Dead bodies of those who died of COVID-19 float on the Ganga in Bihar’s Chausa. Photo: Twitter
- As the COVID-19 outbreak in India swelled earlier this year, there were reports of people dumping the bodies of those who had succumbed to the disease in the river.
- A new book coauthored by the current chief of the National Mission for Clean Ganga claims such dumping set efforts to clean the river back by five years.
- But other data and expertise indicates that the river has been too polluted for the bodies to have made a difference, plus other efforts haven’t had an impact either.
Kochi: The Ganga is one of Hinduism’s holiest rivers, but it’s also full of industrial effluents, sewage, plastics and underwater noise pollution. In fact, it is one of the most polluted rivers on the planet. Researchers estimated in 2018 that the Ganga was one of the ten river systems in the world that carried 93% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean from rivers alone.
The river’s biggest problem is untreated sewage. One study reported that the prime cause of its deteriorating water quality was untreated sewage from urban areas. Another, by environmental scientists including Sanjay Dwivedi of Lucknow’s National Botanical Research Institute, found that untreated sewage accounted for 75% of its filth.
Another problem is barrages and hydroelectric projects divert more than half the water away, reducing flow in the river’s main stem and concentrating pollutants.
Earlier this year, during India’s second major COVID-19 outbreak, the river had to deal with a different kind of issue, but probably with similar outcomes. Around April-May, crematoria in North India ran 24/7 and often couldn’t accommodate all the bodies of people who had died of COVID-19. And news reports suggested that people living near the Ganga were dumping the bodies of people who had succumbed to the disease in its waters, or burying them on its banks.
How much did these actions really pollute the river?
Pollutants in the Ganga
People had already been disposing of uncremated and partly-cremated bodies in the river before the pandemic, as well as thousands of animal carcasses. All of these objects can “degrade water quality”, Sanjay Dwivedi and his coauthors had written in their study.
According to some estimates, 300-1,000 bodies were dumped in the Ganga earlier this year, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Second, real-time data didn’t reveal “much variation” in the river’s water quality due to “dead body discharge as far as biological parameters are concerned,” according to Central Pollution Control Board member-secretary Prashant Gargava. He also reportedly said that the Uttar Pradesh State Pollution Control Board would monitor the water’s quality and its bacteriological parameters.
And third, the temporary release of water from the Tehri and other dams during the worst outbreak months could have moderated the impact of corpses on the water quality, Tushar Shah, of the International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka, told The Wire Science in an email.
Taken together, there is little reason to believe that the additional bodies dumped in the Ganga earlier this year polluted the river significantly more than it is already.
But this potential takeaway is at odds with the description in a new book written by a current and a former leader of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG).
According to the Indian Express, the book “admits” that the river was a “dumping ground” for the dead in Uttar Pradesh during the COVID-19 outbreak. In one chapter, apparently entitled ‘Floating Corpses: A River Defiled’, the newspaper wrote that the book claims five years of work to “save” the river appeared to be “coming undone in days”.
One of the book’s authors and incumbent NMCG director-general, Rajiv Mishra, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Consecutive governments have tried since the mid-1980s to clean the Ganga, in multiple ways. The current government launched NMCG in 2014, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, with four goals: ensuring continuous flow, unpolluted flow, and protecting the river’s attendant geological features and aquatic biodiversity.
Thus far, the Centre has released Rs 10,792 crore to these ends, and not much has come of it. In addition, The Wire found in 2019 that the Centre had spent only 18% of the mission’s ‘Clean Ganga Fund’ in the five years until then – because the fund’s board of trustees had met only twice since 2015.
Under the NMCG’s ‘Namami Gange’ programme, the government has undertaken multiple projects to abate the pollution and to ‘rejuvenate’ the Ganga. But of the 346 projects, which were together sanctioned of Rs 30,235 crore, only 158 have been completed so far, and with no significant impact.
In November 2021, the National Green Tribunal observed that cleaning the Ganga remains challenging as ever despite governments having monitored it for 36 years. It noted that there was a need to consider “structural changes” in the way NMCG functioned, to fix accountability and meet deadlines, and explore management strategies to ensure the body set and met appropriate targets.
The tribunal had pulled up NMCG in 2018 as well, for failing to file compliance reports on steps taken by the Centre and the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand governments to clean some stretches of the river. In 2019, it rapped the Uttar Pradesh government for not checking discharge containing chromium (a polluting heavy metal) into the Ganga, and imposed a penalty of Rs 280 crore on 22 tanneries.
Cleaning the Ganga faster
But Shah told The Wire Science that no government has applied itself as seriously to cleaning the Ganga as the present one. “Yet, it has little to show for all its effort.”
There were reports in early 2020 that the Ganga appeared to be cleaner thanks to the ongoing lockdown. An IIT Kanpur study found that between March and May 2020, the heavy-metal load in the river had dropped by half. K.A.S. Mani, a groundwater engineer, wrote then for The Wire Science: “Instead of protecting rivers by blocking pollutants from entering them, we decided to continue polluting them and cleaning them at the same time.”
Shah offered another reason: that NMCG has focused on reducing the pollution load without improving the dry-season flows.
“We feel even more strongly now than in 2018 that rethinking irrigation management in the Ganga basin to enhance dry-season flows is the best way to quickly improve water quality in the Ganga,” he said. “NMCG regrettably has so far completely ignored this option.”
Although it used to be practical to divert water during the winter and summer months for irrigation, Shah said that the advent of modern tube wells had changed the situation. These wells today supply most of the irrigation water in the upper Ganga basin while canals account for only 10% of the irrigated area.
So, Shah continued, stopping water diversion to canals for irrigation during the dry season wouldn’t impact irrigation too much but it would have a “dramatic” effect on maintaining water flow in the Ganga at the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border. He also said releasing water that’s been used to generate power back into the river’s main stem could improve its flows in summer.
Towards more transparency
A particularly important, and controversial, thrust of the ‘Namami Gange’ programme is sewage treatment plants (STPs).
In 2014, then environment minister Prakash Javadekar said 70% of STPs in the country don’t work because of high running costs. In 2016, a Central Pollution Control Board survey reportedly found that most STPs in Kanpur didn’t comply with environmental regulations. Mani wrote in 2020, “Companies erect massive STPs and dump them on urban local bodies for upkeep and maintenance, often when the latter lack the necessary skills and resources.”
According to Nachiket Kelkar, an ecologist who studies biodiversity and environmental change in the Ganga, solid waste and plastic pollution are still big issues and that until STPs work as expected, it will be hard to “whether a net gain in cleanup [will have] been achieved.”
“Our baselines have not been clearly set yet and such information, which I believe exists, needs to be available in the public domain.” For example, Kelkar said the NMCG could have a dashboard indicating water quality status, hydrology status or pollution load on one of its web pages.
“I am sure NMCG researchers collect very good data in their work, but the end outputs we see don’t provide a way to easily gauge the observed change,” Kelkar added. “Most objectives are also related to creating awareness and mostly focus on protected areas, which is important but not enough.”
Lower transparency means lower accountability – an issue that Mani had also addressed in his 2020 article, when he asked how the government could justify spending thousands of crores of rupees to clean one river but have no positive outcomes to show for it.
Meanwhile, the holy river continues to flow filthy.