GAP told to clean up its act

THE Supreme Court of India has ordered the Ganga Project Directorate (gpd) and the state governments concerned not to disburse funds for the Rs 421-crore 2nd phase of the Ganga Action Plan (gap) and has also called for a fresh evaluation of the first phase.

On September 30, the Court had ordered all work on the project to be suspended, on the basis of a petition filed by environment lawyer M C Mehta. But following a personal representation by gpd project director Vinay Shankar, it allowed work on the first phase to proceed, along with the Yamuna Action Plan.

Mehta's argument that the implementation of first phase was "faulty" was bolstered by a report by the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri). Following a directive by the Court, neeri had inspected waste treatment plants in West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh earlier this year. "Many of the waste treatment systems covered under the Ganga Action Plan-Phase I are either not-constructed/not-commissioned or non-functional," it reported. "The existing situation is far from satisfactory, exposing the population to environmental and health risks," says neeri director P Khanna.

Says Mehta, "gap-I has not yielded any results. This has been substantiated by neeri. The gpd has not even succeeded in setting up 4 effective wastewater treatment plants at Calcutta, Varanasi, Allahabad and Kanpur." Stipulations violated
NEERI found that the treated wastewater in 5 million litres per day (mld) and 36 mld plants installed at Kanpur did not meet the stipulations set by the environment ministry and the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, while a proposed 130 mld plant had yet to be constructed. Stipulations were also not met at Varanasi, Hrishikesh, Haridwar, and Mirzapur in the same state and Dum Dum in West Bengal. neeri recommended the appointment of an apex committee to oversee the implementation of its recommendations.

The Supreme Court order is, however, not a reflection on the gpd's performance, says Shankar. "It has, in fact, strengthened our hand, as the state agencies will now have to file affidavits listing their work in operating and maintaining the infrastructure."

The gpd has also questioned neeri's conclusions. It believes that the formation of another apex committee is superfluous, since 4 committees already exist. Besides, says Shankar, neeri had barely 6 weeks to inspect about 100 sewage treatment plants, and while composite samples from the inlet and outlet points are collected and analysed over an 18-20 hour period, the organisation had to depend on "grab samples" that were analysed in 2-3 hours. gpd joint secretary J C Kala adds that a 1993 study conducted by the University of Roorkee, the Motilal Nehru Engineering College (Allahabad), the Patna University and the Jadavpur University, had concluded that the programme "had created a good impact, with water quality improving significantly".

Erratic power supply during the inspection period could also have influenced neeri's findings, adds Shankar. "The sewage treatment plants depend upon biological systems that take time to stabilise and are adversely affected by the power failures." The plants are, however, supposed to work on dedicated power systems, which he concedes, "the state electricity boards didn't provide".

Flawed estimates
One major shortcoming of the project was that sewage flows were based on population estimates, on the assumption that 70 per cent of the water supplied in towns was turned into waste water. Pre-feasibility reports for the second phase, the Yamuna Action Plan, and the National River Action Plan will depend on actual measurements based on characteristics of wastewater flow and actual biological oxygen demand, dissolved oxides, and suspended solids contents will be characterised, says Kala. He, however, admits that previous plants suffered from misdirected designing.

"The gpd obviously failed to look into the aspects of the gap minutely," says Mehta. And till the Supreme Court examines the affidavits submitted by respondents, which are expected in November, the fate of second phase of the project hangs in the balance.