Calcutta Notebook


Flowing River is Good Economics

The Cabinet has decided to give executive powers to the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) powers to fine polluters. The Government has registered NMCG as a society under Ministry of Water Resources, River Development & Ganga Rejuvenation headed by Uma Bharati. NMCG does not have any executive powers at present. Its function is mainly to give money for setting up sewage treatment plants and to monitor the quality of water. NMCG cannot take any action against municipalities or industries that may be discharging sewage into the Ganga. NMCG has to approach the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), which alone has the executive powers to punish the polluters. The CPCB has to check pollution across the country on land, water and air. It does not have the focus to clean up the Ganga. Therefore, the Government has rightly decided to give these powers to NMCG.

The Government looks serious about cleaning up the Ganga. An amount of Rs 800 crore has been provided to the cities in UP for the installation of Sewage Treatment Plants. Professor P K Misra of Banaras Hindu University said that industries are feeling the pressure. They have realized that the business-as-usual approach of discharging effluents into the Ganga will not work. They are contacting him for designing the pollution control plants. Similarly, Professor Vinod Tare of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur said that paper factories in the Ganga Basin have largely shifted away from the use of agricultural waste such as bagasse and straw as raw material. Factories cook these raw materials with chemicals in order to loosen their fibers. They produce highly polluting "black liquor" in the process inviting the wrath of the pollution control authorities. They are increasingly using waste paper as a raw material to avoid this problem. Waste paper is already "cooked." Fewer chemicals are required in processing it. Some industries in Bhadohi, however, have been ingenious. They have started pumping the effluent into the groundwater. That is destroying the quality of groundwater in the entire area. This action nevertheless indicates that the Government is serious about controlling pollution.

Problems remain at other areas, however. The CPCB regularly inspects tanneries at Jajmau in Kanpur for the level of pollution in the water discharged by them. However, these have circumvented the scrutiny until now. The CPCB is an agency of the Union Government. Officials of CPCB have to seek assistance of officials of the UP Pollution Control Board (UPPCB) in order to make inspections and collect the samples. Officials of UPPCB have to seek assistance of the local police even to collect samples from the sewage. The officials of the UPPCB and the local police are in collusion with the tanneries. They inform the tanneries of the impending collection of samples. The tanneries clean up their factories and fill up tanks with clean water before the inspection takes place. In the result, fake samples are collected which pass the tests. Other owners close their factories for a few days and restart them after the officials of UPPCB take the samples.

The Government has decided to give executive powers to the NMCG to overcome these problems. Officials of NMCG focus on the Ganga directly. They will now be able to take samples from the sewage themselves and initiate action against the polluters. This commitment of the Union Government is a welcome change from the past when it looked the other way and allowed discharge of effluents in the river. People living in Varanasi say that there has been no improvement in the quality of water yet. This is perhaps excusable because these efforts will take time to fructify in the face of a recalcitrant State Government. Setting up sewage treatment plants by municipalities and industries will also take some time. One may see improvement in the quality of water in the coming year or so.

The bigger problem is that rivers of the country are carrying less water by the day. The recent standoff between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu on the release of Cauvery waters has taken place due to such reduction of the flows. Consequently, the level of pollution is increasing. The capacity of the river to handle pollution depends upon the flow. An example will explain this. A spoonful of salt makes a cup of dal sour. The same spoonful of salt is good for a pot of dal. Similarly, rivers clean up a given amount of sewage if the flow of water is more. The same amount of sewage becomes a problem if the flow is less.

The river has an inbuilt mechanism to clean the water. Underwater plants absorb many harmful chemicals and convert them into food for the fish. Roots of weeds and other plants growing on the riverbanks also clean up the water. They provide habitat to turtles, worms and fishes, which clean the water. A study by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board concluded that the cost of treating sewage by buying land on the riverbanks and letting the river clean itself naturally was less than the cost of making sewage treatment plants. The cost incurred in building a sewage treatment plant in the City of Santa Monica was US Dollars 730,000 per year. The authorities can treat the same amount of sewage by investing only US Dollars 155,000 in buying land on the riverbanks. The riverbanks allow the water of the river to spread out and the plants clean it up. The Government must consider such alternative methods of pollution control that are both environment- and people friendly.

The huge abstraction has other negative economic consequences. Cauvery is dead below Brindavan Gardens and Narmada is dead below Sardar Sarovar Dam. This death of these rivers leads to less ground water recharge in the wells downstream. This leads to less irrigation. The increase in irrigation in the command areas is less than the decrease in irrigation in the downstream areas due to less groundwater recharge. In the end, there may even be a reduction in the total irrigated area. Additionally, there is damage to the ecology of the downstream areas. Fishes die. Large numbers of fishermen in Uttar Pradesh have lost their livelihood because there is less water in the Ganga. These are now living off MNREGA. They have become a burden on the economy. Both the previous UPA- and the present NDA Governments have not made any efforts to reduce the abstraction of waters from the rivers. Thus, the valiant efforts of the present NDA Government in giving executive powers to NMCG may not go far.

Vol. 49, No.18, Nov 6 - 12, 2016