Thursday, 28 May 2020

Time To Rejuvenate The Ganga

Updated: August 30, 2014 3:52 pm

Rivers have always symbolised the flow of life and have always provided with inspiration of spirituality and divinity. Given that statement the first river that comes to our mind is the Ganga river. It is the river with which the people of India are attached emotionally and spiritually. Such is the special place in the heart of every Indian that even the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru—who was born in Allahabad on the banks of the Ganga—has admired the river myriadly all his life. He said: “The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilisation, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”

But the river which means a lot to the people of India is now being dammed and polluted. There is a steep rise in the pollution in the Ganga and with passage of time the scenario will become even worse. Seeking the importance of the Ganga, the governments in the past started many schemes and projects but in the end they were not able to stop the rampant pollution in the river. But hope is again rejuvenated with the Narendra Modi’s over two-month-old government. The BJP-led government has proposed to set up an Integrated Ganga Conversation Mission (Namami Gange) to purify the river and make it pollution-free.

In its maiden Budget, the NDA government has allocated a sum of Rs 2037 crore for the conservation and improvement of the river Ganga. The government initiative has attracted international attention as well. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim in an interview said that they will help the present government in cleaning the Ganga just like they did for the previous government. “You know the clean-up of the Ganga is important in so many ways. I actually went through the Ganga in Kanpur. We saw literally raw sewage being dumped into the Ganga and we also know that spiritually for the people the Ganga is so important. So it is very top priority for us and we understand for the government as well and this is a hard project. It’s a huge project, but we have had great success in other areas where we have tackled problems of this size. Again if Prime Minister Modi wants this to be a top thing to work on together, then that’s what we will do. It is hard. We happen to have some of the best water specialists in the world. We will bring our A+ team here and will do everything we can to help,” he said.

On the other hand, the Army is also seeking to join Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean the river Ganga, through setting up task force under a retired Lieutenant General to carry out the project efficiently. The Army even went as far as submitting a plan to the government to set up a task force under a retired Lt. General with a team of 40 officers to handle the situation. According to a news report, the Territorial Army battalions of the Army are already engaged in the task of preserving ecology and environment and have been taking part in projects to spread greenery in barren areas.

The river Ganga with its source in the mighty Himalayan mountains is considered to be the most sacred river in the Hindus tradition. The waters of the Ganga (referred to as Gangajal) are believed to be self-cleansing in nature and it is said that a single dip in the waters of this holy river washes away all the sins of a person.


The Ganga basin covers more than one-fourth of the country’s total geographical area. The Ganga rises from the southern slopes of the Himalayan ranges and originates from the Gangotri glacier at 4,000 metre above sea level which has also been recognised as its traditional source. The river cuts its path through the Himalayas and flows a distance of 205 kilometres from Gaumukh and flows through Uttarkashi and Tehri to reach Devprayag where it is joined by Alaknanda river. The headwaters of the Alaknanda are formed by snowmelt from such peaks as Nanda Devi, Trisul, and Kamet.


The Ganga having been joined by its tributary flow approx 190 kilometres and meets Bhagirathi. After covering the northern part of Uttarakhand the river pass through with a length of 1450 km in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh while touching the boundary between UP and Bihar for a stretch of 110 km. It then flows through Bihar, covering a distance of 405 km. The length of the river measured along the Bhagirathi and Hugli rivers during its course in West Bengal is about 520 km where it finally drains into the Bay of Bengal.

The river Ganga has a large number of tributaries, namely, Kali, Ramganga, Yamuna, Gomti, Ghaghara, Gandak, and Kosi. The river Yamuna, although a tributary of the Ganga, is a river basin in itself. Its major tributaries are Chambal, Sind, Betwa, and Ken. The main plateau tributaries of the Ganga river are Tons, Son, Damodar, and Kangsabati-Haldi.

Overall the length of the river Ganga is about 2,525 sq. km and the Ganga basin is more than one million sq. km long. It is estimated that around 43 per cent of the population (448.3 million as per 2001 census) reside near this river.


The history of the Ganga is as old as the world itself. During 1900-1300 BC, the late Harappan period, saw the settlement of the people eastward from the Indus river basin to the Ganga-Yamuna doab. After the disintegration of the Harappan civilisation, the centre of the civilisation shifted from the Indus basin to the Ganga basin. There are many evident supporting the settlement of the late Harappan society near the Ganga basin. During the early Vedic Age of the Rigveda, the Indus and the Sarasvati river were the major sacred rivers. But the latter three Vedas give much more importance to the Ganga and it became the centre of many successful states, be it the Maurya dynasty or the Mughal Empire.

The western world also noted the presence of the Ganga river. The first Westerner to mention the Ganga was Megasthenes. He mentioned the river many times in his work Indica. In Rome’s Piazza Navona, a famous sculpture, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (fountain of the four rivers) designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini was built in 1651 and it symbolises four of the world’s great rivers (the Ganges, the Nile, the Danube, and the Río de la Plata), representing the four continents known at the time.

Now, according to Hindu mythology, the Ganga was descended from heaven to earth by the tapasya of a very famous king Bhagiratha. The story goes the King Sagara who had sixty thousand sons organised Ashwamedh Yajna—a ritual of worship for the benefit of the kingdom. The yajna was so successful that the king of demigods (Devtas), Indra, got jealous and felt a threat to his throne. So he planned a mischief and stole one horse from the place. Seeing the missing horse, King Sagara sent all his sons all over the earth to look for the horse. After searching a lot, they found the horse in the nether-world standing next to Kapila Muni, a sage who was meditating. The youths disrespectfully disturbed the sage during his meditation hours. The sage in anger for the misbehaviour reduced the youths to ashes with his withering look.


Anshuman another son of king Sagar came searching for his sixty thousand brothers, to Kapila’s hermitage. When he came to know about the whole story he requested him to tell about the means by which his brothers could attain salvation. Kapila said that his brothers would only attain salvation if the water of the Ganga were sprinkled on them. Anshuman followed the instructions of the sage Kapila and started doing a harsh penance on the Himalaya. But his attempt to bring the Ganga to earth failed completely. This chain continued from generations to generations till Bhagiratha ascended the throne. His arduous tapasya and excruciatingly harsh penance to please Lord Brahma got successful and as a result the Ganga descended down to earth. But the force of the current was so great that there was a fear of her entering the other world (the underworld), unless she was stopped on the earth. Bhagiratha pleased Lord Shiva and requested him to hold her in his locks (hairs). Lord Shiva accepted it and did the same as requested and saved the earth from devastation. It is then said that Bhagiratha led the way for Ganga on his chariot, and she followed him across the north and east of Bharat and finally merging with the ocean. In her course, she washed the ashes of Sagara’s sixty thousand sons, who ascended to heaven while praising and blessing Bhagiratha..

Importance of the Ganga

The river Ganga is really important to India as it is a source of immense employment as well as spirituality. The Ganga river resources are unique in nature in promoting cultural, ecological and economic prosperity of India. It provides fertile land for agriculture, perennial source of fresh water, fisheries and rich bio-diversity.

The upper Ganga supplies water for extensive irrigation works in many areas of the country. The river is also hub of fertile soil and is an important source of agricultural activities in India and its neighbouring country Bangladesh. The Ganga and its tributaries provide a perennial source of irrigation to a large area. Chief crops cultivated in the area include rice, sugarcane, lentils, oil seeds, potatoes, and wheat. Along the banks of the river, the presence of swamps and lakes provide a rich growing area for crops such as legumes, chillies, mustard, sesame, sugarcane, and jute. Fisheries along the river are of considerable economic value and their output makes a major contribution to regional nutritional needs.

Apart from the economic importance, the Ganga also has a special place in reference to holiness. Every year people travel from different places to immerse the ashes of their loved ones in this river. It is believed that the immersion of ashes in the Ganga will send their kin directly to heaven. Several places sacred to Hindus lie along the banks of the river Ganga, including, Haridwar, Kashi and ghats in Varanasi. People carry sacred water from the Ganga that is sealed in copper pots after making the pilgrimage to Kashi. It is believed that drinking water from the Ganga at one’s deathbed enables him or her to attain salvation.

Tourism is another important aspect of the river Ganga. Three towns holy to Hinduism—Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi—attract thousands of pilgrims to its waters. Thousands of Hindu pilgrims arrive at these three towns to take a dip in the Ganges, which is believed to cleanse oneself of sins and help attain salvation. The rapids of the Ganges also are popular for river rafting, attracting hundreds of adventure seekers in the summer months.

The Ganga is also a home of rich flora and fauna, including at least nine species of aquatic mammals and the endangered Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica). The river also homes three species of crocodiles and one species of monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis). According to a report, the Ganga has the richest freshwater fishes anywhere in India with an approx of 378 species living in it.

Freshwater turtles also inhabit different water bodies ranging from shallow ponds, deep lakes, and rivers. Many of the species have a wide distribution throughout the Ganga river system. Freshwater turtles in the Ganga are divided broadly into two categories: Hard-shell turtles (Emydid turtles) and Soft-shell turtles (Trionychid turtles).

Where the river meets the Bay of Bengal, the famed Sundarbans mangroves form the world’s largest mangrove eco-region, covering an area of 20,400 sq km in a chain of 54 islands. They derive their name from the predominant mangrove species, Heritiera fomes, which are known locally as sundari. Animals in the delta include the endangered Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris tigris), the Indian Python (Python molurus), and crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). Two species of dolphins are found in the delta: the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris), and the Ganges river dolphin (Platanista gangetica gangetica).

The Irrawaddy dolphin is not a true river dolphin, but enters the delta from the Bay of Bengal. The Ganges river dolphin is a true river dolphin and is extremely rare and thus considered ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. The Ganges river dolphin is important not only because it is endangered, but perhaps more so because it is a reliable indicator of the health of the Ganga, in fact the whole Ganga river ecosystem. This is why the Government of India declared it as the ‘National Aquatic Animal’ in 2009.

The Ganga river also has many other advantages. It provides water for many industries which flourish on its banks. In earlier days, the river Ganga was an important means of transportation. There are two major dams on the Ganges, one at Haridwar and the other at Farakka. The hydroelectric potential of the Ganges is 13 million kilowatts, two fifths of which lies in India and the rest in Nepal. Tehri Dam was also constructed on Bhagirathi River, tributary of the Ganges. Its main purpose is to supply water to New Delhi.


Pollution: A major problem

The rapid process in industrialisation has immensely increased the pollution in the river Ganga. Due to the swift increase in the areas along the river, it has become a channel for receiving and transporting urban wastes away from the towns. Approximately, one third of the country’s urban population lives in the towns of the Ganga basin. Out of the 2,300 towns in the country, 692 are located in this basin, and of these, 100 are located along the river bank itself.

It is estimated that about 1.4 × 106 m3 d-1 of domestic wastewater and 0.26 × 106 m3 d-1 of industrial sewage are going into the river. Solid garbage is thrown directly into the river and sources of pollution from agricultural via harmful pesticides and fertilisers; animal carcasses and half-burned and unburned human corpses thrown into the river; defecation on the banks by the low-income people. These are some main cause for the pollution in the river Ganga. Around 45 tanneries, 10 textile mills and several other industrial units discharge 37.15 million gallon per day of waste water generating BOD load of approximately 61630 Kg/day.




In 1896, E. Hanbury Hankin (a British physician) after testing the water of Ganga wrote a paper published in the French journal Annales de IInstitut Pasteur. According to the paper, bacterium Vibrio Cholerae which causes the deadly Cholera disease, when put into the waters of Ganga died within three hours! The same bacteria continued to thrive in distilled water even after 48 hours!


C.E. Nelson, another British physician, noticed that the waters of Ganga when taken even from one of its dirtiest mouths at Hooghly, by the ships returning to England, remained fresh throughout the long journey. Normally river water begins to putrefy over a period of time due to lack of oxygen which promotes the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which in turn gives rise to the smell of stale water.


In 1927, Flix dHerelle, a French microbiologist, was amazed when he saw that only a few feet below the bodies of persons were floating in the Ganga who had died of dysentery and cholera, though one would expect millions of germs, there were no germs at all.


D.S. Bhargava, an Indian environmental engineer/professor of hydrology has spent a life time studying the amazing properties of the Ganga. He measured the remarkable self-cleansing ability of the Ganga in an exhaustive three-year study which showed that the Ganga is able to reduce its biochemical oxygen demand levels much faster than other rivers. Bhargava says that the self-purifying quality of this river leads to oxygen levels that are 25 times higher than any other river in the world.

The Ganga cleans up suspended wastes 15 to 20 times faster when compared to other rivers.

In a study conducted by the Malaria Research Center in New Delhi it was observed that the water from the upper reaches of the Ganga did not host mosquito breeding, and also prevented mosquito breeding in any water it was added to! On the other hand, water from other rivers were shown to allow mosquito breeding.

The major problem of pollution from domestic municipal sewage (1.34 × 106 m3 d-1) arising from the 25 selected towns was handled directly by financing the creation of facilities for interception, diversion and treatment of the wastewater, and also by preventing the other city wastes from entering the river. Out of the 1.34 × 106 m3 d-1 of sewage assessed to be generated, 0.873 × 106 m3 d-1 was intercepted by laying 370 km of trunk sewers with 129 pumping stations as part of 88 sub-projects.

The holiness of the Ganga in the mind of the people has not prevented over-use, abuse and pollution of the river. All the towns adjacent to the river have increased the pollution load in the river. It has been assessed that more than 80 per cent of the total pollution load arises from domestic sources, i.e. from the settlements along the river course. Due to over-abstraction of water for irrigation in the upper regions of the river, the dry weather flow has been reduced to a trickle. There are also about 100 identified major industries located directly on the river, of which 68 are considered as grossly polluting. Fifty-five of these industrial units have complied with the regulations and installed effluent treatment plants (ETPs) and legal proceedings are in progress for the remaining units. The natural assimilative capacity of the river is severely stressed.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), fecal coliform, an indicator of pathogenic contamination, is well above the stipulated levels considered safe for bathing in the main stream (2,525 km from Gangotri to Diamond Harbour). According to a 2009 status report of the Ministry of Environment and Forest, before the launching of GAP, the DO values were recorded well over 4 mg/l and ranged between 6.8 and 7.2 mg/l in most stretches. As per CPCB data, the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD, a key parameter to gauge organic pollution) too is well beyond safe limits for bathing downstream of Haridwar, Kannauj, and Kanpur and after receiving the flush of the city of Varanasi. Noticing all the reports it has now become a fact that the pollution loads in the river is on steep rise.

Sewage is clearly the major point source of pollution in the river. The CPCB assessment of 2012 makes public the fact that sewage accounts for roughly 85 per cent of all wastewater, the rest being industrial effluent. The assessment shows that there is also a massive gap between the generation and treatment capacity in the main stretch of the Ganga. The current treatment capacity lags behind at 1208.80 MLD, far less than half of what is required.

Most cities along the Ganga do not have a complete sewage conveyance system. In Kanpur, Allahabad and Varanasi as much as 70 to 85 per cent of the cities households remain unconnected to the sewerage network. What exist instead are open drains or nalas, which make their way through the crowded cities to the river. In Allahabad as many as 57 drains flow into the river, of which city officials say that 10 drains do not add to pollution as their discharge does not reach the river. But the problem is that this untreated sewage flows in unlined drains adding to the pollution problem, often by contaminating shallow groundwater.

The infrastructural challenge is not just costly but a time consuming and difficult proposition. The cities are not Greenfield projects—the network needs to be built, or repaired and refurbished in already congested and built up areas. So, the reality is that while a fully connected system across the old and new city does not occur, the sewage treatment plant is first built, but the drains to intercept sewage do not get completed. The river continues to be polluted.


To control the problem of pollution, government had launched numerous schemes but all went in vain. The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) which was initiated in 1985, by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, to protect and clean the river Ganga. The GAP (I&II) solely focussed on interception, diversion and treatment of sewage. In 2009, it was accepted too, at long last, that plans for river restoration must take into account the need for adequate water in the river—a minimum, or even better an ecological flow keeping in mind the specific requirements of biodiversity and other factors be it cultural or religious. But what all this means for the river remains ambiguous; the Ganga river restoration is very much at a crossroads. The river Ganga is suffering from countless problems be it the pollution or the most significant being flow during the dry season. Discharge of untreated and/or partially treated sewage and industrial wastewater into the river is a key issue. Diversion of river water through Upper and Lower Ganga canals, leaving virtually very little flow in the main river stream makes dilution difficult even for the treated sewage. Since a river is a living eco-system and therefore ultimate goal should be to protect the functioning of the river eco-system.

Major tributaries of the river Ganga namely Ramganga and Kali-East need immediate attention as they carry industrial and domestic pollution load of Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Major industrial sector namely, tannery, sugar and distillery, pulp and paper mills contributes significant pollution load to the river Ganga and its tributaries. There is immediate need of firm environment surveillance in order to check their compliance with environmental standards.

The river to which devotees call Ganga Ma is in pain due to people of the country. It is high time the people of the country came together and take a step forward in the movement to clean and retain the purity of the Ganga.

 By Rohan Pal


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