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Ganga Cleanup: Sewage Woes, Funds Misuse Haunt Namami Gange Mission

Between 2018 and 2022, there was a 30 per cent increase in the polluted river stretches in Namami Gange-focused states. Among the five states, only West Bengal has shown improvement in the reduction of contaminated rivers.

By Aysha Sadak
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Restoring the “nirmal aur aviral dhara” (clear and flowing stream) of “Ma Ganga” was a top priority for Narendra Modi when he was sworn in as the Prime Minister. This led to the launch of the Namami Gange scheme with a budget of Rs 20,000 crores. In a 2014 rally in Uttarakhand, Narendra Modi promised to clean the river Ganga, a central part of the Prime Minister’s constituency—Varanasi. As of 2023, there have been 5.38 crore visitors to Varanasi, where tourists offer prayers and bathe in the Ganga River. The Ganga River flows 2,500 km, passing through Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal, covering more than 40 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people. 

The devotees visit the temples in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, seeking good fortune and believing that a dip in the Ganga will clean their sins. However, the Ganga River has been plagued with sewage, rubbish, and floating filth. The Ganga receives about 2,900 million litres of sewage discharge per day (MLD), of which only 48%, or 1,400 MLD, is treated. Chemical and heavy metal industries also dispose of their waste in the river, with residents near the Basin disposing of their household and toilet waste, adding to the river’s pollution.

The government promised to clean 80 per cent of the Ganga River by 2019 when they spent 30 per cent of the budget. In February 2024, the Minister of State, Ministry of Jal Shakti, Bishweswar Tudu said in Parliament that diverse interventions have reduced the “pollution load” in the river. However, Swami Shivanand Saraswati, head of Matre Sadan, who has been fighting for a clean Ganga since 1986, says otherwise. He said, “The river is as polluted as it was before the BJP came to power”.

STP Namami Gange Rishikesh

Scientific approach

The subsequent governments have attempted to clean the holy river: the Ganga Action Plan in 1985 and the National Ganga River Basin Project in 2008. Now, the program has been extended up to March 31, 2026, as Namami Gange Mission-II with an additional budget of Rs 22,500 crore. The Indian government has taken a scientific approach, led by IIT Kanpur, to clean one of the most polluted rivers in the world. They have invested in projects such as advanced sewage treatment plants called Sequence Batch Reactors, rural sanitation, afforestation, bioremediation, riverfront, ghats modernisation and crematoria repairs. 60% of all the sanctioned projects under Namami Gange have been completed. Among the 195 sewage projects, 109 have been installed.  

The program uses an advanced sewage treatment plant called Sequence Batch Reactors. As of 2023, Uttar Pradesh has been sanctioned the largest budget of Rs 14,097.18 crores for 69 sewerage projects.

The major reason for pollution in the Ganga is the discharge of untreated and partially treated sewage from cities. Only 48% or 1,400 MLD, out of the 2,900 million litres of sewage discharge per day are treated, according to government data. The central government needs to create an additional 1,500 MLD (52% of discharge) sewage treatment capacity to bridge the gap.

The Fate of Sewage in Ganga

The Ministry of Jal Shakti remarked that between 2018 and 2021, there was a marked improvement in the state of the river. They claimed that none of the Ganga stretches were within Priority Categories I to IV and only two stretches were in Priority Category V. Category I indicates that water is ‘critically polluted, whereas Category V denotes water that is ‘fit for bathing’. 

However, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reports contradict their statements. It is reported that in 2020–2021, the Ganga’s water quality in compliance with bathing criteria deteriorated from 64.6 percent to 46.2 percent during pre-lockdown and lockdown periods. The degradation is attributed to the release of untreated or partially treated sewage, high concentrations of pollutants from the insignificant flow during the dry season, and no fresh water discharges from upstream. Whereas, between 2018 and 2022, there was a 30 per cent increase in the polluted river stretches in Namami Gange-focused states. Among the five states, only West Bengal has shown improvement in the reduction of contaminated rivers.

However, last February, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) found the entire stretch of the Ganga River in West Bengal had high levels of faecal coliform bacteria and failed to meet primary water quality standards.

The discovery came to light during a hearing regarding the ongoing efforts to prevent, control, and reduce pollution in the Ganga River across various states by NGT.  It was also found that the West Bengal District Magistrates needed to produce a timeline for achieving the target of 100 per cent sewage treatment. The environmental protection judicial body found it surprising that not a single Sewage Treatment Plant was set up in certain districts in West Bengal. They had requested that West Bengal’s District Magistrates disclose the manner and extent of utilisation of funds received from the National Mission for Clean Ganga. 

This reflects the state of Ganga stretches between 2016 and 2019 during the first term of the BJP government, when the harmful bacteria levels were up 84 times higher than the standard level. 

Plastic free ghats Varanasi.

Promising on paper

Environmental activist Rajendra Singh expressed his frustration with the Namami Gange project to Newsclick. “The pollution levels in the Ganges are increasing. The construction of all-weather roads in the Himalayas has worsened the issue, leading to siltation. Additionally, most STPs are in a state of closure. While log entries suggest operational status, on-site inspections reveal that the STPs are not functioning. Contractors managing these facilities are implicated in corrupt practices. Moreover, government officials provide inaccurate data, attempting to portray a misleading picture of the situation,” he said

Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP (South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People), corroborated with Singh. He pointed out that river link projects, inconsistent measures, and non-functional STPs contribute to the failure to achieve the project's objectives.

Despite the massive budget and advanced technological approach of the Jal Shakti Mission, the project appears promising only on paper. The rampant misallocation of funds, corruption, and sheer amount of sewage pollution are steadily deteriorating the Ganga and have led to elevated levels of coliform bacteria. For a widely celebrated flagship project by the BJP, the project failed in its take-off. Despite the momentum and efforts in the past 10 years, Ganga’s holy water has yet to douse its worshippers with its promise of clean water. 

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