free, provide employment to thousands, and generate cheap food. Not to mention preventing floods, absorbing Kolkata’s runoff during the monsoon.

Most of our cities, which are facing a similar problem of treating their sewage, can learn a lesson from the experiments of Ghosh and implement locally but this does require dedicated, and concentrated efforts with community support and the solution can kill two birds with a single stone by treating garbage for free and mitigating after effects of urban floods.

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