Dr Arvind Kumar*
* Editor, SAR Economist.
Gangetic Plain lies in the centre of Uttar Pradesh. Having highly fertile alluvial soils, this region is flat in topography and broken by numerous ponds, lakes and rivers. Gangetic plain stretching across the entire length of the state from east to west is regarded as the most important area from economic point of view. The entire alluvial plain can be divided into three sub-regions. The first in the eastern tract comprises 14 districts which are subject to periodical floods and droughts and have been classified as scarcity areas. These districts have the highest density of population which gives the lowest per capita land. The other two regions, the central and the western are comparatively better with a well-developed irrigation system. They suffer from water logging and large-scale user tracts. The Gangetic plain is watered by the Yamuna, the Ganga and its major tributaries, the Ramganga, the Gomati, the Ghaghra and Gandak.
Mounting Water Crisis
The magnitude of water crisis in the Gangetic Plain is assuming aded dimensions in the wake of increasing pollution levels in almost all major rivers of the region. Apart from the known polluted rivers like Ganga and Yamuna, other rivers in the region have also become prey to pollution. According to a recent study undertaken by Meerut-based civil society Neer Foundation, six rivers in the western part of this region are so heavily polluted that no life could exist in them, and they were dangerous even to bathe in. Apart from Yamuna, the other rivers are Hindon, Krishni, Kali East, Kali West and Dhamola. The study was conducted in Meerut, Ghaziabad, Bullandshahr, Muzaffarnagar, Baghpat, Gautam Budh Nagar, Etah, Aligarh and Agra districts.
More than 70 samples were collected between June and November 2009 from these rivers at various places to check for turbidity, dissolved oxygen, temperature and degree of acidity (pH value).
Turbidity — that indicates the lack of clarity of water — was found to be around 100 Jackson Turbidity Units (JTU) in these rivers. The US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) says a turbidity level above 40 JTU is dangerous. In many places, the water had no dissolved oxygen at all, so no life could exist there and the river was effectively dead, the study found. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says dissolved oxygen level in river water should be at least eight parts per million. The water was found to be highly alkaline, with a pH value between 9-10. A pH value of 7 indicates the water is neutral, and the US EPA says the pH of river water should be between 6.5 and 7.5. “The temperature of the water in these rivers was also found to be very high.2 Large quantities of industrial and toxic waste from chemical, paper and other factories were also found and the level of dissolved oxygen ws found to be zero.
Pollution in Ganga River
Currently, more than 29 cities, 70 towns, and thousands of villages extend along the Ganga banks. Nearly all of their sewage – over 1.3 billion liters per day – goes directly into the river, along with thousands of animal carcasses, mainly cattle. Another 260 million liters of industrial waste are added to this by hundreds of factories along the rivers banks. Municipal sewage constitutes 80 per cent by volume of the total waste dumped into the Ganga, and industries contribute about 15 percent. The majority of the Ganga pollution is organic waste, sewage, trash, food, and human and animal remains. Over the past century, city populations along the Ganga have grown at a tremendous rate, while waste-control infrastructure has remained relatively unchanged. Recent water samples collected in Varanasi revealed fecal-coliform counts of about 50,000 bacteria per 100 milliliters of water, 10,000% higher than the government standard for safe river bathing. The result of this pollution is an array of water-borne diseases including cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and amoebic dysentery. An estimated 80% of all health problems and one-third of deaths in India are attributable to water-borne diseases.
The sacred practice of depositing human remains in the Ganga also poses health threats because of the unsustainable rate at which partially cremated cadavers are dumped. In Varanasi, some 40,000 cremations are performed each year, most on wood pyres that do not completely consume the body. Along with the remains of these traditional funerals, there are thousands more who cannot afford cremation and whose bodies are simply thrown into the Ganga. In addition, the carcasses of thousands of dead cattle, which are sacred to Hindus, go into the river each year. An inadequate cremation procedure contributes to a large number of partially burnt or unburnt corpses floating down the Ganga.
Hundreds of corpse is burnt on the line of wooden pyres. Soot-covered men bustle about, raking in the still-glowing ashes, sweeping them into the river. Gray dust from the pyres floats atop the waves, mixing with flower garlands and foam. The dust and debris resurfaces some distance away, this time, intermixed with polythene bags, empty cans and dirty clothes. This is the holy Ganga at its holiest spot Varanasi.
The industrial pollutants are also a major source of contamination in the Ganga. A total of 146 industries are reported to be located along the river Ganga between Rishikesh and Prayagraj. 144 of these are in Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) and 2 in Uttrakhand. The major polluting industries on the Ganga are the leather industries, especially near Kanpur, which use large amounts of Chromium and other toxic chemical waste, and much of it finds its way into the meager flow of the Ganga. From the plains to the sea, pharmaceutical companies, electronics plants, textile and paper industries, tanneries, fertilizer manufacturers and oil refineries discharge effluent into the river. This hazardous waste includes hydrochloric acid, mercury and other heavy metals, bleaches and dyes, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls highly toxic compounds that accumulate in animal and human tissue.
The tannery industry mushrooming in North India has converted the Ganga River into a dumping ground. The tanning industry discharges different types of waste into the environment, primarily in the form of liquid effluents containing organic matters, chromium, sulphide ammonium and other salts. As per an estimate, about 80-90% of the tanneries use chromium as a tanning agent. The hides take up only 50-70%, while the rest is discharged as effluent. Pollution becomes acute when tanneries are concentrated in clusters in small area like Kanpur.
In 1996, the Supreme Court had banned the discharge of effluents from various tanneries and factories located on its banks in Kanpur.
However, industry is not the only source of pollution. Sheer volume of waste – estimated at nearly 1 billion litres per day – of mostly untreated raw sewage – is a significant factor. Runoff from farms in the Ganga basin adds chemical fertilizers and pesticides such as DDT, which is banned in the United States because of its toxic and carcinogenic effects on humans and wildlife. Damming the river or diverting its water, mainly for irrigation purposes, also adds to the pollution crisis. Atmospheric deposition of heavy metals emitted from vehicles and presence of industrial units adjoining the Ganges is adding to the pollution load on the river, researchers have found on May 2010.
Decades-long efforts by the government to breathe life into Ganga through massive clean-up programmes have come to naught. Consider this: Over Rs 1,000 crore have been pumped into the Ganga Action Plan I and II between 1985 and 2000, but India’s holiest river is still sullied. On 3 May 2010 the Allahabad High Court directed the Uttar Pradesh and the Uttarakhand governments to hold a chief secretary level meeting to ensure adequate water level in the river Ganga. Passing this order, a division bench put a ban on use of polythene on the banks of the Ganga. The court directed Ganga Basin Authority to make sure that the use of ploythene is banned near Ganga completely.
Pollution in River Yamuna
River Yamuna, also sometimes called Jamuna or Jumna is a key tributary river of Ganga River in northern India. Possessing a total length of about 1,370 kilometers, it is the largest tributary of Ganga. Originating from Yamunotri in the Uttarakhand, which is north of the Himalayan mountains, River Yamuna flows through the states of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, before merging with River Ganga at Allahabad. It is noteworthy that the cities of Baghpat, Delhi, Noida, Mathura, Agra, Etawah, Kalpi, Hamirpur and Allahabad are situated on the banks of river Yamuna.
According to broad estimates, India consumes about 86,311 tonnes of technical-grade insecticides annually to cover 182.5 million hectare of its land. Most Indian rivers pass through agricultural areas that use pesticides. This makes leaching from agricultural fields the most serious non-point — unspecified, and therefore, not measurable accurately — source of pollution to the aquatic environment. A study conducted in 1995 found traces of isomers (a carcinogenic organochlorine) in Indian rivers, including the Yamuna.
Viewed in a broad spectrum, about 57 million people depend on Yamuna waters. With an annual flow of about 10,000 cubic metres (cum) and usage of 4,400 cum (of which irrigation constitutes 96 per cent), the river accounts for more than 70 per cent of Delhi’s water supplies. Available water treatment facilities are not capable of removing the pesticide traces. Waterworks laboratories cannot even detect them. Worse, Yamuna leaves Delhi as a sewer, laden with the city’s biological and chemical wastes. Downstream, at Agra, this becomes the main municipal drinking water source. Here too, existing treatment facilities are no match for the poisons. Thus, consumers in Delhi and Agra ingest unknown amounts of toxic pesticide residues each time they drink water.
The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), on its part, had found endosulphan residues — alpha and beta isomers — in the Yamuna in 1991. An earlier study by H C Agarwal of Delhi University had traced ddt residues amounting to 3,400 nanogram per litre (ng/l). However, later cpcb studies showed reduced ddt levels. To gauge the immensity of the threat, it is necessary to trace the river’s flow — divided in five segments on the basis of hydro-geomorphological and ecological characteristics — down to its final reaches.
Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) data suggests that at Hathnikund, 2-km upstream of Tajewala barrage, Yamuna waters are of A and B category. Category A means that Yamuna at that point is a drinking water source without conventional treatment but other disinfections. Category B means fit for outdoor bathing. Seven-km east of Yamunanagar at Kalanaur provides impact of Som Nadi on water quality putting it in Category C. Here Yamuna is a drinking water source with conventional treatment followed by disinfection. But after that all hells breaks loose and water category degrades to ‘D’ and ‘E’.
Domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution and the lowest value of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) at 0.1mg/lt make Yamuna the most-polluted river in the country. The significance of the figure —0.1mg/lt—can be understood from the fact that in category A, the DO is 6 mg/lt and bathing quality standard 5 mg/lt. DO is the amount of oxygen in mg/lt of river water to sustain acquatic life which should be 4 mg/lt or more.
Yamuna has one of the highest Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) amongst all rivers in the country at 36mg/lt. It has the highest count in the country of total coliform numbers and faecal coliform numbers at 2.6 billion MPN/100 ml and 1.7 million MPN/100 ml, respectively. BOD is the amount of oxygen needed by bacteria to oxidise one litre of organic waste. For bathing quality standard BOD is 3 mg/lt, meaning there should not be more than 500 fecal coliform—the disease-causing bacteria— per 100 ml of water.
The water crisis is likely to become acute further if remedial and timely measures are not taken to save the major and small rivers from pollution and seepage of polluted water into underground water acquifires is not prevented. The new industries like crushing-bones, and abbaitors and ileegal animal slughter-houses along the Ganga and other rivers should be shifted to other places with scientific instructions to be observed by such industries.
This scenario also calls for increased participation of Private Sector under the PPP model with added role for the civil society and reminding the industries of their Corporate Social Responsibility. More accountability on the part of government water agencies is also called for. Nexus between the offficials and the errant industries has to be kept under check. Like Ganga Action Plan, similar plans for other rivers, particularly Yamuna River, need to be worked out sooner than later.