Barrages built near Bhagalpur are also endangering the lives of the Gangetic dolphins. According to Sunil Chaudhary, an environmentalist rallying public action to save the Ganga: “We are working on dolphin conservation, and one cannot do it without saving the Ganga. Every being requires a minimum flow of the river to stay alive.”
In Bihar, the pollution in Ganga is acute near cities and places where industries have been set up. Apart from raw sewage and industrial waste, agricultural run-off is the single most important non-point or diffuse source of pollution, containing residues of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, insecticides and weedicides, which enter the river waters. Scientists and environmentalists complain that even today there is only a vague idea about the impact of agricultural run-off on river water quality and its ecology.
“Agricultural run-offs flow into the river with the monsoon rains,” says Ravi Chopra, director, People’s Science Institute, and former member of the NGRBA. “There has been no quantification and since the problem has not been studied, there is no solution.” Adds Sunil Chaudhary: “These pesticides and chemical fertilisers spread through the aquatic ecosystem and into the human food chain.”
However, what is most worrying is the low flow of the river during the lean season. NGRBA members and environmentalists have dubbed the reduced flow of the Ganga as “the biggest problem”. They feel since the scale of pollution also depends on the degree of dilution and velocity of the flow of water, it is necessary to maintain a minimum discharge in the river. In fact, the low flow of water during dry weather from Narora to Allahabad and Unnao in UP to Trighat in Bihar, makes these stretches the most polluted in the region. Also, with the intensity of irrigation in the Ganga basin being very high, scientists say that a large quantity of water is being diverted from the Bhimgoda barrage at Haridwar into the Upper Ganga Canal, to provide water for irrigation. At Bijnor, another barrage diverts the water into the Middle Ganga Canal. At Narora, there is further diversion of water into the Lower Ganga Canal. As a result, the Ganga does not receive water from any major tributary until the Ramganga joins it at Kannauj.
Flood irrigation is another issue that affects the waters of the Ganga. “The requirement of water for irrigation has not been calculated,” explains RK Sinha, member, NGRBA and HoD, environment sciences, Central University of Bihar.
“Our engineers are diverting water through canals and letting it flow through the crop field, leading to a loss of water. This water should have actually flowed into the river,” he adds. Sinha further clarifies: “I am not saying that water should not be diverted for irrigation; it should be, but then we should divert only the required quantity of water. For example, when the root of the wheat crop should be set one inch below ground level, then why do we need one foot of water?” Because of this diversion of the river water for irrigation and low flow, 70 percent of the Ganga between Narora and Allahabad is sewage. This stretch is also considered the most polluted stretch of the river.
The absence of an organism called bacteriophages has further compounded the problem. “A major finding of the CPCB is that bacteriophages have disappeared from the Ganga waters. The presence of bacteriophages gives the river its anti-bacterial nature,” says DD Basu.
While a lot of importance is being given to the treatment of sewage water and industrial effluents, a CPCB report stresses on an assessment of flow and wastewater load. The report suggests that unabated discharge of treated sewage, even after 100 percent treatment, cannot bring the water to the level of bathing quality.
Vijay Panjwani, counsel for the CPCB for the past 17 years, talks of a scheme that has been adopted by many countries. “Wastewater should not be mixed with clean flowing river water,” he says. “It should be treated and then sent for agriculture or to industries. However much you may treat sewage water, it will never be clean.”
Environmentalists say that so far, the government’s efforts to clean up the river have fallen woefully short. Twenty seven years and an investment of Rs 1,100 crore later, the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) that was supposed to improve the river’s health, has failed in its mission. In fact, the condition has only worsened.
Launched by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, GAP-Iwas supposed clean up the river in five years. With an official expenditure of Rs 452 crore, GAP-I was declared closed in March 2000. Simultaneously, in 1993, GAP Phase II was launched, covering 59 towns located along the river in the five states of Uttarakhand, UP, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal. As many as 319 schemes were taken up under GAP-II, of which 200 were completed. GAP-II was later merged with the National River Conservation Authority (NRCP), with an aim to cover polluted stretches of 36 rivers in 20 states. GAP was one of India’s most ambitious river cleaning projects and it turned out to be a colossal failure. Panjwani disputes the official figure of 1,100 crore and claims that close to 20,000 crore has been spent on cleaning the Ganga. “The GAP failed to clean the Ganga, but it made some bureaucrats, contractors and politicians very rich,” he says.