Pandemic makes the rivers breathe

Pandemic makes the rivers breathe

S. Sivadas

S. Sivadas

When the Prime Minister pledged in 2015 that the 'Ganga will be clean by 2019,' it is unlikely that what we have witnessed over the last two months, was what he envisioned.

The coronavirus outbreak has uprooted the lives and livelihoods of millions, but in the darkness there has been a small glimmer of light. One of the inadvertent effects of the lockdown, which has now entered its fourth phase, is that it has provided room for these rivers to breathe after decades.

For years, India's rivers have fallen victim to the nation's pursuit of industrial and economic growth to the point where they have come to resemble sewers. According to the Asian Development Research Institute dara, nearly 40 million litres of wastewater was being funnelled into rivers, tributaries and other water bodies, only 37 per cent of which was suitably treated.

Another report from the Centre Pollution Control Board (CPCB) found that 'critically polluted' stretches of river had increased from 302 to 351 in just two years between 2016 and 2018.

And all this despite decades worth of planning, measures and investment into river cleanup projects that have, time and time again, fallen short of achieving their objectives.

In fact, the first Ganga Action Plan was put into effect as far back as 1986, and by 2014, more than Rs 4000 crore had been spent. When the NDA government launched the Namami Gange scheme in May 2015, another Rs 20,000 crore was allocated.

Under the scheme, nine projects aimed at rejuvenating the Yamuna, were announced in December 2018. However, in the pursuit of an economic agenda, the Ganga has continued to be treated merely as an economic resource.

The lockdown though, and the suspension of all industrial activity, has achieved what no programme has managed to do so far. The Ganga started showing improvements in water quality just ten days after the lockdown was imposed, with CPCB water monitoring data from late April indicating that 27 of 36 water monitoring points had water clean enough to bathe in, and for vegetation and marine life to propagate.

Over 80 per cent of the pollution is actually caused by domestic sewage from villages and towns. However, the rest is contributed by industries. With industrial pollution dropping to zero, sewage is no longer mixing with industrial effluents enabling the river to better assimilate its pollutants. Another cause for the improvement was due to reduced lifting of water by industries, increasing the river's flow rate, and allowing pollutants to get dilated quicker.

The Yamuna has also healed itself now with animals and birds now flocking to its waters. As the nation's most polluted river, the Yamuna collects untreated industrial effluents released by seven states. 80 per cent of this is estimated to come from Delhi, Mathura and Agra.

However, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee has noted that, over the last 60 days, the river has got around 33 per cent cleaner.

As the country unwinds its lockdown, it is likely that these effects will be short lived. From the peaks of the Himalayas now becoming visible from various northern towns for the first time in generations, to Delhi's blue skies, the pandemic has given us a glimpse of what a more synchronous relationship with Mother Nature may look like.