VARANASI : In the late 1960s, BD Tripathi, a professor at the Banaras Hindu University, took his mom for a holy dip to the river Ganga. He spotted the carcass of a cow floating in the river, with vultures preying on it. ‘’Maa, the Ganga is polluted,’’ he remarked, pointing to the carcass. “What is wrong with you,” his mother shot back. “The holy Ganga can never be polluted. It is the most sacred river.” After decades of painstaking research, Tripathi is now sure that the Ganga is not just polluted, it is also on the verge of a disaster. The river will start drying up in a majority of areas over the next 25 years, shows his studies. ‘’The Ganga cannot be cleaned now. The idea should now be to save the river as its very existence is in danger,” he says. Plans are many and funds abundant. Successive governments have been cautioned about the imminent disaster. Yet, very little progress has been made. “I can tell you this much. The Ganga will clean itself in the years to come if we don’t do it. And, it will be something like the Kedarnath disaster of 2013,” says Tripathi, a leading environmental scientist.
In an interview with Express, the environmental scientist B D Tripathi, Member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority explains how the ‘Clean Ganga’ campaign has been hijacked by successive governments for political gains.
Q. What do you make of the clean Ganga call by the PM?
A. Based on my decades of research, I can tell you that pollution is a secondary issue now. The main challenge now is to save the holy river. By cleaning the ghats or announcing grandiose plans, nothing can be achieved. Modi has already earmarked `20,000 crore for cleaning the Ganga and that’s all he can do. The officials concerned have to now take it forward.
What makes you say Ganga cannot be cleaned now?
There are 30 drains - big and small - in and around Varanasi which discharge sewage into Ganga. There are three sewage treatment plants - one with a capacity of 80 million litres per day (MLD), second with a capacity of 12, and the third with a capacity of 10 MLD. According to government’s own estimates, 300 million litres of sewage is generated per day. The three treatment plants take care of around 102 MLD, but what about the remaining 198 MLD being discharged into Ganga everyday? All governments had announced that they would set up more sewage treatment plants, but that had remained only on paper for the last 30 years. Moreover, we have the major problem of dead bodies being burnt and partially burnt bodies being tossed into Ganga along with other material and ashes. After all this, can Ganga be cleaned? We can now work only to save it.
What about industrial waste?
There are 1,200 small scale industries in and around Varanasi and not one has a sewage treatment plant. They create industrial waste which comprises of led, cadmium, copper and other toxicants. There is no provision to at least remove the heavy metals. All this is injected in the sewer, which ends up in the river. The highly contaminated water is used for agriculture across Varanasi. One can find large traces of these heavy metals in fruits, grains and crops. I have investigated the matter for years and submitted a report, but nothing changed.
But at some point earlier, was there a possibility of Ganga being cleaned?
That seemed a possibility before 1990s when pollution was far lower than what it is today. There has been a rapid decrease in the flow of water. The dilution capacity of Ganga has reduced and therefore, the priority now has to be to save Ganga. Cleaning is secondary.
You have been member of NGRBA, State Ganga River Conservation Authority. What was done in the last few decades?
In 2009, Ganga was declared a national river and the then prime minister, Manmohan Singh, chaired a meeting. I gave him a detailed presentation. That was all. Money was allocated, but all plans remain on paper till date. Ganga flows through five states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal but there has never been any coordination between these states and the Centre. Successive governments have spent no less than `15,000 crores to clean ganga. Nobody knows where the money went and what work was done. Accountability is nil. Now Modi has announced a `20,000 crore for Namaami Gange programme.
What do should be done now?
Firstly, rope in all five state governments. Have a multi-disciplinary approach, involving people from different walks of life. The immediate step can be to have five small sewage treatment plants in and around Varanasi and involve people in the preservation process. Blasting works in Uttarakhand, which is a seismic zone, have to stopped immediately, or it would be disasterous to the 450 million people who live in Ganga basin.
How else are you contributing to save Ganga?
I now intend to create river engineers. Recently, I have set up Mahamana Malaviya Research Centre for Ganga, in Banaras Hindu University wherein we will teach students about all river bodies, particularly Ganga. We will collect and collate data as such a centre does not exist anywhere in India currently. Even today, there is no proper data on Ganga and through an integrated approach, we will try to find solutions and place them before the Governments. We need more river engineers today.