Seven years on, mission to clean the Ganga remains a work in progress

STPs set up to treat only 20% of sewage spewing into Ganga; NMCG hopes to increase this to 33% by 2024, 60% by 2026; Centre says it will only build capacity for 7,000 MLD; States must set up the rest

September 01, 2023 06:35 pm | Updated September 02, 2023 12:19 am IST - NEW DELHI

The government unveiled its ambitious ₹20,000 crore National Mission for Clean Ganga | representative images

The government unveiled its ambitious ₹20,000 crore National Mission for Clean Ganga | representative images | Photo Credit: DEEPAK K.R.

In the seven years since the government unveiled its ambitious ₹20,000 crore National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), it has installed treatment plants capable of treating just 20% of the sewage estimated to be generated in the five major States that lie along the river. This is expected to increase to about 33% by 2024; and according to the latest projections by senior officials in the NMCG, treatment plants will be capable of treating 60% of sewage by December 2026.

These calculations are premised on sewage to the tune of 11,765 million litres per day (MLD) being generated in the five States – Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal – through which the river courses. This figure derives from a report submitted to the National Green Tribunal earlier this year. However, the NMCG plans on setting up sewage treatment plants (STPs) capable of treating about 7,000 MLD of sewage by 2026; States are expected to set up the remaining capacity, both on their own, and drawing on separate initiatives by other arms of the Union government.

“The main objective of the Namami Ganga mission is to ensure that no untreated sewage flows into the river. The estimate of 11,765 MLD is dynamic and also includes sewage that is generated within the State, but which doesn’t necessarily flow into the river. It also isn’t exact and is a projection based on expected population trends,” NMCG director general G. Asok Kumar told The Hindu. “Other States are also working on their own in setting up plants and we work with them. By our projections, if we are able to set up capacity worth 7,000 MLD, it should suffice, for now, to ensure no untreated sewage flows in the main stem of the river.”

Picking up pace

Projects to set up STPs and sewerage networks are at the heart of the Namami Ganga mission, and account for about 80% of the overall project outlay. As of July 2023, STPs capable of treating 2,665 MLD have actually been commissioned, and are now functional. From 2014, when the mission was first announced, to 2021, only 811 MLD of capacity was completed. In the last financial year 2022-23, however, 1,455 MLD capacity was completed.

Several plants took time to be commissioned as there were problems with land acquisition. In many instances, the Detailed Project Reports — which prescribe all the steps necessary to execute a project, and the roles of agencies, Centre, State and the private contractors — needed revision, said Mr. Kumar. “States were under the impression that building treatment plants was entirely the Centre’s responsibility. We had to work to correct that and now most of the sanctioned projects are progressing well,” he added.

So far the maximum number of plants have been set up — or upgraded in the case of older plants — in Uttarakhand (36), followed by Uttar Pradesh (35), and West Bengal (11). Though NMCG is a ₹20,000 crore mission, the government has so far given in-principle approval for projects worth ₹37,396 crore, of which only ₹14,745 crore has been released to States for infrastructure work, as of June 2023.

Dolphins thriving

The river’s water quality is now within “prescribed limits of notified primary bathing water quality,” an NMCG fact-sheet, viewed by The Hindu, notes.

Mr. Kumar said that a conspicuous sign of the improvement in water quality along the Ganga was a rise in the dolphin population — both adult and juvenile — from 2,000 to about 4,000. “We are also seeing the presence of dolphins in new stretches of the river as well as in tributaries [of the Ganga]. Fishermen are also reporting the increased presence of Indian carp [a fish species] that only thrives in clean water. So we have nature’s verdict on river improvement,” he added.

The typical parameters used by the Central Pollution Control Board — such as the levels of dissolved oxygen, biochemical oxygen demand, and faecal coliform — vary widely along various stretches of the river. The NMCG is now working to develop a water quality index, on the lines of the air quality index, to be able to better communicate about river-water quality, he added.

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