Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet might be talking about rejuvenating the Ganga and opening up a waterway connecting Varanasi to Kolkata, but there are many hurdles along the way. Here are some of the issues that have stalled any work on the Ganga in Varanasi so far:
Following a PIL filed by a local NGO, the Allahabad High Court passed orders staying all construction within a 200-m radius of the Ganga in Varanasi. This has stalled many ambitious river front projects. District Magistrate Pranjal Yadav said though the ban is not coming in the way of any ongoing projects, the administration was unable to execute projects worth over Rs 70 crore related to construction of ghats and rejuvenation of river fronts in the city.
Wildlife Protected Zone
Under the Ganga Action Plan, a 7-km stretch of the river in Varanasi was declared a tortoise sanctuary under the Wildlife (Conservation) Act-1972. This was supposed to help clean up the river, which bears the load of floral and human waste as well as dead bodies cremated on its banks.
Interestingly, the Act restricts sand mining or any other economic activity along the sanctuary. But this means a lot of sand islands spring up along the river, narrowing its width. According to river scientists, the increasing height of the sand bed on the opposite bank has started threatening the river fronts, eroding the stone steps of the ghats and thus posing a threat to the historic buildings. River scientists warned that a major portion of river front in Manikarnika Ghat area would cave in if pressure on the ghats is not relieved by removing the sand deposits.Although the district administration has started making efforts to shift the tortoise sanctuary from the city, no significant results have come up yet. According to the DM, an eight-member team including district officials and river scientists from Banaras Hindu University (BHU) have carried out a study and reported the harm caused by the tortoise sanctuary to the river and the ghats. A report in this regard was submitted to State Wildlife Advisory Board, informed the official.
Burden of dead and alive
Thanks to religious beliefs, Varanasi has one of the busiest cremation grounds in the country. Several thousands of dead bodies are burnt at Manikarnika Ghat in the north and Harishchandra Ghat in the south. Often the haste of cremating bodies leads to hundreds of half burnt bodies being being dumped into the river. The city is not prepared to withstand this pressure and has just one electric crematorium.
Varanasi has one of the oldest sewage systems in the country, one conceptualised by noted English administrator James Prinsep. The underground sewerage system was established in 1917, when the population of the city was less than two lakhs and the total length of the sewerage cover was 16.52 km. The sewage treatment plant which unloads the treated sewage into holy Ganga was sufficient for this population. The population of the temple town has now increased to more than 32 lakhs and the city’s 300 MLD of daily sewage is treated at the same old STP made to treat only 100 MLD sewage. Around 200 MLD of sewage goes into the Ganga untreated. Projects for more STPs under Ganga Action Plan and JNNURM projects have been delayed due to a lack of land in the area.
The two tributaries
Apart from the Ganga, its tributaries Varuna and Asi also used to flow through the town. Asi, a river of mythological importance, died years ago and now carries the city’s sewage and waste water into the Ganga in the southern end of the city. The Varuna too seems headed for a similar fate at the northern end of Varanasi at Sarai Mohana. The health of these two rivers affects the Ganga to a great extent.Varanasi’s Mayor Ram Gopal Mohale, met PM Modi in New Delhi recently. Speaking to indianexpress.com, he said, “The prime minister arranged our meeting with PMO officials A K Sharma and Bharat Lal. We explained how projects of Ganga pollution have been stalled over the years. The Prime Minister has sought a DPR from our side and we will provide it at the next meeting. A delegation from New Delhi may also visit the city to check the present status.”