Janki Devi, a 26-year-old woman who survives on the daily wages earned by her husband, lives in a small house by the Assi River, a tributary of the River Ganga in the holy city of Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. The house has the unmistakable stench of sewage. Outside, the Assi flows by in its darkest possible shade.

Devi’s toilet is a makeshift arrangement on the uplifted bank of the Assi. Household sewage goes directly into the river. “I just throw the garbage and everything in the river. What other option is there?” she says.

Inside a hut along the Assi River. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

There are many makeshift houses and huts like Devi’s dotting the banks of the Assi and Varuna, another Ganga tributary in Varanasi. Today, the Assi and Varuna are effectively used as sewage drains, carrying dark, stinking sludge to the Ganga.

Namami Gange

The Indian government has been trying to clean the Ganga since the launch of the Ganga Action Plan in 1985 to the National Ganga River Basin Project in 2008. The most recent addition is the Namami Gange Programme launched in 2014.

The Assi River functions like a drain for garbage in Varanasi. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

Varanasi, a city of 3.6 million, is also the constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who came to power in 2014. He promised a cleaner Ganga through his governance and policies, and his government promptly launched its flagship Namami Gange programme, which champions a “scientific” approach to curbing the river’s pollution and bolstering conservation and rejuvenation efforts.

According to the Central Pollution Control Board of India, around Rs 20,000 crore was spent on cleaning the Ganga between 1986 and 2014. Since 2014, another Rs 13,000 crore was allocated and had been spent by October 2022. The government has also changed its policies, taking a highly technical approach to cleaning the river.

The government claims that the project and its technology-first approach have succeeded where previous efforts had not. In January, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh said the Ganga is so clean that foreign diplomats were bathing in it and dolphins were reappearing.

Millions of pilgrims make their way to Varanasi every year. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

To the naked eye, Varanasi’s stretch of the river, where tourists offer prayers and bathe in the water, is visibly cleaner than before 2014. Rubbish and floating filth appear to have been removed. Locals tell The Third Pole that ahead of the G20 summit, a machine was running from morning until evening to keep the river clean.

In a response given to the Indian parliament last year, the Ministry of Jal Shakti, which overseas water issues, said that between 2018 and 2021, there was a marked improvement in the state of the river: “None of the Ganga Stretches [where pollution levels were tested along the river] are in Priority Category I to IV and only two stretches are in Priority Category V,” it said. Category I indicates that water is “critically polluted”, whereas Category V denotes water that is “fit for bathing”. The Central Pollution Control Board report which was quoted by the minister, did not mention the same.

A funeral pyre along the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

However, it is evident that waste is still being dumped into the Ganga. Industry continues to dispose of chemicals and heavy metals via the river, while households add their kitchen and toilet waste. Household sewage is behind the vast majority of the Ganga’s pollution. In Varanasi, cremations continue to take place and floating corpses often make a shock appearance.

Treating sewage with new technology

The Indian government has billed Namami Gange a “scientific programme” that uses cutting edge technology to clean one of the most polluted rivers in the world. The programme is part of the Ganga River Basin Management Plan, prepared by a consortium of seven Indian Institute of Technology universities, led by IIT Kanpur. The plan aims to make the water of the Ganga at least suitable for bathing, if not for drinking.

Between 2015 and 2021, 815 new sewage treatment plants were built or proposed for the Ganga alone. This figure is twice the number of sewage treament plants that were in operation in 2015. Varanasi has seven sewage treatment plants, with four having been built since 2014 under the Namami Gange Programme.

Garbage from the Assi tributary drains into the Ganga. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

The technology used in India’s sewage treatment plants harnesses bioremediation to remove inorganic or toxic compounds from the water. Bioremedial processes employ living organisms, like microbes, to eat water contaminants such as animal waste and litter. The microbes break down and convert these contaminants into naturally occurring organic components such as nitrogen, carbon and phosphorus.

Absar Ahmad Kazmi from the environmental quality and pollution group at the Ganga River Basin Management Plan tells The Third Pole that most of India’s sewage treatment plants use Sequence Batch Reactors – “the best technology we have right now”. According to Kazmi, sequence batch reactors are “totally automated” and require limited space and power. Bioremediation technologies such as sequence batch reactors involve holding water in an open pit for 12-36 hours. During this time, microbes feed on pollutants, waste settles and water is released back into the river, or reused.

Too much water to treat

But when The Third Pole spoke with the chief engineer of one of Varanasi’s sewage treatment plants – who wished to remain anonymous – he said that water from the Ganga is only kept in the plant for a maximum of three hours. He points to the “overwhelming amount of sewage that is routed to this plant” as a factor, saying that the water cannot be treated for longer, as the volumes requiring treatment are too high.

Location of sewage treatment plants in Varanasi. Credit: The Third Pole.

An examination by The Third Pole of records from one of the sewage treatment plants showed that although the plants keep count of water parameters like Biochemical Oxygen Demand, Chemical Oxygen Demand and Dissolved Oxygen, records of other pollutants like faecal coliform bacteria or heavy metals are not maintained. Faecal coliform bacteria and heavy metals can lead to life-threatening diseases in humans.

In an independent assessment of water from eight points along the river on May 5, and seven points on June 24, the Sankat Mochan Foundation – a non-governmental organisation established in 1982 – found that faecal coliform bacteria levels were one million times higher than permissible limit of 500 per 100 millilitres. The dissolved oxygen rate was closer to the threshold limit of 7(mg/l) at most of the points, but the Biochemical Oxygen Demand, which defines basic health for aquatic life, was higher than 3mg/l at most points. The higher the Biochemical Oxygen Demand, the more oxygen will be needed by decomposers in a river to break down the organic matter (waste and pollutants in the river) and less oxygen will be available (dissolved oxygen) for aquatic life.

A murky cleanup

In its analysis, the Sankat Mochan Foundation found that Ganga water samples taken from the nearly 5 kilometre stretch from Assi to Namo Ghat did not match government targets. Rather than improving, the non-profit said it has consistently found water quality to be degrading in the stretch of the Ganga in Varanasi.

The remains of a bulldozed house add to the trash in the river. Credit: Monika Mondal via The Third Pole.

Until 2020, before the Ramna sewage treatment plant was operational, about 102 MLD (million litres per day) of sewage was being treated in Varanasi, though the city generated about 400 MLD. The plant built in Ramna in 2018 had capacity to deal with 50 MLD of sewage, whereas the actual need was for 130 MLD of sewage.

The issue is not merely capacity, but also technology, according to Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, a professor of electronics engineering at IIT Varanasi and president of the Sankat Mochan Foundation. He tells The Third Pole: “We submitted a DPR (Detailed Project Report) [in 2010] and requested the government to allow us to build one STP plant with AIWPS technology.”

AIWPS, or Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems, is a technology that treats faecal coliform bacteria so its resultant wastewater can also be used for irrigation purposes.

Instead, in 2017, the contract for the sewage treatment plant was given to Essel infrastructures at a cost of Rs 153.16 crore – a cost borne by the government. It was inaugurated by the prime minister himself. Essel has no record of working in sewage treatment, but it owns several media channels, and its chairman, Subhash Chandra, sits in the Rajya Sabha as a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party. In 2018, another contract of Ram Nagar sewage treatment plant was given to Essel group.

‘Utterly useless’ sewage treatment plants

Kazmi from IIT Delhi claims that the current technologies, unlike Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems as advocated by Mishra, are working “very efficiently and the STPs are working fine”. However, Central Pollution Control Board records show that pollution levels at four out of the seven sewage treatment plants in Varanasi are “not complying to the standards” of the board.

UK Chaudhary, a former professor at IIT Varanasi, who was engaged by the government for a discussion on Ganga’s tributaries in Varanasi in 2021, called the sewage treatment plants “utterly useless”. Chaudhary held the sewage treatment plants responsible for algal growth, black, dirty and smelly waters of the Ganga and called the plans of the government “bogus”.

The most recent audit report of the Namami Gange project by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the country’s autonomous auditing agency, from 2017, noted “deficiencies in financial management, planning, implementation and monitoring, which led to delays in achievement of milestones under the programme”.

Moreover, the Central Pollution Control Board and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board have been accused of using unscientific methods to measure and produce debatable reports on water quality in the Ganga. A 2022 order by the Allahabad High Court critiqued the UP Pollution Control Board for its monitoring, and found a “variation in results” in reports submitted by the Central Pollution Control Board and UP Board compared to IIT Varanasi and the nearby Banaras Hindu University, from sampling at the same spots.

Will the Ganga ever be clean?

There are two sets of problems, both linked to the fact that India receives 80% of its precipitation in the four monsoon months between June and September, which a focus on sewage treatment plants will be unable to solve. During the monsoon, the rivers are in full spate, and treatment plants are overwhelmed. Villagers from Dinapur tell The Third Pole that during the monsoon, the water is allowed to pass without treatment. “We are ordered to close down the plant,” the chief engineer admitted to The Third Pole, adding that “the treatment plants cannot take the load when the sewage pipes carry sewage water along with rainwater”.

But for the rest of the year, eight months, the amount of water in the river dwindles, meaning there is less water for the pollution to dissolve in, spiking the concentration of pollution. The challenge for the government, Mishra says, is to control pollution at these sites during the non-rainy seasons when the flow of the river is slow and cannot flush away the filth dumped in the river. Beyond these regions, he said, the river is cleaner due to its natural properties of being a fierce and huge river.

This creates a contradictory situation, where sewage treatment plants can be both overwhelmed and struggle to deal with high concentration of pollutants.

Sanjay Upadhaya, a supreme court advocate and founder of environmental law firm Enviro Legal Defence Firm, said the government need to be more innovative. “We have reduced all the [clean river] conversation into STPs and ETPs [effluent treatment plant]. The management is not innovative enough to look into other solutions, other remediation measures, look at the pollution sources,“ he said.

The focus on the river as the end source of pollution which needs to be cleaned, is not helpful, says Upadhaya. Industries that have been shut down because they are polluting the tributaries of the Ganga are allowed to reopen, or continue to operate despite being illegal, showcasing how haphazardly the Indian state focuses on sources of pollution.

Water expert Himanshu Thakkar, a coordinator for the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says little has changed since previous projects to clean the Ganga in the 1980s, which also failed to meet their goals. “Tourism expansion, navigation, riverfront development, dam construction and highways [which the current government has pushed alongside its Namami Gange initiative] have worsened the state of the river,” he says.

For now, the Indian government thinks more sewage treatment plants are the solution. However, according to Thakkar, “putting up large, centralised STPs” is akin to “business as usual”.

The Central Pollution Control Board and the UP Pollution Control Board did not respond to The Third Pole’s requests for clarification.

Reporting for this story was supported by International Women’s Media Foundation.

This article was first published on The Third Pole.