Calcutta Notebook

New Strategy Required for Rejuvenation of Rivers


The task of cleaning our rivers has been handed over from the Ministry of Environment to the Ministry of Jal Shakti (MJS), which was known as Ministry of Water Resources during NDA1. MJS was already responsible for cleaning the Ganga in NDA1. Now that responsibility of MJS has been extended to all the rivers of the country. We may expect MJS to be successful with all rivers in the same proportion that it has been successful in cleaning the Ganga. The successes and failures of MJS in cleaning the Ganga during the last 5 years can be assessed. The best touchstone for this assessment is to compare its works against the suggestions given in the Ganga River Basin Management Plan made by the Consortium of Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs).

The IITs had suggested that a policy of Zero Liquid Discharge must be implemented on all industrial units. The industries must be required by law to repeatedly clean and reuse the effluent until it gets altogether finished. They should not be allowed to discharge even a drop of effluent anywhere. For residential sewage, IITs had suggested that it must be made mandatory for large residential complexes to follow Zero Liquid Discharge policy. They should treat and reuse the effluents for toilets, washing cars and for gardening. For municipalities, IITs had suggested that the sewage must be treated and used for irrigation.

MJS has not implemented these suggestions during NDA1. Yet, there has been an improvement in the sewage treatment. Previously, the Government of India was providing financial assistance for setting up Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs). The municipalities were happy to take the money and even build some STPs but they were loath to run those plants because that required a heavy expenditure. MJS has since shifted to "hybrid annuity model." Forty percent of the capital cost of the STP will now be paid to the Private Party making the STP on completion of construction. The remaining 60% of the capital cost will be paid over the life of the project along with operation and maintenance expenses. These later payments are linked to the performance of the STP. Thus, the Private Party will get 60% of the capital assistance only if it actually runs the STP. This is one step better than the previous model but still grossly inadequate.

First, the industrial units will continue to be prohibited from discharging untreated effluents into the rivers. This law has been standing on our statute book for the last 30 years but the Central- and State Pollution Control Boards are not able to implement this. Industries start their STPs for a few hours during the inspections and discharge untreated effluents for 364 days in a year-abetted by corrupt officials of the Pollution Control Boards. The cat and mouse game between the corrupt industrialists and corrupt officials will continue merrily. The way forward was to enact a law to require Zero Liquid Discharge. However, that would lead to an increase in the cost of production for the industries. The MJS did not have the mettle to convince the Government of the need of this policy.

Second, the treated sewage from the hybrid annuity STPs established by the municipalities will continue to be discharged into the river. The linking of the payments to performance is just as difficult to implement as the implementation of discharge of untreated effluents by industries. At the end of the day, some official will have to certify that no untreated sewage was discharged by the STP into the river. These will be the same corrupt officials as at present. The way forward was for the MJS to float contracts for buying treated sewage and use the treated water for irrigation. This would have ensured that the sewage was actually treated. Knowledgeable persons have told me that the treated sewage from Jagjitpur STP in Haridwar was earlier used for irrigation. Over a period of time, the farmers refused to accept the effluent because it was not actually treated. The use of treated effluent by farmers would ensure that the STPs actually treated the water. MJS failed to implement this simple strategy though it shifted from capital subsidies to hybrid annuity model.

Control of pollution is only one dimension of revival of the river. The river becomes clean and wholesome if there are fish in it. The fishes eat up the debris. The fishes, in turn, flourish if there is oxygen in the water. There is oxygen in the water if the water flows freely and rubs against the air when it absorbs oxygen. Also, many fish migrate upstream to their spawning grounds to lay eggs. In order to secure these objectives, the IITs had suggested that the rivers "longitudinal connectivity" must be re-established. Hydropower dams must be redesigned to release about 30 to 50 percent water in the river without any obstruction. This is contra the present practice of obstructing the flow of river and then discharging some water as environmental flows. IITs had not given a figure for the water to be released from irrigation barrages. However, they suggested that 30 to 55 percent water should be released from the Pasulok Barrage at Rishikesh that supplies water to the Chilla hydropower project. Rishikesh is located at the foothills of the Himalayas. Therefore, we can extrapolate this recommendation to all irrigation barrages in the plains. Other studies by World Wildlife Fund and International Water Management Institute also suggest releasing about 50% water from irrigation barrages. Such releases without any obstruction would have ensured that there was adequate amount of oxygen in the water and that the fishes could migrate to their spawning grounds.

MJS has not implemented these suggestions during NDA1. Yet, there has been an improvement. It has stipulated that hydropower projects will release 20 to 30 percent water and irrigation projects will release about 5 percent water to keep the river alive. This is certainly better than no water being released as was happening till now. However, the amount of water directed to be released is much less than recommended. More importantly, longitudinal connectivity to enable fish migration is not established. Think of a lauki that is cut in 10 parts. Can the parts be considered to be "connected?" Or think of a road with a barrier every 20 kilometres where one has to stop and then wait for the gate to be opened. Can that be considered to be a continuous flow of traffic?

The record of MJS is certainly better than MOEF hence shifting the responsibility of cleaning of all the rivers of the country from MOEF to MJS is welcome. But this is a step too little. It is necessary for the new MJS to move to Zero Liquid Discharge and to redesigning of all dams and barrages to ensure 50 percent release of water with longitudinal connectivity.

[Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru]

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Vol. 52, No. 6, Aug 11 - 17, 2019