Varanasi/New Delhi: Thrice a week, Gopal Pandey descends Tulsi Ghat’s steep steps, gingerly carrying a Styrofoam box. The box holds two sterilized glass beakers, a funny-looking metal cylinder with a hole in its lid, and two brown bottles of chemical reagent. Pandey may set off by boat for another spot on the river, or he may choose to work right there.
With one beaker, Pandey scoops water from the surface of the Ganga; the other he inserts into the cylinder, lowers the apparatus 50cm below the surface, and collects the water there. With the reagent, he immediately stabilizes the oxygen levels. Then, he climbs back up the ghat to the lab at Sankat Mochan Foundation, Varanasi’s most strident agitator for a clean Ganga; at the lab, where he is an assistant, Pandey tests oxygen and bacteria counts. He posts his results on the foundation’s website, and they are unfailingly depressing reminders of the Ganga’s despoilment.
On the Ganga, Varanasi is an atypical city. While Kanpur and Allahabad ruin the river with quantities of industrial effluents, Varanasi relies entirely on domestic sewage from an urban population that has risen from a million in 1991 to 1.7 million today. Kanpur worries about heavy metal toxicity; Varanasi worries about bacteria attacking pilgrims and residents, who believe the city’s water is forever pure.
Like a tour guide, Raja Mani Tiwari, a former engineer at the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, takes this reporter through the length of Varanasi’s impact on the Ganga. He begins upstream, at the Nagwa Nala—an open drain that looks from afar like a miniature waterfall. “The nala is really the Assi river, which has been diverted and let out here,” Tiwari observes.
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There are 32 point sources of sewage in Varanasi, drains of varying breadth and volume, all part of a sewer network that is, in many parts, 300 years old. To divert some of this sewage to two treatment plants, five pumping stations have been erected on various ghats—stubby pink towers that have been painted with murals of Shiva in a dubious attempt to blend them into the cityscape. (“How can five stations be enough for 32 drains?” Veer Bhadra Mishra, the foundation’s president, asks rhetorically. Then he contradictorily adds: “And if they build 32 such stations, what happens to the façade of this holy town?”)
Access to the mouth of the nala is barred by two parallel rows of metal stakes stuck into the riverbed, so Tiwari heads to Rana Pratap Ghat, adjacent to the thickly populated Dasaswamedh Ghat. The pumping station here is silent. “The stations don’t work for nearly five months of the year after the monsoon begins because the water enters the sump,” Tiwari says. “This year, we’ve had no rain, but the stations are still idle.” Even otherwise, the stations were crippled by power cuts until two years ago, when diesel-powered generators were finally installed.
Pollution check: Sewage from an urban population that has risen from a million in 1991 to 1.7 million today flows into the Ganga at Varanasi. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Tiwari points to the ghat’s last step: “There’s a sewer right below that step, below the waterline—and the water colour is proof that the station isn’t working.” Indeed, the water next to the step looks black and noxious, blending a few metres away into the muddy brown of the Ganga. Near the spurt of untreated sewage are crowds of people, bathing and praying and drinking the water around them.
Tiwari’s final destination is Raj Ghat, where Varanasi’s trunk sewer terminates, bringing together its bounty from the pumping stations. A terminal station is supposed to send that load to a treatment plant at Dinapur, but sewage still flows—through five pretty arches in a wall—into the river. Again, Tiwari says: “The sewage is flowing, so Dinapur isn’t working. It hasn’t been working for months, I hear.”
That isn’t quite true. On two out of three unannounced visits, both of Varanasi’s municipal plants—at Dinapur and at Bhagwanpur—were operating, although not at maximum capacity. On the third occasion, an engineer at Bhagwanpur said a leak was being fixed. But there’s no doubt that these plants are insufficient for this teeming city. Even in 1986, when the Ganga Action Plan was launched, Varanasi generated 147 million litres per day (mld) of sewage; today, it edges close to 300 mld. The two plants, together, however, can only treat 89.8 mld.
Ramesh Singh, project manager at Bhagwanpur, admits this insufficiency: “I accept that the planners were hypocritical, in a sense. You should pitch your development to match your resources.” Until two years ago—in other words, for 15 out of 17 years of the Bhagwanpur plant’s life—the plant operated only at 30% capacity during the six hours of the day when it was robbed of electricity. “We had generators, but only two years ago did we start getting enough funds to buy diesel for them.”
Graphics: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
But the perception that the plants are not working at all is, Singh says, untrue, and he brandishes the log sheet of the Bhagwanpur plant for the period 24 June-24 July. It shows an average inflow of 10.04 mld (a million litres above capacity, in fact), an average daily power deficit of more than eight hours, of which seven-and-a-half were regained with generators. “It was frustrating earlier, I’ll admit,” Singh argues. “But people say the Ganga Action Plan is a failure. I don’t agree. The assets that were created are working fine.”
The Dinapur facility, taking in 80 mld, is spread over roughly 50 acres outside Varanasi; sewage travels 7km to be treated there. On the afternoon that this reporter visited, power had failed at 10am. “We were to get a direct feeder line for uninterrupted electricity,” Angad Singh, junior engineer, says. “But it hasn’t happened. There isn’t any money for it.”
Ramesh Singh estimates that a sophisticated plant costs Rs1 crore for every mld, so Dinapur is a significant investment. The plant breaks down sewage with the help of bacteria, separates sludge from liquid and extracts methane. The methane could, in theory, help power the plant at all times, if combined with diesel in the four dual-fuel WH Allen generators. “But we only run the generators during a power cut, like now,” says Angad Singh, pointing to the one out of the four that is active. “At other times, the diesel is too expensive.” So the methane is burned in a cement structure on the plant’s premises.
The outputs of the plants vary in quality. The effluent from Bhagwanpur, which gets mostly “good” sewage from the Banaras Hindu University, has hundreds of thousands of bacteria per ml and a biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) of 10mg per litre; for bathing-quality water, those numbers should be less than 500 per ml and under 3mg, respectively (BOD measures the rate at which dissolved oxygen is used up by organisms).
Dinapur’s numbers are more worrying—bacteria in the millions per ml and BOD at 27-28mg per litre. The World Health Organization says neither plant produces water usable for irrigation. Dinapur fed the fields around it till two years ago, when stories of smelly vegetable harvests and black well water began to circulate. Both plants release their effluent back into the river.
Two new projects, city officials say, will add 237 mld of capacity to Varanasi’s sewage works. But these plants may have come up earlier, Ramesh Singh says, if not for the debate surrounding them. “I was Veer Bhadra Mishra’s student, you know, and I respect him very much,” Singh says. “But he has stirred a lot of debate, and as a result, we’re only sitting around talking and arguing. That debate is the real reason why nothing has happened.”
This is the second in a three-part series. Tomorrow: Veer Bhadra Mishra, Varanasi’s Superman, finally gets his chance to take flight.