The new CPCB report on river pollution does not reveal the true picture
In July, the New York Times released ‘Searching for Saraswati’, a 20-minute documentary, directed by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya. The extremely well made and engaging documentary captures the state-sanctioned search for a mythical river, Saraswati, in two villages in Haryana. The filmmakers deftly draw a picture of people hypnotised by blind faith, and the opportunistic politicians and religious leaders swooping down on the villages for profit and propaganda.
A few days before the documentary’s worldwide release, I spoke to the two directors. Among the many issues that we discussed over a long-distance call (the duo was in Amsterdam), I remember them asking a rhetorical question: “What is the public utility of finding that river [Saraswati]? Who goes to find a river when our existing rivers are dying?” (Amit clarified that his film does not doubt people’s faith. But spending taxpayers’ money on a project like this defies logic). I agreed.
THE CPCB REPORT
Our rivers are dying. So are the ecosystems that feed them.
A recent report released by the Central Pollution Control Board once again reveals the sorry state of affairs:
MORE POLLUTED STRETCHES: The number of polluted stretches in India’s rivers has increased to 351 from 302 two years ago, and the number of critically polluted stretches — where water quality indicators are the poorest — has gone up to 45 from 34 in 28 states and six Union Territories. Based on the recommendations of the National Green Tribunal, the CPCB last month appraised the states of the extent of pollution in their rivers.
This is alarming but this is not the true state of our rivers, say river experts.
The truth is much worse, when other factors (disappearing flows, increasing number of structures and diversions, sand mining, disappearing biodiversity, deleterious projects underway and planned etc) more than mere water quality (as is the limited mandate of CPCB) are considered. Except a few uphill and select stretches of tributaries of a few major rivers, mostly all rivers are in a bad shape.
THE TOP OFFENDERS: While the Rs 20,000 crore clean-up of the Ganga may be the most visible of the state’s efforts to tackle pollution, the CPCB says several of the river’s stretches — in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — are far less polluted than many rivers in Maharashtra, Assam, and Gujarat. These three states account for 117 of the 351 polluted river stretches.
“This is no surprise since these are high and increasingly industrialised and urbanised states, but the increase in Assam is intriguing. Perhaps it is in Assam that the observations points have seen a greater increase,” says former forester-turned-river crusader Manoj Misra.
LACK OF EFFECTIVE WASTE MANAGEMENT:
A Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report of 2015, reported in the Centre for Science and Environment’s State of India’s Environment 2018 report, brought out the fact that 61,948 million litres of urban sewage is generated on a daily basis in India. But the cities have an installed sewage treatment capacity of only 38% of this.
In reality, more than this amount goes untreated into the rivers or water bodies as the treatment capacity of major sewage treatment plants (STPs) in the country is around 66% of the installed capacity as per CPCB findings of 2013. As a result, more than 38,000 million litres of wastewater goes into the major rivers, water bodies and even percolates into the ground every day.
Over and above this there is industrial effluent. The data on the raw sewage from rural areas are not available.
The national obsession with ‘cleaning’ of rivers will land us only at its water quality assessment. Unfortunately, other key threats to rivers as an ecological entity are ignored.
“Thus the magic word should be rejuvenation and not just ‘cleaning’. This is because a clean river is an automatic corollary of a rejuvenated river. But the latter is also far more sustainable in its outcome,” adds Misra.
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