Rajeev Ranjan Mishra, Director-General, National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), spoke to The Hindu’s Jacob Koshyon steering the organisation, tasked with one of the largest clean-ups in history for close to a decade; the challenges in making the Ganga pollution-free; and his reasons for co-authoring the book, Ganga: Reimagining, Rejuvenating, Reconnecting.
Since 2014, the government has made the cleaning of the Ganga one of its centrepiece missions and earmarked ₹20,000 crore towards it. How has the mission so far progressed?
Today, we have close to 350 projects of various types and about 160 are sewage treatment plants. All the projects in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand are complete; 60% of the projects are complete in U.P. Bihar is slower as lots of projects being made are brand new but in two years 70% of them should be over. In two years, the majority of the projects along the Ganga will be over. U.P., the most important State, will be over before that. We are also looking at several related aspects, such as improving wetlands, improving the ecological flow (e-flow), along with developing sewage treatment plants.
The Clean Ganga Mission was billed as a ₹20,000 crore project. You have sanctioned projects worth ₹30,000 crore. Is the Ganga measurably cleaner than before?
We have sanctioned projects worth ₹30,000 crore for 15 years. The outflow will be much less and people say that you have actually spent only ₹11,000 crore. In five years, we won’t be spending a lot. From 1985-2014, only about ₹4,000 crore was spent on Ganga cleaning and by those standards, our spending is a significant boost. We have not finished our mission but large patches of the river are clean. All projects in Uttarakhand are complete and there is an immediate change in the water quality of Haridwar. It’s a typical big city and not really a hill city. Its water quality is Class A (the highest grade of cleanliness according to India’s water quality monitoring standards). There is a visible difference in the water quality in Kanpur, which until a few years back had deplorable water quality. You don’t need measurements; the change is there to see. And this is all through the year.
However, this is just one aspect. You have to keep your urban and local bodies ready. Fifteen years is nothing in the life of a river and cities have to start owning their river. Lots of Municipal Commissioners typically focus on only their small stretch of the river and dump waste outside their jurisdictions. In the last few years, we have been focussed on sensitising authorities in cities and Ganga riparian States to river planning. We have a river-city alliance to achieve this. Taking care of rivers has to be part of cities’ master plans.
Do you have an independent monitoring system that measures aspects such as Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) to ascertain water quality?
The Central Pollution Control Board and a special cell has been created to monitor real-time water quality. In terms of DO, the entire stretch of Ganga meets the standards from Uttarakhand to West Bengal. These are measured at nearly 90 stretches. The BOD levels are met in at least 60. The Kanpur BOD used to be 10 at one point and now is three-four. So, there is significant improvement. We have made the ghats cleaner, [with] better crematoria facilities.
The pandemic saw instances of dead bodies dumped into the Ganga in U.P., which even attracted notice from the National Human Rights Commission. What did you find, and did this affect the water quality?
The pandemic created unforeseen challenges which led to unprecedented situations. It called for a series of meetings with the concerned authorities and the rolling out of measures to ensure that the health of the river as well as the lives of the people are safe and protected. We released a notification to all the States to ensure that the cremation of suspected COVID-19 patients were in line with the Government of India’s guidelines and that strict vigilance along the length of the river was maintained. We collaborated with a specialised virology testing institute, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IITR) and initiated the investigation of SARS-CoV-2 virus contamination and analysis of water quality due to disposal of dead bodies in the Ganga. The investigation concluded that SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in any of the tested sites. I have mentioned this incident in the book to emphasise the constant challenges being faced, and that river rejuvenation is a dynamic process. We faced a problem which did not have anything to do with the programme and yet had to be immediately tackled by the NMCG.
You mentioned e-flow and a few years back, this was a controversial issue with hunger fasts organised by seers and activists such as G.D. Agrawal (who succumbed after a 100-day fast) demanding a minimum flow of water, and protesting against hydropower projects. How does the NMCG ensure that adequate flows are maintained?
To maintain ecological flow, it is necessary to maintain supply and demand of water and maintain minimum flows at all times for the health of the river. The primary problem is the enormous amounts of water from the Ganga diverted for agriculture. If you see the Haridwar to Kanpur belt, there are several barrages. In the lean season (non-monsoon), there is a paucity of water. In Uttarakhand, you have to deal with hydroelectric projects, and in other States and cities, it is irrigation projects. In Uttarakhand, hydropower project operators initially had reservations but by and large, most are adhering to the revised norms. In these respects, we have been helped by the National Green Tribunal, whose directions on conservation have been significant.
While improving water use efficiency in agriculture is ongoing, a less-discussed aspect is improving wetlands. We are looking at improving wetlands all along the Ganga. In U.P., we are in the process of planning and conserving nearly 250 wetlands. A similar exercise is underway in Bihar. All of this is essential to keep the aquifer recharged and keep groundwater levels high. People somehow don’t link groundwater to surface water. If wetlands aren’t healthy, it will affect ecological flow. This is not easy and it’s a long-term process for every river.
One unique aspect of the Clean Ganga Mission in infrastructure projects is the Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM). Once upon a time, municipalities were charged with taking care of treatment plants. Now, HAM outsources this to private companies and promises them fixed returns. The challenge with water treatment plants is that everything is good in the first few years, after which maintenance slackens. Can you explain how HAM will be any different?
As part of our surveys, we found that more than half the sewage treatment plants were defunct and 30% were under-utilised. They could never be operated well; they lacked enough trained manpower and had no money for maintenance. Earlier too, contracts were given out to private companies but they were all piecemeal and it was a maze of subdivision of labour. Before HAM came, we had decided that we should give a long-term operation and maintenance contract of 10-15 years but with HAM, we felt there was a need to ensure that the operator of the plants had skin in the game. Earlier, government would pay for construction and now we are paying for performance, so there is an element of risk. You do well, contractors stand to make more than they would from a typical project, but if you don’t, then there’s also a risk of loss. Five years down, that process has stabilised. We have multiple bidders for every project. From here, we progressed onto the One City One Operator model, where a successful bidder will not only make new plants but also maintain the existing plants. This system is now being emulated beyond Ganga projects in other parts of the country.
You are set to retire this month and have co-authored a book with a former colleague, Puskal Upadhyay, on your experiences with the Ganga project...
Given the very unique challenges that such a massive project posed, I thought it is important to document them. I had a chance to be engaged with one mission for a long time and this is usually rare — to be associated for long with one project — in government assignments. So I have some personal attachment. The book is structured to explain the enormity of the challenges, the solutions, and the nature of institutions necessary to solve such environmental challenges.