Swatcha Ganga Abhiyan (Clean Ganges Campaign) is an initiative of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, a not for profit, secular organisation with a vision to see not one drop of sewage flowing into River Ganga at Varanasi. The SMF office, research laboratory and environmental education centre are located on the banks of River Ganga at Tulsi Ghat.
The Sankat Mochan Foundation was founded in 1982 by the late Professor Veer Bhadra Mishra (1939-2013). Veer Bhadra Mishra was Professor of Hydraulic Engineering at Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple. Mahantji took a holy dip in River Ganga water everyday.
Following his father’s death in 2013, Professor Vishwambhar Nath Mishra became President of SMF and Mahant of Sankat Mochan Temple.
During the 1970s Mahantji became deeply concerned about the increasing volumes of untreated sewage flowing directly into the religious bathing areas of Varanasi. In 1982 he joined with friends and BHU colleagues Dr SK Mishra and Dr SN Upadhyay to initiate the Clean Ganges Campaign. Their early focus was on raising awareness about the plight of Gangaji and campaigning for government action. In 1986 Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in Varanasi, with the promise to stop the pollution of River Ganga. Three activated sludge sewage treatment plants (STP) were constructed in Varanasi under the government plan.
International support groups became active in USA, Sweden and Australia (Friends of the Ganges). The Foundation sought help from experts and organised an international seminar on Pollution Control in River Cities of India – A Case Study of Ganga at Varanasi was conducted in January 1992. The seminar was attended by national and international sewage and water engineering experts and key decision makers from local, state and central government. The key recommendations of this seminar were:
o A system of gravity interception of sewage should be installed along the bathing ghats;
o Progress on installation of sewage treatment should be publicly reported each month;
o A water quality testing laboratory needs to be established to monitor river health.
In 1992 Mahantji was awarded the UNEP Global 500 Roll of Honour at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Preliminary water quality testing was conducted in 1992, with equipment donated by Australian supporters. Disturbing evidence of very severe levels of sewage pollution entering Ganga was found. In 1993 the SMF established a world class laboratory at Tulsi Ghat, with support from the Swedish Nature Foundation. A regular program of monitoring river water quality was initiated by the the Swatcha Ganga Research Laboratory (SGRL).
In April 1993 the Government of India announced that GAP had been successfully completed in Varanasi. Over the following years it became apparent that the treatment plants installed under GAP were inadequate. The SGRL testing revealed untreated sewage continued to flow into River Ganga at many points in Varanasi. There were many reasons for this failure. Planning for GAP had been done in haste without necessary preliminary research. The activated sludge plants were not able to function during monsoon, were reliant on electricity (so not able to function during frequent blackouts), did not remove dangerous disease causing pathogens and were too expensive to run. The sewage pumps were not working and sewage was still flowing into Ganga.
Worse the partially treated effluent was given to villages around the Dinapur STP to irrigate their fields, resulting in massive groundwater contamination and immense suffering for this once prosperous area. These villages became plagued by outbreaks of water borne disease and crop failures. News of this suffering reached the SMF and the SGRL team was despatched to investigate. The results of their investigations revealed alarming levels of sewage contamination of groundwater. The village chiefs appealed to the SMF for help.
Safe Drinking Water
The SMF team of engineers, with a little assistance from Australian supporters OzGREEN, developed an innovative design for mini-tube wells and submersible pumps that were used to pump clean water to an overhead tank that had sufficient capacity to store water for a day. Over the coming years, the Foundation installed these safe drinking water systems in the villages that were worst affected by sewage pollution of groundwater around the Dinapur STP. The funding for this was contributed by Australian school children, individual donors and the Australian Government.
Search for an Effective Sewage Treatment System
The SMF became increasingly concerned about the continued flow of sewage into Ganga. In December 1993 they were invited by the District Administrator Jagjit Singh to prepare a briefing paper about how the problem could be solved. They were asked to develop a project feasibility report (PFR), which required detailed research into sewage treatment technology, river geomorphology and hydrology. USAID agreed to support the preparation of the PFR and engaged the assistance of Professor William Oswald and Dr Bailey Green from the University of California Berkley. Advanced Integrated Wastewater Ponding System (AIWPS) was chosen as the preferred option for sewage treatment in Varanasi and a comprehensive design for a gravity fed interceptor was developed. SMF practical knowledge of local geography enabled them to locate an ideal site for the STP to be located downstream of the city of Varanasi, on a area of public land known as Sota. BHU senior staff and experienced engineers from India and USA undertook the detailed investigations the preparation of the PFR as a massive voluntary effort.
In May 1997 SMF submitted PFR “Feasibility Study of Interceptor Sewers and AIWPS Technology for the Prevention of Pollution of Ganga at Varanasi ” to the Mayor of Varanasi Ms Saroj Singh. On 2 May 1997 the Varanasi Nagar Nigum (VNN) passed a unanimous resolution adopting the SMF proposal for sewage interception and treatment in Varanasi. On 13 May the Mayor forwarded the PFR to the Government of India National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) and the Government of Uttar Pradesh (UP). (Note – change in the Indian Constitution brought by the 73rd and 74th Amendments empowered local government to control sewage and water decision making and infrastructure).
In November 1997 a site inspection of the SMF proposal was conducted by a 30 member expert group presided over by the Mayor and District Magistrate including UP Government, NRCD, VNN, SMF, Dr Bailey Green, Prof Oswald, Prof N. Roy, Mr SP Mishra and senior engineering experts. The group walked from Assi to Raj Ghat and then traveled to Sota. At a meeting held at Vikas Bhavan on 23 November 1997, the group agreed that the SMF report was technically feasible.
In 1998 Mahantji was acclaimed by Time Magazine as a “Hero of the Planet”. Also in 1998 the Swatcha Ganga Environmental Education Centre (SGEEC) was established at Tulsi Ghat in partnership with OzGREEN Australia. SGEEC conducted a broad program engaging Varanasi schools and the wider community including river priests, media and villages. Annual youth leadership congresses were conducted, including delegates from other River Ganga cities and international delegates from Australia. A program of cleaning up solid waste from the bathing ghats was established with support from Sweden.
The Campaign Continues
Developing a model for effective sewage treatment was a remarkable achievement for the Sankat Mochan Foundation. However, the journey from approval of PFR to implementation has proven to be long and arduous.
During the same period Eco Friends Kanpur (Rakash Jaiswal) filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the UP Government for failure of GAP I. Also the UP Government Jal Nigum (UPJN) developed Ganga Action Plan Stage II (GAP II), based on extension of GAP I technology, and submitted this to the Court for approval. There was no consultation or involvement of VNN.
In 1998 renowned lawyer Mr MC Mehta alerted the VNN to this action by UPJN and proceeded to argue a case on behalf of VNN in the UP High Court. The Court ordered the formation of a technical committee to review GAP II plans from the UPJN and VNN. In response the UPJN blocked this order in the Supreme Court. MC Mehta organised a meeting of SMF and the Government of India Environment Minister Mr Suresh Prabhu. The Minister appointed another technical committee to evaluate both proposals with Prof GD Agrawal as head of the committee. Other members of the committee included Prof KJ Nath, Mahantji, MC Mehta and others. The Technical Committee Report recommended the implementation of a gravity interception system with oxidation ponds. The VNN PFR was the plan to satisfy these recommendations.
In 1999, with no sign of action from the GoI, the VNN constituted their own Technical Committee headed up by Professor GD Agrawal. This Technical Committee decided in favour of the VNN/SMF plan. In addition the NRCD formed a new technical committee and appointed Professor KJ Nath to head this committee. This time Dr Nath reported against the VNN proposal, but did not notify the VNN. The Mayor’s requests for a transparent debate on the two reports were not acknowledged.
1n 2000 a large conference was held to develop a master plan for the city of Varanasi. Attendees included representatives from NRCD, UP Government, Mr Jag Mohan (Urban Affairs Minister for the Government of India), officials and citizens. Mahantji addressed the conference. SMF and VNN were not given the report from this conference. In November 900 Crore Rs were released for implementing Gap II in Varanasi without resolving the technical issues raised by the two differing reports of the technical committees.
In the following years, a legal struggle ensued in the Supreme Court of India and High Court of Allahabad, as the VNN sought to have it’s plan for the city implemented.
Cause for Celebration
In November 2007 the Sankat Mochan Foundation celebrated it’s Silver Jubilee with a major program of events in Varanasi. During this program the Varanasi District Commissioner Mr Nitin Ramesh Gokarn was impressed by presentations by the SMF and local village leaders about their vision and plan for Varanasi. Mahantji was invited to meet with the Prime Minister of India.
In June 2008 the SMF received a letter from the Environment Minister requesting them to make pilot project for the AIWPS and Interceptor (as described in the SMF 1997 PFR). The SMF submitted a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for a pilot 40MLD AIWPS at Ramna in February 2010.
The NGRBA (National Ganga River Basin Authority) was established in 2009 by the Government of India. Mission Clean Ganga 2020 set a goal of no untreated sewage and industrial pollution entering Ganga from beginning to end by 2020. The NGRBA established the Empower Steering Committee (ESC) to clear projects. Chair of ESC is Mr T Chatterjee; membership of ESC is made up of Member Secretary of Urban Affairs; Member Secretary of Finance Ministry; Member Secretary of Environment; Member Secretary of Water Resources. Nine members of NGRBA are non-official members (experts and civil society representative, including Dr VB Mishrai) but none of them are represented on the ESC.
At the NGRBA meeting on 1 November 2010, Mahantji called for coordination of the many Ganga projects running in Varanasi, including works of UPJN, Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). At this meeting the Environment Minister Mr Jai Ram Ramesh suggested SMF prepare a DPR for Interceptor. Due to major advancements in tunnelling technology and the success of the Delhi Metro, the SMF recommend that the sewage Interceptor should be constructed using micro-tunnelling. Following this, a Technical Committee review recommended micro-tunnelling.
Time for Action
The NGRBA has met twice (October 2009 & November 2010) but has not met since then. Four of the independent members of the NGRBA resigned their positions in March 2012, because of their growing frustration about inaction.
The SMF submitted a Detailed Project Report (DPR) for a pilot AIWPS at Ramna in February 2010.The SMF submitted an Expression of Interest for preparation of the Interceptor DPR March 2011. There has been no decision on the Ramna AIWPS, the Interceptor DPR or the proposed STP at Sota since this time.