Ganga, India’s holy river begins its journey in the icy Himalayas. At its origin in Gangotri in the state of Uttarakhand, the river is crystal clear as it gushes out from the glacial plains. However, pollution and excessive usage transform it into a toxic sludge as it meanders through numerous Indian cities and towns. Worshipped by Hindus and a water source for more than 400 million Indians, ‘Mother Ganga’ is dying, despite decades of governmental efforts to save it.
The purity of the water of any river depends on its velocity and its dilution capacity. A large part of the water flow of Ganga is abstracted for irrigation as it flows through the fertile plain lands reaches Haridwar. From there, it flows as a trickle for and a few hundred kilometres until Allahabad, where it is again recharged by its tributaries. Ganga receives 60% of its discharge from its tributaries.
Causes of Ganges river pollution: a case study
There might be some debate over the holiness of this mighty Indian river but, the fact that it is over-used, abused and polluted excessively is beyond examination. All the towns along its length contribute to the pollution load. It has been assessed that more than 80% of the total pollution load, in terms of organic pollution expressed as Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) arises from domestic sources originating from human settlements along the river’s course.
As per the World Bank Sponsored Study (State of Environment Report), high pollution level in the river contributes to around 9-12% of total disease penetration in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Also, the river was ranked among the five most polluted rivers of the world in the year 2007. The following are the important contributing factors.
Pollution caused by cities located on the banks
The river flows through some of the most densely populated cities of India. These cities include Rishikesh, Haridwar, Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur, Patna, and Kolkata. From these cities, a large number of sewage and waste is dumped into the river. 80% of the Ganga pollution is caused by sewage. According to official records, there are nearly 36 class I cities (population more than 1 lakh) and 14 class II cities on the bank of the Ganges. They generate 2800 MLD (million litres/day) of wastewater and have treating capacity of only 1208 MLD. A study conducted during the Kumbh Mela of 2013 suggested that spiritual dip in the holy Ganga at Kumbh is not clean. During the 2013 Kumbh Mela, nearly 100 million people bathed in the river in Allahabad. The reason for the sudden rise of contaminants in the river could be linked to the sudden increase in the flow of human waste because of increased bathing during Kumbh Mela.
At several places (especially in Uttar Pradesh) water is pumped out from the river for irrigation. In addition, degradation of the river is visible due to encroachment of river bed, sand mining, active netting of fish and open defecation. Six million tons of fertilisers and 9000 tonnes of pesticides are used by the agricultural sector in the Indo-Gangetic Basin region. Thousands of animal carcasses and human corpses are released into the river every day. In many places, solid waste is dumped which includes flowers and materials used as religious offerings. Nearly 4000 dead bodies are cremated at the Ghats of Varanasi every day and later that ash is immersed in the river. As per the record of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the state of Uttar Pradesh is responsible for nearly 76% pollution of the river. At Varanasi, 30 polluted drains flow directly into the river without any waste treatment.
Pollution caused by industrial waste dumped into the river
Many industrial cities are located on the banks of the river. They include Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna. They dump tonnes of toxic chemical waste into the river. Major industries include distillery, pulp and paper, tannery, sugar, fertiliser plants and slaughter houses. The chemicals dumped into the river include arsenic, sulphur and mercury. These industries pose hazardous threats to the purity of the river water, its chemical properties and to its riverine life.
According to the documents submitted by the Indian government, the number of grossly polluting industries (GPIs) affecting the river was 764 in 1985. Surprisingly, in 2017, government officials were still listing the number of GPIs as 764. Out of these 764 industries, 687 are in Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, the water consumed by these polluting industries is around 1123 MLD whereas the total wastewater generated by them collectively is around 501 MLD, which is around 45% of total water consumed.
Most of the tanneries and slaughter houses operating in Uttar Pradesh lack basic water treatment capability and their wastewater is directly pumped into the river. According to a report submitted to National Green Tribunal (NGT), only one slaughter house had valid permit to operate in Uttar Pradesh (out of more than 126).
Pollution caused by polluted tributaries joining the river
The tributaries joining the river further increase its level of pollution. These rivers include Yamuna, Gomti, Ramganga and Kali. Out of all the tributaries joining the Ganges, Ramganga and Kali are the most polluted. The cluster of polluting industries in Kashipur and Moradabad discharge their effluent in the Ramganga River. Similarly, Meerut and Modinagar discharge their waste into the Kali River.
Pollution caused by the tourism boom in India
In the last decade, there has been a travelling boom in India. Rishikesh is the biggest centre of water-rafting in India and thousands of tourists visit the town for rafting. The city has hundreds of hotels but is yet to develop a proper sewage disposal system. Many Hindu pilgrimage sites are located on the banks of the river. These locations draw a large number of tourists and pilgrims. That has contributed to the rise in the pollution levels. According to one of the locals living at Gangotri temple, “In 1977, hardly two or three cars could be spotted in Gangotri. But now there are hundreds and thousands of cars and buses that are plying pilgrims and tourists to these places during the summer months.”
Among cities contributing to Ganga pollution in Uttarakhand, Haridwar and Rishikesh play a critical role. In Uttarakhand, 14 drains discharge 440 MLD of industrial and domestic wastewater. Rishikesh region contributes 184 MLD of wastewater from eight drains. In Haridwar region, total wastewater flow is around 60 MLD whereas 48.6 MLD of wastewater flows directly into the Ganga.
Environmentalists on saving Ganga
A group of environmentalists had petitioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is taking keen interest in cleaning Ganga, to pursue UNESCO to declare the upper region of the holy river as a World Heritage Site. Environmentalist Ranjit Bhargava said, “Some measures have been taken but a key suggestion that is yet to materialise. Powers need to be given to take action against defaulters with a final appeal only to the Green Bench of the Supreme Court.”
Susmita Sengupta who is associated with Centre for Science and Environment, said, “You have flowers, you have plastics, you have dead bodies, you have construction debris, so much filth coming in from the cities. At places, it is not even suitable for outdoor bathing, leave apart drinking.”
A bleak future
In 2014, after assuming the office of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi initiated the ambitious plan of ‘Namami Ganga’ and more than Rs. 3000 crore was allocated for this project. According to an RTI in filed in 2016, more than Rs. 2000 crore has already been spent but the condition of the river has not improved substantially.