Environment, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines


Bharat Dogra

NEW DELHI, Oct 31 1998 (IPS) - Pious Hindus consider a dip in the river Ganga – regarded as the most sacred Indian river – to be soul-cleansing.

But scientists have found the Ganga at Haridwar, where the mountain river comes down from the high Himalayas, passes through a gorge and starts its slow 1,500 km journey across the plains to the sea, to be severely contaminated.

In the mid-1980s, the government launched an ambitious six- year plan to clean up the river, install sewage treatment plants in some town and cities on the Ganga’s banks, build low-cost toilets and electric crematoria, among other measures.

Thirteen years later, after several extensions, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was stopped by the Allahabad High Court early this month. The court ordered a thorough review following charges of mismanagement of funds and resources.

“It is now almost clear that on account of failure of the scheme everywhere and in particular in Varanasi (one of the most famous pilgrimage sites in India where millions bathe in the Ganga), pollution instead of being controlled had multiplied,” the two-judge bench ruled.

The court has directed that the project be “carefully examined by a group of environmental lawyers” to be set up by the Indian Environment Ministry.

The High Court was acting on petitions filed by two municipal corporators of Varanasi who had challenged the findings of official reviews which had declared GAP a success and a model to be replicated in other polluted rivers.

Last December, the court had set up a committee of representatives of the court, voluntary organisations and government officials to probe the project. The results of its findings in three cities – Kanpur, Varanasi and Allahabad – on the Ganga in northern Uttar Pradesh state are damning.

“Truly speaking, from Bhairoghat to Sarsaiyaghat (in the industrial city of Kanpur) there is no Ganga, instead it is a huge open sewer serving only as a receptacle for city waste water,” the team said.

Bhairoghat is the point from where raw water is taken for meeting the needs of Kanpur’s more than five million people. Although it is imperative to keep the area clean, “two huge drains which receive domestic sewage and also polluted contents of a TB hospital are being discharged some 100 metres from the intake point,” the report stated.

Treatment plants set up under the Ganga Action Plan in Kanpur are either not commissioned fully or unable to work because of daily power cuts and water authorities admitted they were not able to deal with the untreated sewage and tannery effluents in the Ganga, according to the report.

Also between 4,000 and 5,000 truck loads of toxic sludge from leather tannery wastes, which have been accumulating in the Jajmau area of Kanpur, still await removal and safe disposal. And many tanneries along the Ganga are discharging waste water and solid sludge directly into the river.

Commenting on the report, the High Court said, “pathetic conditions prevail at Kanpur … polluted by domestic sewage, and human excreta …”

Elsewhere, instead of overhauling the sewage lines in Allahabad and Vrnasi – laid in 1894 and have become old and dilapidated – the eam found that GAP had created new problems. In Varanasi, for instance six drains laid under the plan were discharging untreated sewage into the river.

The findings were not new. In late 1997, when the authorities were claiming that the first phase of the clean-up plan was almost over, activists from Ecofriends, a non-governmental group in Kanpur, counted more than 100 human carcasses and 20 dead animals floating on a six km stretch of the river near the city.

Some of the human bodies were those of unclaimed people, dumped into the river after post-mortem by the police, others were badly diseased and half-burnt bodies.

“Only 10 percent of the stated objectives of the plan have been fulfilled,” avers Rakesh Jaiswal, a Kanpur-based activist who has made the protection of the river his life’s mission.

In Varanasi, social activists have criticised the project for its choice of technology. Badly laid drains have led to sewage spilling out of manholes and flowing out of private toilets.

Project implementation has been whimsical, they say. Officials are shunted out, and contracts decided more on the basis of

personal relationships than expertise. Three officials of the Kanpur Municipal Corporation who were sent to the Netherlands for training in solid waste management were transferred immediately after they returned to the country.

“The Ganga Action Plan talked a lot about the participation and involvement of local people but this has not been achieved. The fisherfolk, the boatmen, the doms (who control the crematoriums on the river) need to be involved closely in the protection of the river,” asserts Simran Singh, an activist.

New Delhi has sought one month’s time from the Allahabad High Court to decide on the committee. Activists hope the review will not be misled again by imagined successes.

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