Above: Map showing interventions in Assi River in Varanasi (INTACH)
REPORT TO DIVISIONAL COMMISSIONER, VARANASI
On INTACH’s Pilot Project on Assi Nadi [24th Jan/17 – 26th Feb/17]
Guest Blog by Manu Bhatnagar, INTACH
INTACH is a national non-profit organization, a registered society under Society’s Act since 1984, having the Secretaries of the GoI Ministries of Environment, Forest & Ganga Rejuvenation, Ministry of Urban Development, Ministry of Culture, DG [ASI] and DG [NM] on its Governing Council with its accounts duly audited by the Office of CAG.
High pollution load in holy River Ganga at Varanasi is due to domestic wastewater flowing into the river through 33 nallahs and rivulets. Sewerage systems and treatment plants are going to take several years to be in place and effective. In the meantime the river will continue to remain polluted. Based on its experience in Delhi and Agra INTACH has initiated a one month pilot project for cleaning wastewater flow in Assi Nadi using the process of bacterial bioremediation.
My recent visit to Varanasi in March 2017 was with a lot of expectations for more than one reason. Varanasi is situated on the majestic Ganga and located between the two rivers Varuna and Asi with Gomti – Ganga sangam (confluence) not far away. Naturally Varanasi would be of interest to any person interested in rivers and water. The Government has also announced the ambitious Namami Gange program which is essentially a national mission for cleaning of the river Ganga. The Government has also declared building of waterways through more than hundred rivers across the country and all the three rivers of Varanasi, the Ganga, Varuna and Asi are a part of this project. Besides, Varanasi being Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi’s constituency for three years now, he takes personal interest in its development through several programmes like Swatch Bharat Abhiyan, Namami Gange and so on. This visit was therefore to familiarise myself with the ground situation, issues and recent developments and I share my impressions here. I also share some of the discussions I had with local groups and individuals of the holy city of Banaras.
Above: Young kid from a fishing family in Kahalgaon, even the most informed communities (Ganga Mukti Andolan) are clueless about the government’s intentions (Photo by Veditum)
GUEST BLOG BY: Siddharth Agarwal
As the Ganga rises and fills streets and alleys with it’s water all along it’s course, I spend a time out at home, partially because of personal reasons and in some parts due to the rising levels of the river hindering all sorts of movement around it. Currently on a walk along the Ganga for Veditum India Foundation’s ‘Moving Upstream’ project, I’ve been able to walk a distance of about 1000 kms alongside it’s banks from Ganga Sagar till Varanasi in 50 days’ time. Some places saw me walking right next to the river while others had me maintaining my distance since it just wasn’t possible to peruse a course anywhere in the vicinity of the flooded banks.
The rising levels of the river are no surprise, an annual occurrence with variation only in ferocity. We’re surprisingly still caught off guard, every single year, with this news about floods in cities like Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi making it to national television on an almost daily basis. But what of all the places between Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi? What of all the places that are not cities and of all the people who are not urban dwellers? The major focus as I walk along the river are the people of the river and their lives, those who inhabit this space known to all as the vastly fertile Indo-Gangetic plains but unknown as a place extremely vulnerable to the forces of nature and shaky towards those man-made.
I had been informed in advance of the situation of our fishermen by minds already working in the field of environment and rivers in our country, often mentioning that these communities were severely under-represented and very much neglected even when it came to discussions relating to them. Non-inclusiveness of communities while making decisions is not a new theme in India, but given the extent of impact that some upcoming government decisions/policies was going to have on these people, I decided to ask them a few questions as I proceeded upstream from Ganga Sagar, starting early June 2016.
Anywhere downstream of the Farakka barrage, the mention of the word barrage has a stunning effect on the people and 1975 is a year that fisher folks remember as a year of doom. For most readers and even for me before I started upon this trip, this would makes sense if one tries to put in a little effort in imagining how a barrage or dam might affect a river. But unlike how logic would dictate, this effect doesn’t exist just downstream of the barrage and similar reactions continued even further upstream, in Jharkhand and Bihar.
The National Mission for Clean Ganga and The National Waterways programme have been in the limelight for making grand promises of :
1.) Cleaning and maintenance of the river
2.) Economic Development and Cheaper Transportation.
Now, this is not a commentary on the efficiency and feasibility of making such proposals, simply an attempt to understand the impact of such programmes. EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) and SIA (Social Impact Assessment) are the terms you might be looking for, something that ideally the governing authority should be taking care of. But why is any of this important or relevant to this article? It is because whatever happens in these places between Patna, Allahabad and Varanasi is very much relevant and important to discuss. These are not uninhabited spaces, but pretty well populated areas with a lot of lives at risk.
Coming back to the point of the two government programmes, firstly, the NMCG letting the Waterways programme run through protected areas and non-protected ecologically sensitive areas goes very much against the whole agenda why this mission was set up. Secondly, the waterways programme in a bid to decrease ‘transportation’ costs and utilise our river potential recently ran tests with large vessels on the Ganga.
What is surprising (or rather not) is that these test runs were without any warnings to fishermen and boatmen in said test sections, the few who were on the waters at the time of passing of these vessels had to face high waves, enough to topple a less experienced or unaware boatman. The news of these tests were flashed all over the main stream media, but failed to make it to those for whom it mattered. Not an uncommon occurrence at all, but till when will this go un-noticed? On asking these fishermen if they have any clue why this is happening, most of them responded in the negative while a few said they’ve learnt about the government’s plans to run large vessels on the river.
As this conversation extends and questions follow, it is gradually revealed that the picture is not clear and conversations have somehow trickled down in a very muzzled form. Though most fishermen laugh off the prospect of this being a constant activity because of the extreme reduction in water level that the river has seen these past years, often mentioning how large excavators and multiple tugboats have been needed anytime a large vessel has traversed these stretches in lean seasons. There’s talk of loss of fishing nets and reduced catch, difficulty in controlling small country boats in high waves, chances of accidents when transporting villagers to small ‘diars’ for agricultural work, loss of land where there’s no embankments and so on, but this also brings us to the most important part of this article.
The Water Highway programme on the Ganga has been proposed on a 1500 km stretch from Allahabad to Haldia, with barrages at about every 100 kms. Now, an avid news reader would have knowledge of this as a great policy step but the fisherman who directly depends on the river for his livelihood does not. This holds true for maybe 15-20 different fishing communities that i’ve had the chance to interact with in the first 50 days and even the mention of new barrages was way too shocking for those who have had to bear the burden of Farakka’s impacts. There are even places where locals have signed their wishfulness of a barrage near their villages without understanding consequences and only having been shown the shiny side like we see everyday in the papers, called ‘development’.
The ‘Moving Upstream’ project intends to understand and present a narrative of the river and it’s people, hoping this will lead to more meaningful conversation and inclusive action by the government. In a recent announcement by Sushri Uma Bharti Ji – Union Cabinet Minister of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation, she said she will march down the length of the river to take stock of the status of various projects commissioned by her. I’m glad that cues are possibly being taken from the Moving Upstream project, but like every other government project, when will our habit of assessment (if at all) after execution stop and preparedness & understanding before implementation materialise? I hope she does her Ganga yatra before approving any projects, I hope for inclusiveness.
Varanasi is newsworthy these days, situated symbolically and politically in the new Prime Minister’s agenda. 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 cleanup.
Three months later, a skeptical Supreme Court reviewed the new government’s Ganga Plan and remarked that with this approach the river will not be cleaned in 200 years. The Supreme Court asked for the full details of the cleanup plan, and inserted its role as a monitor over central government plans. The government has reportedly submitted a new plan to the court, but no details are available yet in the public domain. However, from media reports, it seems the plan is not very different from what has been done in the name of the Ganga Action Plan so far.
As residents and sympathetic outsiders know, the wastewater problem in this sacred, ancient city is seemingly intractable. In order to implement lasting solutions to the recurring river pollution scenario, we need to investigate the current situation. I just completed a field trip to this special city that many call Banaras. I visited all the existing and planned components of the wastewater collection, treatment, and disposal system. In this article I will try 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. This should help to identify systemic problems in each that need to be addressed when charting a new direction.
The seemingly intractable problems of Ganga clean up (rejuvenation will need so much more than just a clean up) in Banaras can be divided into three categories. First, there are governance problems that are related to how decisions on technologies, scale, operators and siting are made. These include problems with the solicitation, selection, and implementation of projects, especially the design and construction and operation and maintenance of sewers, sewage pumping stations and sewage treatment plants. Second, there are serious infrastructure problems that are part of the complexity of this ancient city.
Third, there is a real electrical power supply problem. Securing continuous electrical power for sewage pumping stations and wastewater treatment facilities is a low priority, and emergency standby generators are not used when the grid-provided power is unavailable. As a result, the intermittent operation of sewage pumping stations and sewage treatment plants is ineffective in protecting water quality in Ganga and in provisioning safe drinking water and sanitation in Varanasi.
When the sewerage infrastructure is operated intermittently, the treatment technology cannot treat the wastewater adequately, and the concentration of contaminants and water quality indicators such as total suspended sewage solids (TSS) and biological oxygen demand (BOD), heavy metals, toxic organic compounds, and the Most Probable Number (MPN/100ml) of fecal coliform bacteria–indicating the presence of enteric waterborne disease pathogens in the treated effluent–remain high. So in a way providing partial power to a sewage treatment plant does not do the work and is therefore a largely inoperable, non-functional, sunk cost.
The Government of India established the Ganga Action Plan in 1986 to lead the way in river pollution control programs. In 2009, the Government declared the Ganga a national river and established the National Ganga River Basin Authority. The National Mission Clean Ganga (NMCG)–the implementing agency under this Authority–is now housed in the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation under the Government of India. The Mission Director is the chief executive of the NMCG.
At the state level in Uttar Pradesh, there is a state Project Management Group (PMG) chaired by the Chief Minister. It includes members from the State Ministries of Environment and Irrigation, the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board and the state water commissions. The State PMG decides whom to select for work, and in most cases uses the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam (the state level sewage engineers) to execute wastewater project work.
The State PMG can outsource consultancy work and allocate projects to NGOs as well; although in all cases, it has allocated the wastewater engineering work to the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. These layers of committee membership create a vast water bureaucracy at the state level in addition to the committee memberships and officers at the Central level. They are not independent regulators, monitors and compliance officers (which are needed) but contributors and benefactors of political and profitable decisions in the ongoing issuing of contracts, clearances and other approvals.
This is a big problem because any contract for sewerage work must pass through all these departments and boards, with money wasted on bids and approvals for specific projects. In addition there is no other implementing agency in Varanasi so if the UP Jal Nigam’s work is shoddy or even fraudulent, then the Ganga River and the whole city suffers without an alternative. This situation is well known to Banaras residents who will complain daily that funds meant to improve the sewerage system are simply eaten up by various agencies while wastewater is diverted into the sacred river without treatment.
In addition, the foreign donor agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency or JICA, has been present in Varanasi for many years to advise and assist with capacity building and technological cooperation for the Ganga Action Plan. Apart from controlling the flow of funds, however, it appears that JICA has worked within the current lines of command and control, thereby helping to perpetuate rather than reform the system.
So what is the current situation with the main wastewater drains? The main drains for the city are the Nagwa drain, located in the south and upstream of the main city, and Khirki nallah, located in the north downstream of the main bathing ghats. The Ganga flows northward at Banaras (see map). The Varuna River enters from the west and circles the outer part of the older sacred city complex before draining into the Ganga at the downstream or northern end. In the last year the Varuna River has turned into a wastewater pond upstream of the barrage recently built under the Puranapul Bridge that crosses the Varuna River. The Varuna river banks downstream of that barrage have also become the dumping grounds for all forms of solid waste and the entire landscape is hellish. One wonders how the communities in the vicinity can survive.
The existing wastewater management facilities include three sewage treatment plants, five sewage pumping stations along the ghats, and one main sewage pumping station at Konia. The Konia pumps are supposed to pump up to 80 million liters of sewage per day to the Dinapur treatment plant located in the trans-Varuna neighborhood of Dinapur village, if they work at full capacity. However they rarely do.
For instance, only one screw pump was working on the day of my visit, so that means it was running at 1/3 its capacity. This would also mean that the Dinapur treatment plant was receiving only 1/3 of the wastewater it is capable of treating, according to its nominal treatment capacity, and therefore it was running at 1/3 capacity. However to be exact one would have to know how many hours the one pump operates each day of the week and then the capacity factor can be calculated. For instance, if the pumping station runs at 1/3 capacity for only 6 of the 24 hours each day then the capacity factor would be 1/12 or about 8%.
If capacity factors of the pumping stations and treatment plants are taken into account in a Life Cycle Cost assessment then the cost per unit volume (ML) of treated sewage would sky rocket. The UP Jal Nigam does not keep a daily operational log with data like energy usage data, and thus there are no metrics, no measures, and no good management practices. This adds up to a lack of proper governance. Many monitoring committees have made visits to site facilities but have failed to correct the daily malfunctioning of the entire system. On my trip to videotape the Khirki wastewater drain in late June, I said to the boatman taking me, “So they release this water into Ganga ji at night and in early morning, right? Like chup ke?” He replied, “No Madam not chup ke. It is right there running wastewater all the time. Everyone can see it, and they are not even bothering to hide it!”
Below are current pictures of parts of the system that have been damaged, destroyed or poorly maintained. The map can be used to place these pictures in the city space.
We have to think about wastewater problems in the context of public health, environmental health, electrical power supply and national and state priorities for power distribution. In the current scenario using existing technologies and scales (there are better options for technology and scale), a significant amount of energy is required to pump and treat wastewater using sewage pumping stations and the activated sludge treatment process. In India energy supplies are allocated to industrial and urban needs long before they are distributed to sewage treatment plants. Looking at the current energy scenario in India it is not hard to see that wastewater pumping and treatment require continuous power and are not sustainable in the context of the current power deficit. Biological secondary treatment using the Activated Sludge Process (ASP) uses a significant amount of electricity to operate aeration equipment and mixers. Another technology used in Kanpur, the Upflow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket (UASB), is also a capital and energy intensive process. With other demands high on the agenda, it is unlikely that precious power will be available to run all the existing and proposed sewage pumping stations and sewage treatment plants on a daily basis now and into the future if the existing technologies and scales continue to be used.
Take Away Points
If wastewater infrastructure is built, it is done with large government investments of public funds, sometimes with capital from international banks; there is little private equity to drive the process. Instead the costs of building (and also poorly building) these facilities are absorbed across a range of human services including public health, education, housing and infrastructure. The costs of operating and maintaining sewage pumping stations and treatment plants are also high and operation and maintenance of the facilities become a low priority after construction.
For instance, the sewage treatment plant laboratories are ill-equipped and this means that the UP Jal Nigam operators are unable to monitor, measure, and report operational and water quality data. Due to the absence of laboratory equipment, instruments and analytical capacity, they are not able to optimize the treatment process. Generally the functional components of the sewerage infrastructure – the sewage pumping stations and treatment plants – are overwhelmed by the dysfunctional components and by the enormous pollution load. In this way the functioning units in the system become important, not for effectively treating the waste but for projecting a façade of functional infrastructure, especially when site visits by monitoring agencies are underway. Yet the norm is that facilities are operated only periodically and usually below capacity, and the result is that untreated wastewater is passed through open drains to agricultural fields or rivers. During rains and the monsoon, wastewater combined with storm water flows directly into the Assi, Varuna, and Ganga Rivers.
This sacred city requires a competent participatory authority to master plan, design, select the right scales and technology, construct, operate and effectively maintain a comprehensive wastewater collection, treatment and reuse system. Its governance requires clearly defined norms of transparency, accountability and participation.
A competent authority should connect central, state and municipal levels and be accountable to the residents of the city not just through the municipal corporation and its elected officials, but also directly through norms of participatory governance. These governance reforms should include clearly defined norms of transparency, accountability and participation that pertain to the entire system and to each component part–the pumping stations, sewage and water treatment plants, sewers and associated facilities. A piecemeal approach with the Jal Nigam exclusively at the helm has not worked thus far and it has sunk crores of rupees into poorly operated and maintained infrastructure, even in the face of national and global attention and numerous judicial interventions to the cause of Ganga cleanup. A careful constitution of accountable engineering agencies, a welcoming approach in planning and implementation to citizen contributions, and a vigilant monitoring of operations and maintenance practices by concerned citizen groups can go a long way to reforming the system. There is no doubt that this cause runs deep in the hearts of every Banaras resident.
[For PDF file containing this blog, see: https://sandrp.in/otherissues/Varanasi_Ganga_Wastewater_Management.pdf.]
Above:Respecting public opinion and expectations about their city center and their river. This includes people from all economic and social strata Photo: http://www.asla.org
As India attempts to tackle the huge and growing problem of Urban water pollution and Urban rivers, there are repeated attempts to look outwards and try to learn from experience of successful cases from other countries. While replication of such cases is never easy and most of the times not possible, one can learn lessons from such examples. Here is one such case from North African Country of Morocco.
Architect and Professor at Toronto University, Aziza Chaouni narrates in her TED talk how the Fez River flowing through the City of Fez in Morocco (Northern Africa) is being cleaned up and uncovered and the role she played: “The Fez River winds through the medina (city) of Fez, Morocco—a mazelike medieval city that’s a World Heritage site. Once considered the “soul” of this celebrated city, the river succumbed to sewage and pollution, and in the 1950s was covered over bit by bit until nothing remained. TED Fellow Aziza Chaouni recounts her 20 year effort to restore this river to its former glory, and to transform her city in the process.”
Her narration of the city and the river has striking similarities with Indian rivers and cities: “The Fez medina has about 250,000 inhabitants, and all their untreated sewage went straight into the narrow river that runs through it. The river was also heavily contaminated by nearby crafts workshops and tanneries — with chemicals such as chromium 3, which is lethal. People working in the tanneries were getting skin cancer, and some of them were dying. It was terrible. Obviously the river started to stink, so people started building walls to block the view. Then, because it became a health hazard, they covered it with concrete starting in 2002. And because it was covered, people began using that open space as trash yard.”
Her description of how government functions is also applicable here: “Environmental protection is almost seen as a luxury in developing countries… you have high levels of environmental pollution, but you just don’t know about it as there is not much control or accountability”.
The interventions she proposed were relevant for the specific location and situation and the strategies are more generally applicable: “So we proposed three main interventions: a pedestrian plaza, a playground and a botanical garden. We used four main strategies: precisely placed interventions strategically phased to enhance water quality, remediate contaminated sites, create open spaces, and build on existing resources for economic development. These interventions had to benefit the population on several levels — social, environmental, economic, urban — and be resilient, so that it would still function regardless of changes in budget, political climate, and so on. At the wider city scale, we needed to prevent the newly cleaned river water inside the medina from getting polluted upstream, so we recommended measures for improving regional water quality, too. Depending on soil geomorphology, levels of water pollution, adjacent urban fabric and ecological systems, we purposefully located various rehabilitation tactics like canal restorers, constructed wetlands, bank restoration and storm-water retention ponds.”
This is something which is entirely missing in our ‘Riverfront Develoment Projects” which lately are only about real estate and propose to do nothing for the river itself.
Her observation about difficulties of a municipal project are relevant for us too: “As some of my colleagues have observed, any municipal project around the world is the most complex project you can possibly work on, especially on a large scale. Because there are just so many variables, there are so many changes in the sociopolitical landscape, and so many commercial and economic interests colliding.”
About Chaouni’s background: “Born and raised in Fez, Morocco, Chaouni has long found herself fascinated with the Fez River, which winds through the city’s ancient Medina. Once considered the city’s soul, sending water to both public and private fountains, in the 1950s, the stream started to become a toxic sewer because of overcrowding, over-development and pollution. The city responded by covering the river over with concrete slabs, bit by bit, in the process destroying houses and creating dumping grounds. When Fez received a grant to divert and clean the river’s water, Chaouni proposed the Fez River Project to uncover the river, restore its riverbanks and create pedestrian pathways. Her vision: to reclaim these areas as public spaces and reconnect them to the rest of the city.”
“A project that Chaouni has been working on for two decades, her mission to transform the Fez River began with her thesis in graduate school and has continued throughout her career. Over the course of years, the river is gradually being uncovered—illegal parking lots are being transformed into playgrounds, trees and vegetation are being planted to create public spaces. Overall, the project is revitalizing Fez as a living city.”
This example of Fez city and River is still work in progress, but what has been achieved there is certainly impressive. It can provide some lessons for us, provided we are ready to listen: It is possible to truly rejuvenate an urban river: and Sabarmati is not even the right example. In her TED talk, Aziza at one stage says that they could achieve some things only when they put on the ‘Activist’ hat, shedding the ego of the Architect.
Indian Government has no role for activists, unfortunately.