A boatman, a scientist, a journalist: Three kids grew up by the Ganga and witnessed its slow death in their lifetime. Will they see it get a new life?

Will the Ganga, the river that quenches the thirst of 43%, ever get clean? Governments have been promising this since 1986. But there are no clear answers on even how bad the crisis is, even in PM Narendra Modi's constituency, the holy city of Varanasi.

Nidhi Jamwal

Nidhi Jamwal   27 May 2019 2:04 PM GMT

As a young girl in the history-rich city of Varanasi, Kavita Shah used to reach the banks of the Ganga early morning and leap into its current, gliding in from its icy Himalayan origins.

"We used to visit the river early in the morning and take a boat ride around Assi Ghat to spot schools of dolphins," said Shah, now an environmental scientist working in the city. She used to see snails, clamps and mollusks on the banks of the river. She would drop a coin in the river and find it lying on the sediment through the clear waters of the river. "We used to pick up fresh water turtles and then release them back in the river," she reminisced.

Now, decades later, the dolphins have disappeared, fresh water turtles are hard to find, and the sediment of the river is not visible. Shah is now a professor with the Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development at the city's famous Banaras Hindu University. And India is fighting a critical battle to save the Ganga, one of the world's mightiest rivers that flows 2,525 kilometers and is the lifeline for hundreds of millions of people.

India's national governments have been promising citizens a clean Ganga since 1986, and thousands of crores of rupees have already been spent. But will the river, that drains 861,400 square kilometers, or 26%, of the country's land mass and sup-ports 43% of the country's population ever get clean? This 43% means the entire Ganga river basin in India including its tributaries. And not just the main stem of Ganga. Some part of Ganga basin is also in Nepal, China and Bangladesh.

Last December, Nitin Gadkari, Union minister for river development and Ganga Rejuvenation, announced that by March 2019, the Ganga would be 70-80% clean. He has also promised that the entire 2,525-km stretch of the river would be clean by March 2020.

To do a reality check, a Gaon Connection reporter visited Varanasi city and took a boat ride along a stretch of the river. Little had changed on the ground in the city which derives its name from Varuna and Assi rivers, once minor tributaries of the Ganga. Both of them have long turned into wastewater drains that still dump untreated sewage directly into the river. The Ramnagar nullah comes into the river from an industrial area. And the Khirkiya nullah also continues to discharge waste.

And in the throes of a life-or-death effort to save the river, there is no final word on how deep the crisis is -- and how filthy the Ganga is. No one can agree on how much muck flows into the river.

"There is no credible data on pollution in the Ganga," said Shah, who grew up in the Sigra locality of Varanasi, a city of 1.2 million people that now attracts more than 5.5 million tourists per year. "Apart from the issue of quantity of wastewater generated, there is no consistency in the data on the Ganga's water quality, then be it from government agencies or the NGOs. Also, for river health assessment, there is no set protocol."

The slow death of the river is a story told by three eyewitnesses who have grown up by the river -- a scientist, a boatman and a journalist.

Shah has grown up watching the Ganga degenerate from a clean river to a dumping ground of wastewater. Fond childhood memories of a clean river inspired Shah to do research work on the river. There used to be swimming competitions from one bank of the river to the other, in which Shah participated as a child.

"A lot of hydrilla (aquatic plants) and oxygen-generating plants were there in the Ganga, which were locally known as sevaar, "she said. "My grandfather used to tell us not to go too close to sevaar or our feet could get entangled in them and we could drown."

Sometime in the mid-1980s, things started to change and her daily visits to the Ganga in the summer mornings started to reduce. "From every day of my summer vacation mornings spent at the Ganga, it became once a week, and then once a month. That's because muck started to appear on the banks of the river and inside the riv-er," said Shah whose home was about five kilometers away from the river.

Across the town crisscrossed by narrow, traffic-choked-lanes, boatman Ram Kishan Nishad, 45, remembers the time when Shah used to swim in the river. He would be in those waters as well as he has been rowing his boat in the river since he was a child.

"I have grown up next to the river. When I was a young boy, the water of Gangaji was so clear that near the banks we could see things lying on the river bed," he said as he rowed and his boat effortlessly cut through the waters of the Ganga.

"I drink its water, I bathe in the river and it also provides me with livelihood," said Nishad. "But as the city expanded and the population grew, all the waste was dumped into the river, which polluted the river."

Slightly ahead of the Assi Ghat, Nishad points in one direction as he rows. That is where the Assi "river" is located. The Assi and Varuna are mere drains of muck now with astronomical levels of filth.

Nishad remembers that when he was a young child, the water of the Varuna river used to be so clean that when his family and family friends went for a picnic, the river water was used for cooking food and drinking. Children used to bathe in it. "Today the Varuna is so dirty that no one will even dip their hand into it," said Nishad.

It was more than three decades ago, on June 14, 1986 when Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister of India, launched the Ganga Action Plan from Varanasi to clean the river. In spite of spending huge sums of taxpayer money, the river remained polluted. On May 13, 2015, the Namami Gange programme was announced as "a comprehensive approach to rejuvenate the Ganga and all its tributaries under one umbrella by consolidating existing ongoing efforts". It was allotted Rs 20,000 crore and Prime Minister Narendra Modi set a deadline: "Ganga will be clean by 2019", which has now been extended to March 2020.

According to the data presented to the Lok Sabha on December 14, 2018, till November 2018, only Rs 4,823.10 crore of the allotted Rs 20,000 crore has been spent under Namami Ganga programme.

In June 2018, the water resources ministry said in a statement: "There are two ma-jor upcoming STP (Sewage Treatment Plant) projects in (Varanasi) which will to-gether prevent 19 crore liters of sewage water from entering the river once they are complete. Of these, the 140 mld STP in Dinapur is almost complete, while the 50 mld STP project in Ramana … is progressing well." The STP at Ramana is supposed to take care of Assi river's wastewater. According to recent news reports, the Ramana STP should be functional by November 2019 and Varanasi should achieve 'zero dis-charge' into Ganga by the end of this year.

However, the picture across the country is far more grim. Quoting the Ganga rejuvenation ministry's reply to the Rajya Sabha, Business Standard reported that out of a total 254 projects sanctioned as of November 2018 at an estimated cost of Rs 24,672 crore under the Namami Gange, only 75 projects had been completed.

According to the website of National Mission for Clean Ganga, of the total 108 sew-age projects sanctioned in main stem of Ganga, 34 projects are completed, 46 are on-going, 19 under tendering projects, and 9 tenders to be floated.

800 kilometers to the east of New Delhi, in Varanasi's interiors, lives journalist Vinay Singh. He grew up in Bhagalpur, Bihar on the banks of the Ganga and moved to Varanasi in 1995 as a young journalist. "In the mid-1990s, I was shocked to see a dirty Ganga in Varanasi, because in Bhagalpur the river wasn't that polluted. It is the cities along the Ganga's path, such as Varanasi, that empty their untreated sewage and waste into the river and pollute it," said Singh, who is now settled in Varanasi.

"No one knows the exact quantity of sewage generating in the city and how much of the untreated sewage flows into the river through drains and minor tributaries," he said, standing in a bylane near Assi Ghat. Different government agencies vouch by different, and hence confusing, figures.

News reports cited wildly varying figures for last year's wastewater generation in Varanasi, ranging from 806.16 mld to 309.8 mld, a difference of almost three times. Local Jal Nigam (municipal water board) officials claim the city generates about 300 million liters per day (mld) wastewater and 27 drains empty into the Ganga. But the (central government's) CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board) says only four nullahs discharge wastewater into the river.

According to the UP State Annual Action Plan (SAAP) 2017-2020, the coverage of piped water supply in Varanasi is less than 60% -- so 40% of the population is sourcing water from other sources -- mostly precious and fast depleting groundwater -- a part of which is also converting to wastewater. Hence wastewater generation may be higher than mentioned in official records.

And this is just one city along the Ganga.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board's (CPCB) 'Annual Report 2014-15', 650 towns/cities are located along the 302 identified polluted river stretches on 275 rivers in the country. And the Himalayan amount of wastewater being generated along the cities is many times the capacity of cities to treat and clean it.

In the Ganga basin alone -- 861,400 square kilometers or 26% of the country's land mass -- about 12,000 mld (million liters per day) wastewater is generated -- though the treatment capacity is only around 4,000 mld. Over 3,000 mld of sewage is dis-charged into the main stem of the river from the Class I & II towns located along the banks, where the treatment capacity is only 1,000 mld, according to the website of the National Mission for Clean Ganga under the water resources ministry.

How clean is the Ganga?

Whereas Gadkari is confident of a clean Ganga within a year, the data on river water quality in Varanasi, as recorded by various agencies, doesn't seem too promising. For instance, between April 2017 and June 2017, and December 2017 and March 2018, biological testing and assessment of the Ganga's waters was carried out for both pre-monsoon and post-monsoon periods by the CPCB. Four of these study points were in Varanasi. The study found "moderate pollution" in all four study locations in Varanasi in both pre-monsoon and post-monsoon season. In May 2017, CPCB recorded "severe pollution" at a bathing ghat at Varanasi (Puranapul).

Data on faecal coliform in Ganga in Varanasi, as analyzed by the Down To Earth magazine, showed values of 33,550 most probable number (mpn) per 100 ml and 33,000 mpn/100 ml in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The standard value for faecal coliform in river water fit for bathing is between the desirable limit of 500 mpn and a maximum permissible limit of 2,500 mpn per 100 ml. Similarly, Down To Earth analysis found faecal coliform of 180,000 mpn/100 ml in Varuna river before it meets the river Ganga in Varanasi. The presence of faecal coliform in river water shows faecal waste getting into the Ganga.

Biological oxygen demand (BOD) is another indicator of pollution load in water bodies, the fortnightly reported values of 5.5 milligram per liter (mg/l) and 5.6 mg/l in Ganga in Varanasi in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The standard value for BOD is 3 mg/l for bathing purposes and less than 2 mg/l for drinking. In Varuna river, the BOD was found to be an astronomical 46.2 mg/l. High BOD means decrease in oxygen supply in water that directly affects aquatic life.

These complex numbers might mean nothing to the residents of Varanasi, and the devotees who come here in the millions, continuing to marvel at and worship a river.

All they hope is that three decades after they left, the dolphins return, and the turtles and tortoise glide in its waters again. And children come back to its shores to swim in the mornings -- like the scientist, the boatman and the journalist once did.

Edited by: Neelesh Misra

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