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RESTORING THE PRISTINE NATURE OF OUR SACRED RIVERS
Opinion

RESTORING THE PRISTINE NATURE OF OUR SACRED RIVERS

Lt Gen.Zameer Uddin Shah,PVSM,SM,VSM,Dep.Chief of Army Staff(RETD)

Lt Gen.Zameer Uddin Shah,PVSM,SM,VSM,Dep.Chief of Army Staff(RETD)

You could drink out of them, but now you can’t even touch their water-ANON

India is endowed with a bountiful river system, supplemented by a wide network of canals where earlier, the water flow was pristine and fostered diverse wildlife. The catchment areas of our rivers represent a rich source of biodiversity and provide a wide range of services for society. They are indispensable life lines of our country and fundamental to the water cycle and ecosystems. They provide water for drinking, industry and irrigation, allow for transportation, and a host of life generating benefits. Overpopulation and urbanization, around major river systems, was inevitable and lead to the alteration and degradation of these waterways. Unfortunately, these life lines degenerated into festering and polluted ‘Nalas’, cesspools of industrial, human waste, and disease. They need to be protected and restored to their pristine glory.

We need to learn from the example of the River Thames in Britain, an environmental success story. In the 19th century it was probably the dirtiest river in the world. Even fifty years ago, extensive pollution, brought in by the industrial revolution had degraded the river and it was so polluted that it was declared biologically dead by the Natural History Museum. London saw a rapid population growth from 2 million in 1850 to more than double in 1880, accompanied by large scale industrialization. While waste from industries, such as tanneries, caused localised drop in water quality, it was the vast quantity of organic matter from untreated sewage that had the most devastating impact on the river. Bacteria decomposed this organic matter by stripping the oxygen from the water, and produced toxic substances such as carbon dioxide, ammonia and phosphates, creating conditions inhospitable to marine life.

As recently as 1957, the Thames still remained badly polluted. Improvements were made in the 1960s through the development of new sewage works, which increased the capacity of London’s sewage system and reduced the amount of untreated sewage entering the river. Industrial effluents were also reduced due to technological developments and strict legislation was rigorously implemented. Instead of discharging by-products directly into the river, a number of industries introduced their own treatment plants, or ensured that effluents were taken away for special disposal. A new problem arose in the early 1960s with widespread use of plastic. Huge quantities found their way into the river and were ingested by marine life which became a health hazard in marine food. It was the social response of the British who dispensed using plastic bags which lessened the problem. The stretch of the river in the city of London was narrowed by concrete embankments which increased the rate of flow and helped to flush down sewage. The embankments were used to construct new roads which helped in decongesting London traffic. Immediate benefits were seen. The water quality of the river began to improve and wild life, within it, started to return. Recreational and commercial fisheries were re-established, and 125 species of fish were recorded in the tidal Thames. Fishermen now line its banks which is a very positive indication. While the Thames restoration has certainly been a success story, there are still a number of pressures facing it. The city’s sewage system has struggled to keep up with its continued growth, leading to occasional overflows of raw sewage into the river. Further pollution sources come from plumbing misconnections and rain runoff from roads. Two new major sewage tunnels will help reduce the number of outflows.

The Thames now represents one of the cleanest urban river catchments in Europe. It is also the result of one of the most successful large-scale river restorations in history. The lesson from this is that rivers can be cleaned if the government has the resolve and the population cooperates and undergoes a change of mindset to bring this about.

The same problems that existed for the Thames, plague the 2,525 km long Ganges River which flows through Northern India draining into Bangladesh and then into Bay of Bengal. It is worshipped by Hindus as a goddess but for vast stretches is heavily polluted by the discharge of untreated sewage and industrial waste. Some parts of the river, closest to the upper reaches in the Himalayas, are clean and pristine but the further the river gets into the Indo Gangetic plains, the dirtier it gets, absorbing more than a billion gallons of waste per day resulting in a high level of coliform bacteria in the river. The pollution is due to 30 percent industrial waste and 70 percent sewage. There are over 1100 industrial units, on the banks of River Ganga which earlier discharged their waste into the river. Industries like chemical, distillery, sugar, pulp and paper, textile, slaughterhouse, bleaching, food and dairy located in states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and had been discharging effluents directly or indirectly into the Ganga through drains or tributaries which caused adverse effect on the water quality of the river and its tributaries which unfortunately, resulted in the Ganga being classified as the dirtiest river in the world.

The government is seized of the problem and proposes to introduce ‘The National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill, 2019’ during the Winter Session of Parliament. The aim of the Bill is to prevent and control pollution of the Ganga and ensure continuous flow of water so as to rejuvenate the river to its natural and pristine condition.

A ‘National Ganga Council’ under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister, will be set up and include the chief ministers of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal along with central ministers. Offences under this Act will be cognizable and non-bailable and attract fines up to Rs 50 crores.

The draft Bill, which comprises 13 chapters and three schedules, lists graded penalties, depending on the severity of the offence, under a dozen sections. These include activities like illegal construction of ports or jetties; storage or diversion of water by any means causing obstruction to the flow of water; mining, stone quarrying or extracting ground water; and spoiling or defacing the ‘Ghats’ of the Ganga and its tributaries. Similarly, the maximum imprisonment of up to five years has been proposed for construction of permanent residential or commercial structures in the active floodplains of Ganga and its tributaries. A likely provision being made for regulating activities like mining, stone quarrying or extracting ground water, may attract imprisonment of up to two years and/ or fine of up to Rs 10 lakhs. Spoiling or defacing the ‘Ghats’ of the Ganga, or its tributaries, will be punished with imprisonment of up to one year and/ or fine up to Rs 10,000 or cost incurred for restoration.

Laws are fine but to be effective have to be implemented. The Central Government plans to constitute the ‘Ganga Protection Corps’ under the Ministry of Home Affairs. It may have been better to structure this force on the lines of the ‘Ecological Battalions (Territorial Army) which have successfully greened the denuded forests of Uttarakhand.

Government efforts will only succeed with public participation. People have to be educated to take pride in implementing measures to prevent pollution of rivers. Managing agricultural waste generated, after using pesticides are urgently required. There is a requirement of encouraging use of non-polluting fertilizers derived from Nano food products. A chain of electric crematoriums needs to be established to discourage wood burning pyres. A major polluting element is immersion of idols in rivers, after religious ceremonies. This has been reduced to some extent by constructing temporary pools near river banks for immersion.

The initial plan to clean the river by 2020 is unlikely to be achieved. A realistic time frame is 2025 if determined government action is taken along with people’s participation.