The Plight of Severely Polluted Ganges River

June 5, 2013 Updated: June 5, 2013

The Ganges (Ganga), India’s most revered and longest river, is struggling with gross water pollution since decades as none of the major government-aided projects could provide a possible solution.

Besides the main river, most of its tributaries are all described as grossly polluted by various Indian agencies like the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), its National River Conservation Directorate and National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).

If one were to travel down from the river from the Gangotri (the glacier from where Ganga arises) one should be ready to face some rather nasty surprises, including the complete disappearance of the river for several miles at several places. Further down there are barrages on the river at places like Chilla, Haridwar, Narora, at Kanpur and also the dam at Farakka. In addition, each of the river’s 17 major tributaries has been dammed several times. Each of these hydro-power projects, dams and barrages have significant adverse impact on the river.

However, in NGRBA’s description of the problem, there is no mention of these projects. Its sole focus is on pollution: “In the Ganga basin approximately 12,000 million litres per day (mld) of sewage is generated, for which presently there is treatment capacity of only around 4,000 mld. Approximately 3000 mld of sewage is discharged into the main stem of the river Ganga from Class I and II towns located on the banks, against which treatment capacity of about 1,000 mld has been created till date.”

The contribution of industrial pollution, volume-wise, is about 20 percent but due to its toxic and non-biodegradable nature, this has much more hazardous impact. This kind of limited diagnosis is bound to lead to wrong prescription.

The polluted state of the river is not a recent development. This has been known for decades. It is not lack for attempts or lack of financial, technical or infrastructure resource allocation or lack of understanding that’s responsible for the current state of the river.

The first phase of tackling pollution in the river Ganga started with the enactment of the Water Pollution Act of 1974, by setting up of elaborate institutional arrangements including the central and state pollution control boards, armed with significant legal powers. However, till date we do not have a single case of a river or tributary that has been cleaned up due to the efforts of pollution control boards.

Having seen this failure, the then Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in 1985. He was hopeful that the Environment Protection Act, enacted the following year would be useful in this endeavor. The Act is good, but the agency implementing it, Ministry of Environment and Forest, has not shown the independence, the will or the intention of tackling this problem with any seriousness.