Kumbh:Time to come clean:Sunita Na rain

EDITORIAL: Kumbh: time to come clean
by Sunita Narain
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Maha Kumbh in Allahabad has perhaps no parallel in terms of the sheer
size of the congregation. In less than two months over 100 million
people are expected to come to this city, which sees the confluence of
two rivers of India—the Ganga and the Yamuna. People come to worship on
the banks of the Ganga. Even as they celebrate the river it seems they
don’t see the river, but only the ritual.

The fact is that this “mela” is about how the Hindu religion—and I
believe all religions—is based on a deep understanding of and respect
for nature’s strength. But we now worship without reason. So, people can
take a dip in the polluted river but still believe that the dirt, the
filth and the plastic that swims around them, will not defile the
river’s properties. Our strength has become our weakness.

It is a fact today that the Ganga and the Yamuna are polluted beyond
acceptable levels. But why should we be surprised. We mercilessly take
clean water from our rivers and return sewage and industrial waste. In
the upper reaches, the Ganga does not even flow in many stretches
because we take water for generating hydropower. The tunnels for
run-of-the-river projects divert the rivers and as soon as they are
released, they are diverted again. The engineer-designers have no
concept of ecological flow to ensure they take water for power only
after the river has enough to fulfil its environmental, social and
livelihood needs. Then as the Ganga and the Yamuna reach the plains, we
take every drop of water for irrigation and drinking needs. We suck our
rivers dry. Then as worshippers, we put plastic into the river and
everything else that should not be there. We do all this and then still
believe we have rivers to worship. Or we pray to a dead and dying river
but pretend otherwise.

It is clear that for the occasion of Maha Kumbh the government has made
huge efforts to clean the two rivers, with a little success. These steps
tell us that it is possible to reduce pollution in the Ganga and all
other rivers of the country. We just have to learn the art of innovative
pollution management.

This is what the government has done to contain pollution, albeit
temporarily. First, more water is allowed to flow in the river. This is
critical because without dilution there will be no assimilative capacity
in the river. Rivers without water are drains. We should remember this.
It is also a fact that this “release” of additional water deprives
farmers upstream of irrigation; cities and industries of water. But it
is also a fact that we cannot continue to plan for rivers without water.
All users must be forced to plan for water needs based on what the river
can spare, not what they can snatch.

Secondly, Allahabad has built sewage treatment plants. But then it is
not as if it was desperate to clean the river. Let me explain.

In all cities of India, without exception, there is a mad rush to build
sewage treatment plants. But we forget that cities do not have
underground sewerage systems to intercept the sewage and transport it to
plants for treatment. In this way, the built plants are white
elephants—call them temples of modern India—which are built but not
used. In all cities built sewage treatment capacity is underutilised.
But engineers and planners have the uncanny ability to make us forget
these details and be happy. They assure governments that the underground
network will be built and pollution will vanish.

But the network is not built. Some sewage is treated and the bulk flows
into drains and into the Ganga and the Yamuna. Worse, the little sewage
that is treated (at considerable expense) is then released into the same
drains that carry untreated effluents. The end result is pollution. It
was in mid-1980s that the government of India launched an ambitious
programme to clean the Ganga. Under this programme, sewage treatment
plants were built. City engineers are still catching up with building
the sewerage network for the plants to work. For the Kumbh, the
government has done something smart. It intercepts the untreated sewage
from the open drain and conveys it to the treatment plant. Simple.

Thirdly, the city is trying to experiment with “affordable” ways of
treating sewage—by using bio-remediation techniques. The preliminary
reports suggest that this system is working. The key is to measure its
effectiveness carefully and deliberately.

Fourthly, the government has come down hard on the polluting
industries—mainly tanneries and distilleries—on the banks of the river.
The question is why enforcement against pollution happens only when
there is a crisis; it should be happening in ordinary times.

The end result is that there is a temporary relief against pollution.
Now the challenge is to keep the river clean. This will need more than
government’s will. This will need a collective wish. This will not
happen till Indians join the dots—faith is connected to the river not by
accident or by ritual but by reason and rationale.

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