Excreta Matters: Monthly newsletter on water & pollutants | Centre for Science and Environment

Excreta Matters: Monthly newsletter on water & pollutants

No. 2 | December 2012

Editorial – Holy filth

Three festivals have come and gone, and our rivers are the filthier for them. Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja and Chath Puja left their mark yet again on the already filthy waterways in the shape of plastic bags, broken idols and oil from lamps. The usual rounds of newspaper reports appeared and went. I went to the Yamuna river front the other day – the only form of human waste missing was shit, presumably because I was on the Chath Puja ghat. The water stank; the banks were covered with plastic, idols and other sundry puja leftovers.

There is something intrinsically wrong with a country that rushes to immerse gods in filthy rivers in a ritualistic belief, but is blind to the systematic decimation of its rivers, lakes and ponds. The least one would expect is common decency in the form of sensitivity to the plight of water ways, and a common agreement to remove the idols once rituals are satisfied. But no, the story gets worse year after year. Durga Puja samitis, Ganesh Chaturthi processions and Chath Puja organizers compete to make more and larger idols, and each is accompanied by the collaterals of prayer. The idols are covered with paints containing heavy metals. Together with the other debris, they combine to form a deadly cocktail.

Things do not have to be this way in this day and age. Pollution from religious practices can be mitigated very simply – create an inventory of the source and develop a water quality monitoring mechanism. Experts, the government and religious leaders can sit together to work out an action plan to minimize pollution that includes identifying immersion points and construction of separate sites separated by the main water body to contain idols and other detritus. Water in this isolated site can be treated before release into the river or lake.

People need to learn what their religious fervor does to their water through an intelligent and balanced media campaign. Those responsible for idol immersion must be mandated to clean up afterwards – remove every bit of garbage and all idols as quickly as possible after the event, or employ local rag pickers, and totally ban the public from throwing plastic into the water. This has happened at a few sites in India: near Sabarimala in Kerala that is visited by lakhs of pilgrims every year, people throw their old clothes in the nearby River Pampa and defecate on its banks even though there are toilets. The river is the only source of drinking water for the locals. The authorities also set up wire meshes to stop the clothes from flowing down the river. Along with this end-of-pipe approach, idol-makers must be taught not to use synthetic paints but only natural colours.

Recently, during Ganesh Chaturthi in Delhi, an NGO, the government and religious leaders ensured the floral offerings are composted instead of being thrown into the Yamuna River. The NGO ran an awareness and participation for the youth and identified practices that would not hurt people’s religious sentiments. Another campaign in Delhi called the Eco-Visarjan Campaign, advocated the use of clay idols painted with natural colours. In Hyderabad, people immerse Ganesh idols in the Hussain Sagar lake. The problem is more from the plastic bags and the paint used. In 2009, the West Bengal Department of Environment took up the idol issue with paint manufacturers, who agreed to produce only lead-free paints. Puja pandals also bought idols coloured with these paints and the Kolkata municipality provided many dust-bins for people to throw their solid waste. The Hooghly River breathed a lot easier.

In Pune, during the 10-day Ganesh festival, the Pune Municipal Corporation provided large bins along the river for people to throw flowers and other offerings. They also provided large water tanks for idol immersion. They also ran an awareness campaign to inform people about these facilities, instead of following their regular practice of immersing idols in the river. The city’s twin rivers were the better for it. In Karnataka, the state pollution control board has issued guidelines for immersing idols in the sea that state this activity can take place 500 m beyond the low-tide level, and the idols should be made of clay and painted with natural colours. The Bangalore municipal corporation has created an artificial pond near the Halsuru Lake for idol immersion. A little common sense can help; use clay idols, use natural colours (these may not look as jazzy as synthetic colours, but are easier on the environment), clean up afterwards.

More the then immediate impact, it is the symbolism of these events that can be used to bring home the problem of water pollution, due largely to untreated sewage. Immersions are one occasion where people are drawn to water and they are an opportunity to generate public awareness and opinion on the state of our rivers and lakes. This can be a powerful driver for action, both on part of the government and people, to take action for reducing pollution.


Nitya Jacob, CSE
Reality Bites
When service providers turn regulators, they end up checking their own work. Water continues to remain polluted as there is nobody accountable
Text: Bharat Lal Seth
Art: Karno Guhathakurta
Guest Blog
Pune: Rivers turning into Sewers?
How is it that a project rejected by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the state Irrigation Department, and neither approved by the Ministry of Water Resources is being funded by the Centre under the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission? The project in question has been conceived by the Pune Municipal Corporation to use the Mutha and Mula-Mutha rivers that flow through the city, for navigational purpose in order to reduce the vehicle load in Pune. And given that these two rivers flow through a city with a population exceeding 3.5 million, an Environmental Impact Assessment study is yet to be carried out.

It is proposed in the Restoration Project to channelize the rivers. The natural cross section of the river will be modified into a deeper channel. However, the slope considered while designing the channel is 1:1000 (as given in the DPR), but a study of the levels in the detailed drawings show the actual slope as 1:1700 i.e., 70% less than the design. This reduction in slope will reduce the velocity of flow. Naturally the water carrying capacity will be significantly less than the stipulated 60,000 Cusec. Khadakwasla, the nearest dam on the upstream side, has a maximum discharge capacity of 1,28,899 CuSecs (Cubic feet/Second). It is abundantly clear that the differential in the discharge capacity of the dam and the water carrying capacity of the proposed channel is an invitation to more frequent floods in Pune.

To maintain the minimum depth of water required for navigation, PMC has proposed to bund the channelized river at 3 locations. The levels of impounding river water will rise significantly. An assessment shows that at least 13 of the 46 nullahs, which channel the storm water run-off from various parts of the city, may suffer from a backflow up to a distance of 549 metres. This stagnant back water may also become a serious health hazard, breeding mosquitoes and spreading diseases. It will also jeopardise the basic function of these nallahs to carry storm water into the rivers, and may result in frequent flash floods.

Embankments are proposed along both banks of the river within the riverbed. Obviously, the cross section of the riverbed will be reduced considerably. The consultants of the project plan to deepen the riverbed to compensate for the reduced width of channel. This deepening will be between 1 and 5 metres. It is obvious that the bottom of the channel must have continuous uninterrupted slope for unobstructed flow of water for the entire length of the project. This gives further cause for concern; there are 18 bridges across the two rivers; the excavation may de-stabilise the foundations of the bridges.

The large scale excavation will also create a huge problem of disposal. Even after construction of embankments reusing the excavated rock and materials, at least 37,50,000 Cubic Metres of surplus materials will have to be disposed off. This means a minimum of 7,50,000 truck trips from city to the site of disposal. The minimum cost of this would be Rs 300 crore, and has not been accounted for in the DPR.

The width of the channelized rivers is going to be much less, and will help to reclaim land on both sides. This is what the PMC has been eyeing for a long while. They are planning commercial activities on the embankments such as setting up exhibition grounds, playgrounds, auditoria, parking lots, slum rehabilitation and bazaars. None of these activities are remotely linked to the restoration of the river, the main idea behind the project. All these activities are only going to irreversibly change the facade of the city and the fluvial geo-morphological characteristics of the river.

A similar story is being repeated with several other water bodies in and around Pune. The unfortunate part is that all this is being done with funds from the Central Government, without the necessary statutory approvals. The sole purpose behind this appears to only bring in funds, do some surface cleaning and reclaim valuable real estate in the heart of the city.

PMC would be better advised to concentrate on improving the quality of water rather than taking cosmetic measures in attempts to beautify the landscape. All the plans outlined above will only serve to compound the city’s problems of flooding and pollution. Instead of channelling the rivers and trying to use them for navigation, the focus must be on clearing the riverbed from encroachments, reducing pollution by 100 % sewage treatment, installing efficient garbage collection system and treatment facilities.

Sarang Yadwadkar
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