Blind spot in Namami Gange

Winters are extremely hectic for Sushma Patel, a vegetable grower in Uttar Pradesh’s Chunar town. Her farm is in the fertile plains of Ganga where people grow three crops a year. But this is the only season when she can grow vegetables. And before that, she needs to manually dig out shreds of plastic and wrappers from her one-hectare (ha) farm. “This is all because of the nullah,” she says, pointing at an open drain that runs through her field, carrying sewage from the neighbourhood to the Ganga. “Every monsoon, the drain overflows and inundates the field with a thick, black sludge and plastic debris. We cannot even go near the field as the stench of sewage fills the air,” she says. But Patel has no one to complain to as this is the way of life for most people in this ancient town.

About 70 per cent of the people in Chunar depend on toilets that have on-site sanitation, such as septic tanks and pits. In the absence of a proper disposal or management system, people simply dump the faecal sludge and septage in storm water drains running across the town. These 27 drains eventually discharge the untreated sewage into the Ganga and its tributary, the Jargo. On the way, they contaminate the groundwater and farmlands. 

Such rampant discharge of untreated sewage into the Ganga prompted the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to issue show cause notices on May 18, 2016, to Chunar and four other municipalities —Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Fatehpur, and Hastinapur—in Uttar Pradesh. NGT had asked the municipalities to submit their plans to prevent untreated sewage flowing into the river.

Officials are since scrambling to abate the flow of sewage into the Ganga. “We have identified 10 ha along the Ganga to set up a sewage treatment plant (STP) with a capacity of treating 8 million litres of sewage a day (MLD). At present, Chunar generates 6 MLD of domestic sewage which goes directly into the river untreated,” says Shamsher Singh, sanitation inspector of Chunar Municipal Corporation. “We also plan to set up pumping stations at four places. These will intercept the drains and send the sewage to the proposed STP,” Singh says. But there is a problem. The town is surrounded by hills, which makes transportation of sewage to the proposed STP difficult. For instance, a huge drain passes through Aawas Colony, located at the foot of a hill. The municipal council plans to set up a pumping station along the drain. But it is not sure whether the station will be able to pump the sewage across the hill to the proposed STP. 

Chunar, Mirzapur, Bhadohi, Fatehpur, and Hastinapur are not the only towns along the Ganga struggling to manage their faecal load. Researchers with Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) say a major portion of the sewage generated by all the settlements along the 2,500-km-long bank of the Ganga ends up in the river—without any treatment.

The sheer volume of the untreated sewage flowing into the Ganga can be gauged from the fact that 25 per cent of the 400 million people living along it depend on on-site sanitation; there are at least 18 million septic tanks and 10 million pit latrines around the main stream of the Ganga, according to the Census 2011. More often than not people dispose of faecal sludge from these tanks and pits without any treatment. 

A report on the pollution load in the Ganga, prepared by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2013, states that more than 6,087 MLD of wastewater flows into the Ganga from 138 drains. Experts say domestic sewage is a major constituent of this wastewater. The five states through which the main stream of the Ganga flows— Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal—have the capacity to treat only 1,208 MLD of sewage. Not to mention the Ganga is also a receptacle of 501 MLD of industrial wastewater. 

The situation is only going to get worse with the implementation of Swachh Bharat Mission, the flagship programme of the Union government that aims to achieve an open defecation-free India by October 2, 2019. Under the mission, the government plans to construct 1.52 million toilets in rural areas along the Ganga and 1.45 million toilets (this includes private and public toilets) in cities that dot the river banks. These toilets will be built with four on-site sanitation technologies—septic tank, twin pits, biotoilet or biodigester.

This means by 2019, over 30 million tanks or pits would have been dug along the Ganga. 

A back-of-the-envelope calculation by CSE shows these tanks and pits will produce 180 MLD of faecal sludge and septage. In the absence of a proper management system, this waste will eventually find its way into the Ganga. Pollution concentration in 180 MLD of septage is equivalent to that of 6,000 MLD of sewage. 

The finding of CSE is alarming because the impact of the increasing number of toilets with- out any provision to treat the sludge is palpable across the Ganga. The level of faecal coliform, which indicates the extent of excreta in water, is increasing in the Ganga, and goes beyond the acceptable limit as the river crosses Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, states the CPCB report. “High coliform levels make the water unsuitable for bathing and drinking,” says Javier Mateo Sagasta, senior researcher with the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), India. 

“Unfortunately, faecal sludge and septage management do not find a mention in sanitation programmes like Swachh Bharat Mission,” says Suresh Kumar Rohilla, programme director of urban water management unit at CSE.

The load of faecal sludge and septage from millions of toilets, which are being installed along the Ganga under Swachh Bharat Mission, may defeat the government’s ambitious Namami Gange (National Mission for Clean Ganga). Though the mission has identified varied projects, right from modernisation of ghats to construction of toilets and STPs in 118 target towns and cities, to arrest pollution in the river, it too gives faecal sludge and septage management a miss. “We plan to set up STPs to take care of sewage as well as faecal sludge,” says Shashi Shekhar, Secretary with the Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. As of now, Namami Gange focuses on treatment of sewage, that too only from class-1 cities (that have over 100,000 population).

So far, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) is the only programme that requires cities to submit sewage and septage management plan. But it fails on two counts. First, AMRUT is restricted to class-1 cities. Second, it monitors urban local bodies’ performance based on their sewerage coverage. This discourages the authorities to prepare septage management plan.  “All Central, state and local programmes should recognise faecal waste management as a priority action area along the ongoing efforts to achieve healthy and clean cities in the Ganga basin,” says Rohilla. This is particularly important because a survey of cities along the Ganga shows that the authorities have miserably failed to manage their faecal waste.

Between October and November, CSE researchers visited 10 small- and medium-sized cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal that provide a snapshot of settlements across the Ganga basin. And the findings are startling. Of the 10 town and cities surveyed, only two (Ramnagar and Bijnor) have sewer lines. But they defeat the purpose as the authorities are yet to set up STPs. At least 60 per cent households in all the 10 towns and cities have toilets with on-site sanitation. But faecal sludge from these facilities is randomly dumped in vacant land, open drains, landfills and near water bodies.

Future lies in septage
There is enough evidence to show that faecal sludge and septage management (FSSM) is not only economical as compared to centralised sewerage system but can also be implemented quickly to make cities clean and healthy.

IWMI’s recent study analyses the cost of faecal waste management in all 2,367 cities in the five states along the Ganga. It says effective management of faecal sludge and septage generated in these cities will cost US $2.8 billion (about Rs 18,900 crore), whereas laying sewerage networks and STPs will cost six times more—a whopping $17.4 billion (about Rs 117,400 crore). Besides, installing the sewerage system takes seven to eight years, whereas setting up an FSTP takes one to two years.

Sewerage system is also resource intensive. Unlike septic tanks, sewer networks involve large amounts of water. It can be laid by only those cities that supply 135 litres per capita a day—a dream for even most class-1 cities. “Using water to flush faecal matter is just a waste of precious resource,” says Rohilla. Since sewerage systems require electricity for pumping sewage to running STPs, they are not reliable in small towns and cities that face frequent power outages. On the contrary, FSTPs require little electricity as most are based on natural systems.

Small wonder, several developing countries in Asia are taking steps to strengthen septage management. Consider the Philippines; about 40 per cent of the country’s population (including 85 per cent of the people in capital city Manila) use toilets that have septic tanks. Septage management is a main component in its Clean Water Act of 2004. The health department has also issued a manual guiding implementation of septage management programmes. Cities, such as Marikina and Dumaguete, have issued ordinances requiring regular desludging of septic tanks and have set up new FSTPs. In Malaysia, desludging at regular intervals is a must under federal law.

While India can follow in on the footsteps of these countries, it must ensure that people install on-site sanitation technologies suitable to the region’s geology. For example, people in Goa say none of the four sanitation technologies promoted under Swachh Bharat Mission is suitable for the region. The state receives heavy rainfall, has riverine areas, a high water table and a long sandy coastline. This makes it easy for faecal matter to seep through these twin pits and contaminate the groundwater. Septic tanks with soak pits also do not work as the partially treated effluent leaches through the soak pits. Biodigesters and biotoilets may be suitable for the region, but they are expensive and people lack skills to construct, operate and maintain these toilets.

(The views are of Down To Earth.)
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