In September 2014, shortly after coming to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first meeting on the Ganga. The river had featured prominently in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto. The Ganga was both jeevan dayini, the giver of life, and mukti dayini, which sets the soul free, the document said.

But all was not well. “Even after decades of independence, the Ganga continues to be polluted and is drying,” said the manifesto. It went on to assert that the BJP was committed to ensuring “the cleanliness, purity and uninterrupted flow of the Ganga on priority”.

The Indo-Gangetic plain is home to a little over 5% of the world’s population. The Ganga and its tributaries bring in fresh water, recharge groundwater aquifers and drain wastewater. The survival of an estimated 400 million people – and the biodiversity amidst them – hinges on the health of the Ganga.

Modi’s meeting in September 2014 was one of the first signs the BJP intended to make good its election promise. By then, it had already announced the Rs 20,000-crore Namami Gange project to revive the river. It had two goals: to ensure nirmalta (purity) and aviralta (continuous flow).

This made sense. The Ganga is ailing from both high levels of pollution and dwindling flows, which have made the river so shallow that in some places it is only knee-high when people wade across in summer.

Underscoring the government’s resolve, on July 31, 2014, the Ministry of Water Resources was renamed the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

At the September meeting, Modi asked environment ministry officials why previous attempts to clean the river had not worked. He also asked if public private partnerships could fare better than the existing approach where government agencies set up and ran effluent and sewage treatment plants.

A redesign along those lines began in the middle of 2015 after Shashi Shekhar, an additional secretary at the environment ministry who attended the September 2014 meeting, was moved to the water ministry as its secretary. He and his fellow bureaucrats, said a former official in the ministry who did not want to be identified, began developing a comprehensive solution for the river – one that addressed sewage, industrial effluents and solid wastes.

Four-and-a-half years later, however, contradictory decisions by the government have pushed the Ganga into deeper trouble than before. On one hand, the government has moved to reduce river pollution, mainly by privatising sewage collection and treatment in 97 cities and towns along the river.

But the process has been marked by delays. The privatisation model, implemented without a pilot project, has proved to be a failure in Gujarat due to inadequate government supervision.

At the same time, the government has launched a set of other projects that further erode the river’s ecological foundations. Environmentalists have already expressed doubts about the Char Dham Pariyojana, a 10-metre-wide road between the temple towns of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, which is being built in the landslide-prone Garhwal Himalayas.

They have also criticised the large-scale dredging for the Inland Waterways project to ferry cargo on the river. Besides, environmentalists say, flows in the river will be hurt by the Ken Betwa river-linking initiative and the 450 hydel power projects being built on the river in Uttarakhand.

In the first part of our three-part series, we consider the effectiveness of the sewage treatment plants.

A new model

One reason previous efforts to clean up household and industrial pollution in the Ganga failed, said a bureaucrat, on the condition of anonymity, was that governments gave money to state water utilities such as Uttar Pradesh’s Jal Nigam and Bihar’s Public Health Engineering Department to build sewage treatment plants.

This model failed for many reasons: sewage transport and treatment facilities were poorly planned and funded, they were not supervised adequately by funding agencies during construction and by pollution control authorities afterwards.

Shashi Shekhar and his team at the water ministry proposed a hybrid annuity model where private companies would build and operate sewage treatment plants for 15 years. After this, these projects would be handed over to the state governments. The Centre would pay 40% of the bid amount upfront and the rest as annual payments over the length of the contract.

These payments, said the bureaucrat, would be linked to the quality of the treated water. A plant that released poorly-treated water would face deductions. This was intended to ensure plants were not just constructed but also operated as envisaged. The team also decided that treated water could not be released back into the river. Instead, it had to be sold to anyone who did not need fresh water – municipal corporations, for instance, which can use treated water for washing roads or watering roadside trees, or industries like thermal power projects which can use it for running their cooling equipment.

“Developers may not care about water quality if all they have to do is release it into the river,” said the water ministry bureaucrat. “Treated water has to be sold because people care about the quality of the water they are buying.” These sales, it was hoped, would also pay for the operations and maintenance of these plants when they moved to the state water utilities after 15 years.

Industrial units were told to bring their discharge down to zero, and to use only treated water for their operations. As for solid waste, it was decided to set up trash skimmers – boats which ply the river scooping up floating debris.

This approach was presented to Modi on December 15, 2015. He asked a lot of questions, said the bureaucrat. A presentation slated for 20 minutes stretched to two hours. By the end, said the bureaucrat, “He was so happy. His officials told Shekhar: ‘PM has lots of expectation from you now.’”

But the project ran into resistance.

Model opposed

The first roadblock came from Uma Bharti, the minister in charge of the water ministry.

According to a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh, Bharati opposed the hybrid annuity model. She wanted these tenders to be issued by state Jal Nigams, not by the Water Ministry’s National Mission to Clean Ganga as had been proposed. This was despite evidence that in the past, many construction and maintenance contracts issued by state Jal Nigams had gone to politicians and their relatives.

For instance, the company running a part of the Common Effluent Treatment Plant at Jajmau, a leather industry cluster just outside Kanpur, is Ganga Infrabuild. Its promoter, Sanjay Mahana, is the brother of Satish Mahana, the local BJP MLA who is also the state industries minister.

Relationships like these are another reason effluent treatment plants do not work. “If the brother of your industries minister runs the plant, how do you complain?” said a worker at the Jajmau effluent treatment plant.

A second roadblock came from industries in Uttar Pradesh. Shekhar and his team made some headway getting sectors like sugar, distilleries, pulp and paper to move towards the new requirements but found tanneries harder to crack. Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan presented the crackdown as an anti-Muslim measure.

The state government’s line hardened after a meeting in 2016 between Bharti, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav and Shivpal Yadav, who was the state Jal Nigam minister at the time, said the water ministry bureaucrat. “After that,” he alleged, “the Samajwadi Party line became, ‘You give us money and we will do this.’”

Plans stayed in limbo, drawing criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General. In a December 2017 report, the auditor said as of March 31, 2017, the entire amount of Rs 19,814 crore allocated to the Clean Ganga Fund was lying unused. On pollution abatement, it said tendering for “all the sewage treatment plants was to be completed by September 2016” but the National Mission to Clean Ganga “is yet to finalise and approve detailed project reports for projects totalling 1,397 MLD (million litres per day) capacity as of August 2017”.

Earlier in 2017, however, the political situation had begun changing. State polls in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh saw the BJP come to power. In March that year, Adityanath was appointed chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. In September, Bharti was removed from the Ganga Ministry. Nitin Gadkari stepped in.

Making up for delays

Gadkari started by tweaking Shekhar’s approach.

He introduced the “one city, one operator” model wherein a single company would be in charge of collecting and treating sewage in each city – in Shekhar’s model, multiple companies would have handled treatment plants in each city. Gadkari’s logic was similar to what the roads ministry had followed under him for its highway toll collection and operation bids – large project sizes weed out smaller companies without the required expertise.

Moreover, accountability is greater if one company is in charge, added Rajeev Ranjan Mishra, who took over as director general of the Clean Ganga mission in March.

At the same time, however, the Jal Nigams retained a large role. Under Shekhar’s plan, said the water ministry bureaucrat, the state water utilities had no say in choosing project developers. Under Gadkari, the Clean Ganga mission has chosen developers for six cities, while seven more projects are in the pipeline. This will account for about 60% of the pollution. Among the companies that have won bids are Essel Infraprojects, Adani Enterprises, Shapoorji Pallonji.

Bids for the remaining 80-odd towns will be handled by the state bodies.

Companies that win these tenders have to redirect sewage to the effluent treatment plant. They have to restore the existing sewage treatment plants or set up new ones if needed. But redirecting sewage is difficult. Large parts of Indian cities have come up without sewer lines. For instance, Patna, which covers 235 sq km on the south bank of the Ganga and accounts for close to 60% of all domestic sewage flowing into the Ganga in Bihar, has no more than 20 kilometres of sewer lines. In Kanpur, said Ranjan, no more than 30% of the city has a sewer system.

In most cities, the National Mission to Clean Ganga will not construct sewer systems. Instead, it will build wiers on drains before they empty into the river – and pump their sewage into treatment plants. That water, once treated, will either go to industry or agriculture. While the mission hopes to create a market for treated water and reduce water extraction from the river, such a market will take time to come up. To begin with, pipes have to be laid. In the interim, most of the treated water will go to agriculture.

Sensors will monitor effluent quality, said Mishra. The Clean Ganga Mission has also created a separate cell for monitoring water quality at the Central Pollution Control Board. “Apart from these, there will be a project manager in each city looking after these operators,” he added.

Will this work?

This public private partnership model where a private company treats sewage water – backed by electronic monitoring of treated water quality by the state pollution control board – has been tried in Gujarat. It failed there. Sewage treatment plants in Surat and elsewhere ran pipes from their units into the sea where they discharged untreated slurry.

One reason for this was acute understaffing at the state pollution control board, which hamstrung attempts to check how the plants were functioning.

This is a weakness of the “one city, one operator” model as well. The Clean Ganga mission and the Central Pollution Control Board will rely on sensor-based tracking to supervise the sewage plants. But the lack of state capacity to monitor the data on water quality could result in the same outcomes as before.

Bureaucrats have lost their faith in government machinery, said activist Himanshu Thakkar, who runs the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an NGO working on rivers in India. “There are ways to manipulate technology,” he said. “What you need is governance.”

Companies bidding for these projects have their own concerns. According to a senior official at Essel Infraprojects, bid sizes for smaller towns will not exceed Rs 100 crore. Since the hybrid annuity model pays developers 60% of the project cost over 15 years, that works out to an annual income below Rs 4 crore. “This amount is too low to interest large companies like us,” he said. “We fear local, unknown companies will pick up these bids.”

As in Surat, in the absence of close governmental scrutiny, there will be questions about how these plants meet their treated water targets.

Finally, pollution abatement alone is not enough to revive the Ganga. As much as 85% of water extracted from the Ganga goes into farming. Governments need to ensure the supply of treated water to farms results in a concomitant drop in the demand for fresh water from the river, or groundwater. That will not happen if farmers getting treated water switch to water-intensive crops such as cane. State agriculture departments, therefore, need to play a major role. Otherwise, Thakkar warned, with water being taken out and nothing – not even sewage – being put back in, the Ganga will dry up even sooner.

Has the government committed the country to a new model of pollution management in the Ganga basin without enough attention to the accompanying linkages? It should have tried a pilot project, said Thakkar.

But the BJP, especially after the two-year delay under Uma Bharti, is impatient to show results.

“It takes 30-40 years to restore a river,” said the water ministry bureaucrat. “That is how long it took for the Thames and the Rhine. But we want very quick results. We are linking Namami Gange to a political outcome – but what can you do in five years?”

This is the first part of a three-part series on the efforts to clean up the Ganga.

Read the second part here:

Modi said he would revive Ganga but his government is doing the opposite by reviving dams