Thirty-two thousand corpses are cremated in Varanasi every year and 200 tonnes of half-burnt flesh end up in the Ganges, according to a report published in a national English daily.
Atul Gawande, an Indo-American surgeon and writer, in his book on ageing and death titled ‘Being Mortal’, described how he came to offer his father’s ashes to the Ganges in Varanasi. Aware of the polluted state of the river and the ritual, he dosed himself with antibiotics to avoid illness from the river water he would be made to consume asi part of the ritual. Nevertheless, he was down with a parasitic infection defiant to antibiotics.
According to a map released by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), there is the presence of a high level of coliform bacteria in the Ganges. Out of 86 live monitoring stations installed, 78 have been found unfit. Only seven areas have been found to be fit for drinking after a rigorous disinfection process.
Dr. Aniruddha Mukhopadhyay, Professor, Department of Environmental Science, University of Calcutta, told BE, “First and foremost, one must identify the sources of pollution. The point sources can be identified easily but the non-point sources are only identified after a lot of study, observation, and analysis. In case of water pollution, the physical and chemical properties of water change. The same is happening in case of the Ganges.” This pollution of the river water has an adverse impact on biological agents like planktons, aquatic plants, and animals. Due to the high level of Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), the water of the Ganges proves to be hazardous for humans as well.
Clean Ganga Mission
Since the 1980s, there have been efforts to clean the Ganges. The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986 to improve the quality of the river’s water. According to sources, till 2014, `4000 crore was spent for this initiative. In 2014, Namami Gange, a centrally-funded scheme was introduced with an allocation of Rs 20,000 crore for five years.
Gajendra Singh Sekhawat, Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, Government of India, in November 2019, stated in the Parliament that a total of 305 projects have so far been sanctioned at an estimated cost of `28,613.75 crore. Among them, 109 projects have been completed while the rest are at various stages of implementation.
Many claim that the initiatives to clean the Ganges have led to the enhancement of the quality of its water. However, official data as of June 2019 show that under the Namami Gange mission, only 28% of sewerage infrastructure projects on the river were completed. The programme, which has its deadline in 2020, is coming up with sewage infrastructural projects in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Haryana, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh. According to sources, 97 towns located on the main stem of the Ganga generate around 2,953 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage despite the available treatment capacity of only 1,794 MLD. Government data states that as of May 31, 2019, of the 150 sewage treatment plants (STPs) that were sanctioned so far at an estimated cost of Rs26,169 crore, only 42 were completed.
At present, industrial wastes are not directly disposed in the Ganges. However, some quantities of the wastes still go into the river indirectly due to the industries that have been constructed along the river. Often the municipal wastes are not treated properly, and they also lead to water pollution.
Environmentalists inform that over the years, several initiatives have been undertaken to modernise the municipalities and certain restrictions have been imposed on industries to control water pollution. For instance, in 1974, the Water Act paved the way for the Pollution Control Board in India. The Environment Protection Act of 1986 is also a strict act. However, despite all these acts and initiatives, the Ganga suffers from huge pollution. Certain environmentalists also point out that huge amounts of fertilisers and pesticides are used in the agricultural lands along the Ganga. These chemicals are washed away by rainfall to the river which adds to its pollution. There should be proper implementation of environmental acts in order to minimise pollution.
Speaking on the remedial measures, Dr. Mukhopadhyay informed that various precautions are being taken in West Bengal to avoid pollution during the immersion of idols. He stated, “Now, due to the awareness created, immediately after the immersion, the idols are lifted. Special lead-free paints are used for colouring the idols. Lead is a heavy metal which is toxic and creates adverse impact in water.”
Budget allocation and expenditure
Available data states that in the recent Union Budget, there has been an announcement of Rs 800 crore for the Namami Gange Mission. Though there has been an increase of 127% as compared to the revised estimates (RE) of the previous year, the allocation of funds under this mission is still less than the allocations of previous years. In 2016-17, the programme received Rs2,500 crore, followed by Rs2,300 crore in 2017-18.
From 2018-19 onwards, there was a dip in the allocation with just Rs 687 crore. In 2019-2020, the government announced to keep aside Rs 750 crore for the programme but subsequently slashed it by half in the RE.
Responding to an RTI filed by a national daily, the Ministry of Water Resources informed that it had spent only Rs 200 crore till December 13, 2019. The Rs 50 crore which was allocated for ‘ghat beautification’ was also unspent till December 2019. In 2018, Richard Mahapatra, Managing Editor, Down To Earth, stated that despite the popularity of the Namami Gange campaign, it has little to show in terms of achievements.