Audio segment

Reporter's Notebook

     Greater Kanpur
     Sewage System

     Rajiv Gandhi 1985
     Ganga Action Plan
     How a UASB works
     Dirty vs Polluted


  The tanneries have been an integral part of the city since the British established Kanpur as a manufacturing centre of boots, saddles and all other forms of useful military equipment two hundred years ago. They’ve presumably also been polluting Ganga for most of that time. Many people in India have therefore been aware for a long time that something has to be done to clean up Ganga at Kanpur. In 1986, the Indian government launched a massive campaign with huge amounts of foreign aid to clean up not just Kanpur but also the holy city of Varanasi (and a host of lesser cities), precisely because they were such eyesores.

     Rajiv Gandhi’s launch of the Ganga Action Plan in fact took place at the other end of this four hundred kilometre stretch of Ganga, at Dasasvamedha Ghat in Varanasi on June 14, 1986. It’s a fine speech though I’ve heard it criticized by academics for using Western concepts of pollution that they - the critics - maintain are alien to Hindu culture. That may be true. But then how many Indians ever read the speech?

    The speech probably does make more sense to a Westernized mind. But the basis was and remains sound: intercept and treat pollution before it‘s discharged into Ganga. This would be achieved basically through sewage treatment plants. Twenty-five cities (including Kanpur and Varanasi) were chosen in Phase 1 (this ended in 1995), at a cost of seven hundred crore rupees (one hundred and fifty million dollars at 2002 rates). Phased 2 extended the Ganga Action Plan to an additional fifty-nine towns and cities along the river. (It’s still ongoing).

     In 1995, New Delhi claimed that Phase 1 had ‘improved the river by seventy percent.’ But what did this mean? Seventy percent of what? To be honest no serious scientist would give much credibility to the way the government measures the health of the river. Figures are rarely made public, and when they are there’s little or no attempt at either consistency or scientific credibility.

     Everything I’ve heard or read suggests the Ganga Action sewage linePlan was implemented in a rush. The ideas were fine but the execution anything but! Politics, not science, ran the show.

     There was frequently a lack of coordination. In the largest cities sewage treatment plants were built to great fanfare but to handle the amount of sewage generated in 1986. No one seems to have thought ahead, ten, twenty, even thirty years. Result? They were already inadequate in 1986, and the problem has only got worse since then. The untreated sewage is often simply poured directly back into the river.

    But the original intentions were sound: many of the men and women charged with implementing the Ganga Action Plan are highly competent. Even the institutions they work for are generally honourable. But everything that could go wrong has gone wrong! There’s little deliberate malfeasance or evil intent. It’s incremental: a decision is made, a direction taken without fully anticipating the possible consequences. It’s never anybody’s fault!

     I also wonder about the choice of criteria to measure the success of the cleanup. The Central Ganga Authority opted for two standard measurements that had been used in rivers in the West - Dissolved Oxygen and Biological Oxygen Demand - but were no longer. They appear to be commonsensical. But are they apt criteria?

     ‘They are basically irrelevant to the health of Ganga,’ declares Vinod Tare. Tare is a professor of Environmental Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. ‘We never had a problem here before 1986. So if there wasn’t a problem inside the city in the first place why did we need to improve these criteria here? Upstream yes! That’s why I think these really are totally inappropriate (Western) parameters.’

     Today, many Western scientists also question the choice of Dissolved Oxygen, because it’s such a tricky thing to measure. The World Health Organization no longer even lists it as one of its criteria.

     Vinod Tare in Kanpur says no one can precisely say why these criteria were chosen because in India the workings of the government remain secret till the end of civilization! No one can even lay hands on a copy of the Ganga Action Plan.

     Vinod and I both suspect the Indian government chose these criteria on the advice of the official consultants to the original project - the Thames Valley Water Authority. Why were they chosen in the first place to design the parameters for the cleanup of the Ganga - a tropical not a temperate river? So much money has been wasted because of this flaw. Plants and systems have been designed which are particularly ill-suited to Indian conditions because of a second flaw - they all rely on a constant supply of electricity, the one thing no one can guarantee in northern India.

     So the original Ganga Action Plan (GAP) to intercept, divert and treat raw sewage is admirable as far as it goes. But in Kanpur there’s yet another basic design failure - the Dutch sold them the wrong technology.

     Soon after the launch of the Ganga Action Plan, the Dutch government funded a ten year project to implement parts of the GAP in Kanpur. They offered to build three sewage treatment plants in Jajmao at the southern end of the city, just below the tanneries. Two of these plants treat wastewater in a traditional manner, using sedimentation after aerobic treatment and anaerobic stabilization. Together they have a capacity of 135 mld, which seems large until you realize that Kanpur today generates almost 400 mld!

     Another smaller treatment plant in the same complex, with a capacity of 36 mld, incorporates a proprietary Dutch technology known as ‘Up flow Anaerobic Sludge Blanket’ (UASB). This plant was built as a pilot project to evaluate the effectiveness of the new technology in India.

      But everything then happened the wrong way round! The Indian Supreme Court ordered the tanneries of Kanpur to get rid of their most toxic by-product, which is the chromium used to tan animal hides. You don’t want this substance in your soil, air or water, certainly not in industrial sewage going to a treatment plant! It’s highly toxic. The large tanneries were therefore ordered to install their own chrome recovery plants by 1996. The smaller tanneries were asked to pool their money and build a joint recovery plant they could all use.

     Both large and small tanneries took their time. The UASB plant was built and up-and-running before any of them even began to comply. So for the first few years the waste coming to be treated contained the very substance, hexavalent chromium, which would sabotage the entire treatment process! Everything had been done the wrong way round.

Today, ten years later, most of the large tanneries do indeed have these plants. But these again require that scarce commodity, electricity to run. If they get it, they can more than pay for themselves. Chromium does not come cheap. What is “recovered’” can be reused. After one year the recovery plant has paid for itself, you can actually start making money. One large tannery owner estimates a recovery plant would have a life span of maybe twenty years.

     The small tanneries are a different story. They claim they were promised large amounts of aid to set up a combined plant. It never happened. In any case, they claim they were assured they could send all their chrome waste along to the new plant. It could handle it. But any scientist worth his salt must have known failure to remove Cr(VI) would sabotage the whole process. Someone was asleep at the wheel. Result: the experimental plant doesn’t work.

     Vinod Tare thinks the Dutch probably acted in good faith, but without thinking things through. Anaerobic treatment was what they knew about and it had worked well in the Netherlands. But Holland doesn’t have toxic chromium waste from tanneries. The Dutch UASB technology breaks down organic waste in an anaerobic process.

     But if toxic chemicals have not been previously removed, and are therefore still present in the raw sewage coming into the plant, that entire anaerobic process will be aborted! No biochemical process will now take place. The solids will be removed but the toxins suspended in the waste water will remain untreated and highly active. Hexavalent chromium kills the oxygen the anaerobic process needs to do its job. As for tertiary treatment, which restores waste water to a drinkable state - forget it. It can’t remove toxins. So they will be still present in any waste water that is released for use by the public.