It's the height of summer in Kishanpur, a village on the banks of the Ganga in Kanpur. Several villagers squat by the roadside selling jasmine flowers. An idyllic picture? Sure. Except there is no fragrance. Instead, a putrid stench cloaks the entire village. Rising from the irrigation canal which runs through the village, the rancid smell clings to everything and everyone. The canal almost overflows with untreated sewage and effluent from the leather tanneries in the town. In another time, it was all dumped in the Ganga. In order to save the decaying river, it's become the canal's burden. The results are disastrous. The chemical-laden water gets into the fields and the crops and contaminates the groundwater. The poison finds its way into the villagers' bodies and causes infections and diseases which are beyond their ability to treat.
This is just the sort of one step-forward-two-steps-back solution that Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to avoid as he keeps his promise to save the Ganga. After the river leaves the hills at Rishikesh in Uttarakhand, water is drawn out regularly and copious amounts of muck disgorged into it. By the time it reaches Varanasi, it is a noxious cocktail of human waste and industrial effluents. Bathing in the river here may relieve you of all your sins, but it is more likely to cause you skin rashes. Take a gulp or two of its water and an upset stomach is guaranteed. What the Ganga needs for its rejuvenation is not a riverfront at Varanasi, Modi's constituency, but sewage planning for the towns and cities along its course. (Click for graphic)
And some more fresh water. But that's unlikely to happen - even in the hills. The demands of hydropower breach all political boundaries in the upper reaches of the Ganga basin in the Uttarakhand hills. More than 150 small, medium and large dams are proposed on the numerous tributaries of the Ganga. Some of these dams, by current design, could leave long stretches of the hill rivers dry in the lean period. In the middle stretch that runs through the plains, starting at Haridwar, irrigation systems drain the river near dry. It has 644 major and minor irrigation systems on the main stem and its tributaries. Together they water 472,226 square kilometres of agricultural land - roughly twice the geographical area of Uttar Pradesh. The Ganga also provides drinking water to several rapidly growing cities, such as Delhi, Meerut, Noida, Kanpur and Varanasi.
It may sound straightforward enough but this is what the government for almost three decades has been unable to achieve after spending more than Rs 2.2 lakh crore on the Ganga basin, the Parliamentary Standing Committee estimated in 2012. This includes the money spent in the two Ganga Action Plans. Roughly, 95 per cent of this has gone into building sewage treatment plants, sewer lines and intercepting sewage from storm water drains - hard engineering. A total capacity to treat 1,208 MLD has been built, against the need for around 3,000 MLD on the main Ganga river stem. The supply of sewage grows at a faster pace in an urbanising India than the supply of treatment systems and sewer lines. Even where the treatment capacity exists, the plants do not run to full capacity at most times and sewer lines are non-existent.
"One has to admit there are huge costs involved and this is not a public spending priority yet," says Bharat Lal Seth, South Asia programme coordinator for International Rivers.
It can cost up to Rs 2-8 crore these days to treat 1 MLD of waste. This does not include the cost of building the sewage system in the city that can vary according to the length of the system. The task is enormous. Take Varanasi: 84 per cent of the district is not connected to a sewer system - which means nallahs take the muck from each home and drop it into the river. In Kanpur, just about 30 per cent of the area is covered by sewers.
Then there is the attendant corruption which corrodes a system where clean rivers are extremely low on political priorities and heavily dependent on the engineering-contract regime without a regulatory framework to enforce rules. Indian cities have come up without planning for such public utilities. The treatment plants are often built at a distance from the towns, and the cost of drawing the sewage to the plant soars.
There are ways of spending the money more efficiently and innovatively through what some refer to as 'soft engineering'. As Seth suggests, instead of building new sewer systems across towns, accept the fact that storm water drains are now sewage-carrying nallahs, carry out partial treatment there itself and treat them for odour to make them socially acceptable spaces.
"We are taught not to bother about it (our waste). You don't see it and it doesn't exist for you," says Rakesh Jaiswal, head of Eco Friends, who has been fighting in vain for the last 15 years through agitation and litigation to clean the stretch in Kanpur. I am reminded of documentary film maker Pradip Saha's mock interviews in Delhi. Pretending to be from a TV channel, his crew asks random people where they think their excreta goes once it leaves their home. They snigger, they laugh and they are embarrassed. But none of them gets it right. "Into the air", "Who cares", and "Down into the earth" are the common answers.
A panwallah in Varanasi, in comparison, is better aware of the reality. "It all goes into Gangaji, where else," says Sushil Chaubey at Godowlia Chowk, for whom it's hard to ignore the dozens of drains that open into the riverfront. The cost of treating sewage is higher than the cost of treating water drawn from the rivers or ground aquifers for usage but no city charges the actual costs for either. In Delhi, the life-cycle cost of a litre of water is Rs 30 but people pay only Rs 4 for it. The poor often pay more as they source it from the water mafia.
In Varanasi, ignoring the muck and the poison that putrefies the waters is almost a religion. "I drink only Gangaji's water," says Kishore Majhi as he rows past the dead bull floating in the river and refuses the bottled water I offer. Isn't it bad for health? He sidesteps it. "This is Gangaji" - the cleaner of sins. There are others from Varanasi who run shy of taking a bath in the river now but feel guilty about it. The millions that come for the holy dip here clearly don't see the threat from the river which scientists and researchers point out is only increasing. The polluted Ganga basin is a silent public health crisis. Studies by National Cancer Registry Programme show that incidence of some cancers is higher in the Ganga basin compared to other areas. An environment ministry report says that water-borne diseases in the Ganga basin put a burden of almost $4 billion (Rs 24,000 crore) per year on health costs.
Many who have fought with the government to clean the Ganga or worked within the system feel exasperated with the lack of a holistic approach. Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, who was also on board the National Ganga River Basin Authority, suggests in her recent assessment the steps the new government must take: in the upper reaches, ensure a 30 per cent ecological flow of the rivers in the lean season; in the plains, either clean the wastewater to the levels that it can be released directly into the river or add more water to dilute the pollution levels; take the sewage from the existing drains to the treatment plants instead of building new sewer lines; and reuse the treated effluent for irrigation. She has been saying this for a while: don't mix the treated wastewater with the untreated waste, as it continues to happen in many places. Her exasperation with the system shows when she says: "Or just plug all the nallahs emptying into the river and let the cities deal with their sewage. Let them draw their drinking water downstream of their drains."
As for industrial waste, experts advise the government to get out of the treatment business and instead strengthen monitoring and compliance. "The government has spent so much money in setting up these plants and running them for industry. Why should it be running these? If industry can run businesses worth hundreds of crores, it can surely also clean up. The government should just monitor the water and pollution levels honestly," says Jaiswal. Governments, instead, have done knee-jerk reactions to public pressure, such as shutting down the industry temporarily in Allahabad during the Kumbh or shifting the tanneries out of Kanpur to nearby districts such as Unnao. "It is like shifting the pollution away from the river front. It's not really treating it," Jaiswal says.
That is the typical reaction that fits the adage 'not in my backyard'. It's been done in Sabarmati where the water is pristine clean as it passes through Ahmedabad city only to have sewage dumped further downstream. If the same is done in Varanasi - a clean riverfront and just that - those who voted for Modi may get a better Ganga experience but people living in villages like Kishanpur are only going to suffer more diseases from the dirty holy river.