Large scale Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) are being promoted as must have infrastructure to control Urban sewage pollution in rivers across the country. However, most of the Large Scale STPs are mired in controversies from planning to construction and during operational phase, often failing to achieve the basic objective for which they are built, investing crores of rupees. A case in point is Ramna STP of Kashi, Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, this is a story from Varanasi, many also call it Banaras, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi.
In 2014, Dr Kelly Alley of Auburn University, USA wrote for SANDRP about the Varanasi’s sewage issue[i] a detailed blog with illuminating photos. Dr Alley noted: “In his victory speech, the PM-elect Narendra Modi vowed to clean the sacred river Ganga. After assuming the office of Prime Minister, he reiterated the vow and pledged renewed efforts for Ganga clean-up.” In the article Dr Alley tried “to create a visual map of the wastewater infrastructure and management problems and define the current lines of command and control within the vast and overlapping water, environment, and public health bureaucracies”.
Things were not quite well with the 50 MLD (million gallon liters per day) capacity STP since the beginning but it’s only in July 2021 when the sheer negligence[ii] of developer and concerned agencies have come to light, when during test run the plant is found to be over burdened with 60 MLD pollution load. The fate of much touted Hybrid Annuity Model (HAM) STP was writ large from basic planning phase however the concerned agencies seem to have deliberately kept ignoring the ground realities.
The story possibly began in 2015, when the Ganga Pollution Control Unit (GPCU), of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam grossly underestimated[iii] the sewage load in Nagwa drain and Assi river at around 40 MLD, which was polluting Ganga river in Kashi (Varanasi). Accordingly the Detailed Project Report (DPR) claimed that the proposed the 50 MLD capacity Ramna STP would meet the requirement of sewage load till 2030.
Contracted on Private Public Partnership (PPP) mode with 15 years Operation and Maintenance (O&M) contract, construction work was allotted to Essel Infrastructure Limited. Three hectares of farming land was availed for the project while total building cost estimate stood around Rs. 154 crore. The construction started[iv] in February 2018 with completion target first in March, then in April finally in December 2020.
The project progress was slow[v]. Soon, the developer got trapped in Yes Bank scam[vi] restraining funding to the project. Later on, Essel group declared itself bankrupt leaving the project in limbo. Finding no way, GPCU forced it to carry on the work, till completion.
Meanwhile, the lockdown further delayed the execution, escalating its cost by about Rs. 10 crore. In November 2020, the developer was fined Rs. 3 crore[vii] reportedly for violation of norms but it seems for exceeding stipulated time frame. The December 2020 deadline was again replaced with end of March 2021.
Finally, the trial run is conducted in first week of July 2021, when the STP was found receiving about 60 MLD sewage, 10 MLD more than its treatment capacity defeating the purpose of the STP. But there is more information suggesting why the entire venture was fated to fail from the beginning.
Way back in 1997, the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF), the oldest environmental group working on Ganga river conservation had measured the pollution discharge of Nagwa drain to be around 27 MLD. A reassessment of same in 2010 by US experts working with SMF found it to be around 64 MLD, projecting doubling of sewage load in next 20 years.
Experts claim, the Nagwa drain is presently carries about 130 MLD pollution load. Hence, SMF questions the very basis[viii] of DPR preparation. “The work on the Ramna STP is a total wastage of money and time, as it is not only overburdened but also incorrect from the point of view of engineering,” Prof. Vishawambar Nath Misra, President SMF is quoted.
People familiar with the issue further say, the sewage pumping station (SPS) at the mouth of Assi river drain is of 50 MLD capacity and it is supposed to pump the sewage against natural gradient to Ramna STP located about 11km upstream which is not only energy intensive but rife with problems also. Under the circumstances, even if the STP is made functional, its efficient operation would always remain doubtful.
Another major issue in the city is missing credible urban water governance. When the Ramna STP problem is brought into the information of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, he ordered an inquiry into the matter to fix the accountability. However, the three membered probe committee is comprised of very officials[ix] of Jal Nigam who were responsible for its planning and execution.
Officials say the excess sewage load of Nagwa was to be diverted towards newly built 140 MLD Dinapur STP along Varuna river but on account of implementation mistakes that did not happen leading to overloading of Ramna STP.
INTACH pilot project ignored In an onsite pilot demonstration January-February 2017, INTACH had shown[x] at its own cost, how Assi Ganga can be cleaned using a bacterial bioremediation based low cost technique. This was after a committee constituted by the NMCG following orders of the Allahabad High Court gave a No Objection Certificate to INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) for this pilot project. Even then, when INTACH had measured the sewage flow in Assi River for three days 24 hour measurement, it was found to be carrying 66 to 70 MLD sewage.
The proposed simple bioremediation method can be implemented at any location in 2 months and can reduce the pollution load by 70%, remaining can be taken care of by the river’s own self cleaning capacity. INTACH demonstrated that the technique reduced the BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) in the river by 83.7%, while COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) and TSS (Total Suspended Solids) were reduced by 50% each. The cost of bioremediation treatment would be Rs. 4.24 Cr annually in the first year with cost reducing to Rs. 3.75 crores in subsequent years at constant price.
Unfortunately, the state and central government totally ignored this remarkable, successful pilot and went back to the traditional large STP.
Present status of STPs and sewage generation in Kashi
So far, under Ganga Action Plan (GAP) Rs. 1,450 crore has been spent on Nagwa SPS, sewage interception, diversion works and on construction of 3 STPs (80 MLD at Dinapur, 10 MLD at Bhagwanpur and 10 MLD at BLW).
In addition to this, 2 new STPs (140 MLD at Dinapur costing around Rs. 235.53 crores, 120 MLD at Goithaha costing about Rs. 118 crores) has also been created while construction of the third one, a 10 MLD STP at Ramnagar costing about Rs. 72.91 crore is going on under Namami Gange Program. The overall sewage generation of city is reported to be around 300 MLD.
National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) claims that 20 of 23 drains polluting Ganga in Kashi has been tapped. The sewerage networking to Goithaha STP is under construction. Presently, the total installed capacity stands around 240 MLD. Thus even if this 240 MLD capacity were to function efficiently (a tall order), nearly 60 MLD sewage is reaching Ganga river without any treatment. According to NMCG, if all the STPs are made functional the cumulative treatment capacity would be about 420 MLD and it would meet the sewage treatment requirement of Varanasi upto 2035.
However, experts say there is no official estimation of overall sewage generation in the city and this would impact the functioning of other STPs as well. According to them the interceptor drain project costing Rs. 300 crore as recommended by SMF was the only feasible and cost effective solution to stop Varanasi sewage polluting Ganga.
Under this project, the entire sewage pollution was to be taken 7 km downstream for oxidation treatment. However, despite assurance, it was not implemented. In place of Interceptor drain, government spent nearly Rs. 500 crore on Relieving Trunk Sewer (RTS) project which is under-utilized till today in want of sewerage networking.
Meanwhile, the Ramna STP in Kashi or Varanasi (name coming from Varuna and Assi rivers in the city), perfectly demonstrates the deliberate administrative negligence for which no accountability has been fixed. The government claims no sewage would enter into Ganga river in Varanasi after November 2021, which under present scenario seems totally impractical.
The state and the union governments have been ignoring the practical suggestions being offered by SMF, while apart from sewage puzzle, Ganga River, river culture and eco-system has been facing significant threats from river front, navigation and other developmental projects in Kashi. (For information on some of these additional river affecting infrastructure projects in Varanasi, see blog based on field trip to the city, by Nandini Oza in 2017[xi].)
Bhim Singh Rawat (email@example.com)