Varanasi/New Delhi: For four generations before him, the priests in V. Krishnamurti’s family practised in their profession’s supreme headquarters—in Varanasi, on the banks of Hinduism’s holiest river. So understandably, Krishnamurti—rotund and ordinarily cheerful—wants ardently to believe in the purity of his beloved Ganga. “But now I get visitors who are reluctant to bathe in the river—they ask me if there’s some cleaner spot, on another ghat, but there isn’t,” he says with sadness. “I know fewer Varanasi families use the water to cook and drink.” The irony has not escaped him: The Ganga, cleanser of humanity’s sins, is in desperate need of cleansing itself.
In a matter of decades, the pollution of the Ganga has acquired the same status that Varanasi’s holy men and funeral pyres took centuries to achieve—that of a literary cliché. Every element of the average travelogue is in plain view: the hillocks of rubbish, the bobbing human and animal corpses, the open drains, the plastic bags, and through them all, the pilgrims resolutely immersing themselves in the murky river.
Murky truth: A garbage-strewn ghat in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga. The river is dirtier today than in 1986 when GAP was launched. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
That the Ganga is filthier today than in 1986, when then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), prompted minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh to admit recently in Parliament the Centre’s failures in cleaning the Ganga as well as the Yamuna. There were some statistics out there, Ramesh suggested, that showed the rivers’ average pollution levels falling within the norms.
“But I myself don’t believe these numbers,” Ramesh said. “The true test for a layman would be whether Ganga is cleaner than 20 years ago… The answer is a depressing ‘No’.”
A 36-page May 2009 report, prepared for the Supreme Court by Kirit Parikh, a Planning Commission member, is even more damning in its specifics. In its two phases, GAP has spent Rs816 crore on setting up expensive sewage treatment plants in cities along the river. “The goal…has not been fully achieved,” the report concluded. “The quality of the river water at some locations has marginally improved. In many other locations, the quality…has in fact worsened.”
Even apart from its spiritual importance, the Ganga is a source of domestic, industrial and agricultural water to at least 400 million people living in its basin. Acknowledging the failure of GAP, therefore, is tantamount to conceding that these millions have had their access to usable water severely curtailed.
Broadly, GAP has been a classic example of a plan conceived in government corridors, without accounting for conditions on the ground—for rapid urbanization, for instance, or for a state’s paucity of electricity and funds (states had to fund the operation and maintenance of the treatment plants, Parikh’s report points out, although Ramesh has now promised that the Centre will take on those costs for the next five years). “The GAP solutions were highly energy-intensive, centralized ones,” says Paritosh Tyagi, chairman until 1990 of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). “The solution should have been decentralized and low-energy intensive.”
Even early in GAP, Tyagi had begun to witness the Centre-state tussles that would bruise the project. “The local bodies were never taken into confidence about their role in this,” Tyagi says. “They were just told: ‘Here are the sewage treatment plants, now run them.’ Why should they? Running them involves huge electricity costs.”
In turn, the states rebelled stubbornly. “When we met the chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh in the late 1980s, he said: ‘You’ve installed all these plants, but we don’t know how to run them,’” Tyagi remembers. “T.N. Seshan, then secretary in the environment ministry, reminded him: ‘The plants were installed by your state’s engineers. You only need to depute them—that’s your job.’”
But the problems of electricity, of corruption, of urbanization, and of simply insufficient capacity plague GAP even today. Varanasi loses power with Swiss-clock regularity for six hours out of every 24, and until two years ago, the town’s five sewage pumping stations would fall silent during the power cut, spilling their sewage into the river. With more and more of the Ganga being held back on its upper reaches by structures such as the Tehri dam, the river also carries less water to dilute this raw sewage.
Industries and tanneries on the river’s banks, instructed to treat their waste before releasing it into the water, routinely try to avoid that obligation. “These industries regularly obtain their no-objection certificate despite flouting this rule,” says one employee of the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam in Varanasi, who asks to remain anonymous. “How do they do it? Obviously, by paying the inspectors off.”
Along the course of the Ganga, the six main urban centres generated 761 million litres of sewage a day in 1985; they now release nearly 1,300 million litres into the river, of which only half can be treated by the installed plants. “The technology chosen was wrong, there were overruns and delays—it was all just done in great haste,” says Veer Bhadra Mishra, whose Sankat Mochan Foundation has campaigned for a cleaner Ganga for nearly three decades now. “The prime minister (Gandhi) wanted a clean river, so they thought the Ganga had to be clean overnight. But how can that happen?”
Sad state: Priest V. Krishnamurti says visitors are reluctant to bathe in the river and fewer families use its water for cooking and drinking. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
With Mishra and with others in Varanasi, discussions about the Ganga inevitably devolve into the metaphysical—about the river’s immunity to pollution or about the still-beneficial properties of its waters. Science does not always agree. According to CPCB, the number of coliform bacteria per 100ml in a water body like the Ganga should only number in the hundreds; instead, it hovers on average in the tens of millions.
The coliform have had their impact. In 2006, a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research, based on 10 years of water data in Varanasi, found frighteningly high levels of water-borne diseases—84% and 93%, respectively—among the residents of Gola Ghat and Sarai Mohana, who directly used river water to bathe. Even the more affluent homes of Tulsi Ghat and Dasaswamedh Ghat—homes with working bathrooms—were stricken with disease rates of 37-38%.
Anecdotally, however, few in Varanasi will admit that the Ganga’s water has affected their health or their livelihoods adversely. Sukhilal Kanaujia, a washerman working near Rana Pratap Ghat, admits that he has seen the volumes of plastic and garbage in the river go up over the years. “But when I’m thirsty, I directly drink from the river, and I bathe only in the river,” he says. Then, pounding his lean chest for emphasis, he adds: “And I’m perfectly fine—see?”
Do his clothes suffer from being washed in the sullied water, though? “Not a bit,” Kanaujia proclaims, beaming as if he had been paid a personal compliment. He holds up a spotless white dhoti with gold trim. “I just washed this, and you see how clean it is. The water in the river keeps moving—so the clothes never get dirty.” The logic is dubious, but Kanaujia is absolutely convinced of it.
The clinching paradox, though, is Raja Mani Tiwari, a former engineer at the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam, who quit in 1995 to devote himself in other ways to cleaning up the Ganga. Sitting on the prow of a boat, Tiwari tours Varanasi’s Ganga often to evaluate its health, noting with alarm the occasional new drain that makes its way to the river. “See that woman? She’s filling her bottle to take home—and the water’s filthy!” he exclaims. Then, only minutes later, he scoops up a handful of river to rinse the remaining paan out of his mouth.
When this is pointed out to him, Tiwari looks embarrassed, as if he has been caught burning his engineering degree. “I was just rinsing, there’s not much risk there,” he says. Then his face grows earnest, to ensure that this casual act is not misinterpreted. “I shouldn’t really do it. The river is terribly dirty, and even the treated sewage that is returned into the river is black in colour.”
Tiwari gestures upstream of the city, where buildings in unfinished red brick have sprouted on the river bank. “This is supposed to be a green belt, but in seven years, there will be almost another Varanasi living here—but there’s no water or sewage or anything planned,” he says. “It’s going to be a disaster.”
This is the first in a three-part series. Tomorrow: What exactly went wrong with the Ganga Action Plan in Varanasi?