'Though the river is cleaner than what it was five years ago, a lot more needs to be done.'
Nearly four decades after he first performed rituals at Kanpur’s Balu Ghat, Raju Tiwari says things have changed for the better.
By that he means that the ghat, or the bank, of the river Ganga where Hindus cremate their dead has become significantly cleaner than before.
There are now separate garbage bins for dumping wood, coal and other waste from the cremation ground, which were not there in the past.
"This change took place over the last two years under the Centre's Namami Gange initiative," says Tiwari, who has been performing the last rites for the dead at Balu Ghat since 1980.
Balu Ghat lies in the congested Shuklaganj area of Kanpur.
The moment you approach it, you see a few scattered wooden pyres -- some burnt to cinders, others still blazing. The ‘change’ is evident as you ascend a short flight of stairs to come up to the cemented platform that leads to the bank of the Ganga.
The river water appears clean -- not just here, but even if you walk some distance in either direction.
In June 2014, the Union government approved the Namami Gange project under the National Mission for Clean Ganga as a comprehensive mechanism to take up initiatives to check pollution and rejuvenate the river Ganga and its tributaries.
The expenditure on the project is expected to be Rs 200 billion.
This includes ongoing commitments of Rs 72 billion and new initiatives to the tune of Rs 128 billion. Nearly 65 per cent of the funds have been earmarked for the setting up of sewage treatment infrastructure.
Taking note of the pollutants emanating from the traditional wood pyres in cremation grounds adjoining the banks of the Ganga, in early 2016, the National Green Tribunal directed the environment ministry to come up with alternative modes of cremation.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) points out, “Even after the dead bodies are burnt, they leave behind ashes and bones. Half-burnt corpses, wood and puja samagri (ritual material) are often released into the river. All this adds to the pollution.”
However, at Balu Ghat, not everyone is impressed with the impact of Namami Gange.
Says Ramesh Kumar Mishra, another priest who performs rituals at the cremation ground, "Though the river is cleaner than what it was five years ago, a lot more needs to be done."
Barely seven kilometres from Balu Ghat is Sisamau, the city’s biggest open sewage drain which discharges about 140 million litres per day (MLD) of untreated sewage into the river.
The serpentine drain spans the city and some parts of it have been covered and unauthorised slums have mushroomed over them.
Minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation Nitin Gadkari, who was in town last month, announced a slew of projects to tackle Sisamau’s sewage pollution, for which the Centre has provisioned Rs 500 million.
"A new common effluent treatment plant (CELP) is being planned for Shuklaganj. We are waiting for the go ahead from the NGT to start the work,” says Rakesh Kumar Aggarwal, general manager, Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam.
The massive river cleaning exercise also includes the treatment of sewage released by the 400-odd tanneries in the city which together account for about 10 MLD of sewage.
Nadeem, an officer at one of the tanneries, insists that "not a single drop of polluted water goes into the Ganga from our factory. We have a plant where the dirty water is treated and then released for irrigation purposes".
His assertion seems a trifle hollow given that there is an open drain at the entrance to the tannery and the air is thick with the stench from the gutter. Locals say the water and the vegetables that grow in the vicinity are contaminated.
The problem of tackling the pollution in tanneries is complicated by the fact that the city stands to lose 3,00,000 direct and indirect jobs if the units are shut down.
In his review of the Namami Gange project in Uttar Pradesh, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has ordered all tanneries in Kanpur to be closed from December 15, 2018, to March 15, 2019, ahead of the Prayag Kumbh in Allahabad next year.
"This would be suicidal for the industry. It would have a cascading impact on 700,000 people, which is nearly 20 per cent of the population of Kanpur,” says Mukhtarul Amin, chairman, Council for Leather Exports.
According to preliminary estimates, there would be a 30 per cent increase in the production cost of leather from Kanpur if the factories are shut down.
The leather industry also argues that the waste from their units is one-third of the 27 MLD of domestic sewage discharged into the river.
The sewage treatment plants (STPs) in 97 towns across the country planned under the Namami Gange project are being executed through private participation. These plants will be built on hybrid annuity contracts for 15-years, where the construction, operation and maintenance will be done by one agency.
Some 40 per cent of the capital cost quoted will be paid by the Centre on completion of construction and the balance will be paid over the life of the project as annuities along with operations and maintenance expenses.
The National Mission for Clean Ganga was registered as a society on August 12, 2011 under the Societies Registration Act 1860. It acted as the implementation arm of National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) which was constituted under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986.