More than 3 years after Modi’s clean Ganga promise, Varanasi is still drinking its sewage

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Ghat in Varanasi
Ghat in Varanasi | Neera Majumdar/ThePrint

Almost four years since PM Modi’s promise, corpses and puja leftovers still pollute the river, while data shows the holy city might be drinking its own sewage.

Varanasi: Narendra Modi’s top electoral promise from the ghats of Varanasi was to clean the Ganga, a Herculean task attempted by several of his predecessors without much success.

Varanasi’s 84 ghats have seen considerable improvement since Modi, the Lok Sabha MP from the holy city, became Prime Minister. Steel dustbins dot the steps of the ghats, while IL&FS, a private company, has been given the contract to manage waste.

But that’s about as far as things have gone. “There have been no deep changes, only cosmetic ones. Ghat cleaning does not mean the Ganga has been cleaned,” said P.K. Mishra, professor of chemical engineering at IIT, BHU.

On a visit to the city, ThePrint found that the river itself is still chock-full of floating waste, pious refuse, animal and human remains, and sewerage.

Floating bodies

In 2016, the National Green Tribunal criticised the Uttar Pradesh government for allowing dead bodies to be dumped in the Ganga.

Locals said it was common practice among Hindus to not cremate unmarried girls or babies. Even hospitals sometimes dispose of bodies of patients that aren’t claimed, they said.

However, Anil Kumar Singh, Varanasi in-charge of the UP Pollution Control Board, insisted: “No dead bodies are disposed in the Ganga. Even the remains from the cremation ghats are carried away.”

The sewage treatment problem

Varanasi generates about 321.5 million litres of sewage per day (MLD). Sewage treatment plants (STP) can only treat 101.8 MLD, while the rest flows directly into the Ganga through the Varuna and the Assi, two rivers (now effectively drains) that flow across the city.

Many problems afflict the existing STPs, which were commissioned in Rajiv Gandhi’s time as PM. Outdated technology and lack of trained staff are two major ones, as is the interruption of electricity supply, which is acknowledged by the Central Pollution Control Board but denied by the Purvanchal Vidyut Vitaran Nigam, the local supplier.

B.K. Pandey, GM of Jal Kal, the water supply and sewerage system maintenance agency, said both the Assi and the Varuna will be intercepted and their water sent to treatment plants. However, this plan may take another year to implement, as two STPs are still under construction. The plan is to complete them by March 2018 and take the total number of STPs in the city to five. The new STPs are funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.

Another STP has been initiated under the Namami Gange project, for which the foundation stone was laid by PM Modi on 22 September 2017, three years after the flagship Ganga cleaning programme was launched.

Is Varanasi drinking its own refuse?

Varanasi’s sole functioning sewerage system was created by the British in 1917. The 100-year-old pipes have deteriorated, and in the monsoons, storm water and drain water often mix and flow into these pipelines.

A new sewer network has been laid in Varanasi under JICA, but it has been built as a rising main—which means constructed against the natural slope. Pumping stations will have to pump the waste against gravity to STPs for treatment. It is not yet operational.

Sewage is discharged into the Ganga at six points in Varanasi. These disperse waste water under some of the most famous ghats like Assi Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Although ‘River Front Development’ has been sanctioned Rs 27.28 crore under Namami Gange in Varanasi, the river itself is being polluted at these ghats.

Varanasi draws 270 MLD of its water needs from the Ganga. The Bhadani Pumping Station just downstream of the Assi nullah outlet draws most of this water. This means that at the intake point, there’s a very high level of faecal coliform bacteria, and that Varanasi may be drinking its own sewage.

The Sankat Mochan Foundation has been monitoring the Ganga and its water quality for over 30 years. Latest data collected by it in June 2016 shows faecal coliform (FC) levels at 41,00,000/100 ml near the Assi confluence (Nagwa canal) and 53,00,000/100 ml at the Varuna confluence. Normal FC level is 500-2,500/100 ml for bathing water standard.

About this problem, UPPCB’s Singh said: “Till untreated sewage is flowing into the Ganga, there can be no controlling of faecal coliform.”

How much longer?

The glacial pace of Ganga cleaning has led many to doubt if it can be finished in time for the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, current head of the Sankat Mochan Temple and Foundation, said: “If you do not do anything for the Ganga itself, there is no benefit to just cleaning the ghats.”

Modi had once said in Varanasi that “Mother Ganga is awaiting a son who will accomplish the task of cleaning the river”. The question is: how long will the Ganga have to wait for her ‘sons’?

Read ThePrint’s report on the Ganga at Kanpur.

 

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