In recent decades India has heard a lot about such appealing, consoling programs like the Ganga Action Plan, the Yamuna Action Plan, the National River Conservation Plan and finally Namami Gange. So it is all the more disturbing to know from recent reports and other indicators that the problem of river pollution remains serious, endangering health of human beings and even threatening the survival of several forms of life in and around rivers.
In 2018 the Central Pollution Control Board identified 351 polluted river stretches in India, 53 in Maharashtra alone, more than ever before. Over vast areas, and including dense population areas, the quality of river water is not even fit for bathing, let alone drinking.
The risks for future on account of river pollution and in fact even the survival of several rivers may be even more threatening than the serious situation that is already visible. Already several of the smaller rivers are on the brink of vanishing, some have more or less done so, while even in some of the bigger rivers there are patches of alarming depletion. For the greater part of even some of the bigger rivers a proper ‘flow’ is now being seen only in the rainy season.
The availability of water in terms of direct access and recharge in thousands of human and wild life habitations is thus adversely affected, in terms of direct access as well as water recharge and moisture conservation . Hence the issue must be seen not in just in terms of pollution, but also in terms of water scarcity and decline of river life and biodiversity, including biodiversity of areas around rivers.
There are several reasons why the existing and recent programs of protecting rivers, with all their colorful names and emotive appeal, have failed to bring the expected results. Firstly, so much water is being extracted from several rivers by dams, barrages and canals that enough water is often just not there to create a proper flow to fulfill the essential ecological roles of rivers.
Apart from water extraction, in important catchment reaches rivers are being increasingly diverted and forced to flow into tunnels for long stretches, one tunnel leading to another, as series of hydel projecs are set up in the hilly areas. This has many dimensional impacts including on water quality and water scarcity which are not considered in the reductionist approach of looking at only the benefits which can be measured and evaluated in monetary terms and immediate, more visible gains.
At the same time the burden of pollutants deposited legally and illegaly in rivers is on the whole increasing. Despite the fact that the pollution control effort has mainly emphasized the capacity creation of sewage treatment, recent estimates tell us that 72,368 million litres per day of sewage is generated, while operational treatment capacity of only 26,869 million litres exists. Existing centralized sewage treatment is expensive, and alternative possibilities of decentralized, local disposal of sewage has not received the attention it deserves, although only this can meet the demand often voiced by river activists of sparing rivers from sewage disposal.
An additional problem is of industrial effluents mixing up with sewage, often in illegal ways, so that the best practices for sewage disposal become difficult to practice. Industrial effluents may be smaller in load compared to sewage, but their health impacts can be very serious and prolonged. Clear information on what the wastes include, proper knowledge of their implications and unbiased decisions based on such transparency and knowledge which protect public health interests are needed.
Existing decision making does not accord proper significance to protecting various forms of life in rivers, even though these also play an important role in purifying river water. Hence the important services provided by various life forms are being lost even without a proper understanding being formed of this.
Neglect of special atttention needed for protecting forests and greenery of hilly catchments has often proved very costly for rivers, increasing the threat of floods in rainy season as river depletion in lean season. This threat has increased with some dubious projects requiring large-scale felling of trees in ecological crucial areas like the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats.
Indiscriminate, excessive mining for river sand and gravel has caused extensive damage to rivers and their capacity for performing ecological protective roles. Many rivers are badly threatened by this, but despite attempts to curb them, the extractive activities of ruthless mining mafias are becoming more and more destructive in many areas, illegal extraction being more than the legal one.
Contrary to popular belief, the budgetary support for river protection has been much below the immense needs. Even in the case of the flagship Namami Gange scheme, the actual release up to June 30 this year has fallen much short of the sanctions. While this scheme gets the bulk of the union government budget for river protection, the National River Conservation Plan ( which covers all rivers other the Ganga and its tributaries) gets a much lesser amount for attending to much bigger task and responsibility. Combining both plans, the budgetary commitments even at their peak are much below needs, have been declining fast during the last four years and actual release of funds is often found to be below the sanctioned amount.
This combined with lack of innovativeness in finding better methods and technologies of protecting rivers has led to a situation in which many-sided threats to rivers are increasing. This calls for urgent need to both increase and improve river protection efforts. One aspect of this improvement should be to seek to obtain better cooperation and involvement of local communities , particularly river-life communities like boatmen and fisherfolk.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author, is Honorary Convener , Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.