Bharalu river near Jonali in Guwahati, Assam Credit: EastMojo image 

Guwahati: After a news article was published in ‘the Hindu’ titled as “More River Stretches are now Critically Polluted: Central Pollution Control Board”, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued an order on 20 September and 19 December, last year directing all states and union territories of India to prepare action plans for bringing all the polluted river stretches to be fit at least for bathing purpose (scientifically biochemical oxygen demand [BOD] less than 3 milligram per litre and faecal coliform [FC] less than 500 most probable number [MPN] per 100 litres) within a provided time span of six months from the date of finalisation of the action plans.

As per the NGT order, the action plan was directed to be prepared by a four-member committee comprising of the director of environment, director of urban development, director of industries and member secretary of the pollution control board of the respective states. The four-member team is responsible for monitoring execution of the action plans including identification of the polluting sources, functioning status of the solid waste management and processing facilities available for the same. The action plan will also try to focus on quantification and characterisation of solid waste, trade and sewage generated in catchment areas of the polluted river stretch.

The NGT in its order further stated that a task team from the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) of India will do random scrutiny of the action plan.

As per data available with the CPCB, a total of 351 rivers across 28 states and three Union territories of the country are marked as polluted falling under Priority 1 to Priority 5 as standardised by the pollution control board based on the level of BOD demand and wastage available in the water bodies.

Bahini river, as the upper stretch of Bharalu is called, overflowing with garbage near Bormotoria in Guwahati

Shockingly, of the 351 river bodies, a total of 157 polluted river stretches — one-third of the total identified — fall in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Assam. This has become a big concern as Assam is a state with much less industrial infrastructure in comparison to Gujarat and Maharashtra. In Assam, a total of 44 rivers flowing are marked as polluted river stretches which is the highest among all Northeastern states of India.

Of the 44 polluted river stretches in Assam, three rivers — Bharalu with river stretch from Guwahati to Chilarai Nagar, Borsola stretching along Sarabbhati area in Guwahati and Silkaso in Chachal area of the city are marked under priority 1 of the polluted river stretch as per CPCB with a BOD level of 52.0 mg/l, 34.0 mg/l and 34.0 mg/ l, respectively, and the actions plans for the same are yet to be received by the CBCB.

However, sources from the Assam Pollution Control Board revealed that the action plan as ordered by NGT in regards to restoration of polluted river stretches across the state has already been submitted to the CPCB in the month of May this year and is under consideration by the Central Task Team for added inputs and suggestions on it. Once the process is done, the action plan will be approved by the CPCB and following which a budget will be sanctioned to concerned authorities for starting the renovation works, which have to be completed within two years of the plan’s approval.

Sources from State Pollution Control Board further informed that a fine amounting to Rs 15 crore has been imposed on the state administration by the NGT for not providing the action plan within the given period of time.

Bharalu river near Ganeshguri in Guwahati

For Assam, the biggest concern is the Bharalu which is a small tributary of the Brahmaputra river on its southern bank flowing down from the foothills of Khasi Hills in Meghalaya. The Bharalu flows through the heart of Guwahati city through densely populated residential, industrial and commercial areas. It carries a large portion of the city’s municipal wastes, including sewage and wastage from markets, commercial establishments, hotels and restaurants, schools and institutions set up on both sides of its embankment over the past years, turning it into a big canal. It carries the city’s waste and flows to meet the Brahmaputra at Bharalumukh on its other end. Moreover, it also serves as the natural drainage for stormwater runoff.

As Brahmaputra is the main source of drinking water for Guwahati city and its neighbouring areas lying on both sides of the riverbank, it is important that the inputs to the river through the tributaries are not excessively loaded with pollutants which are generally not found and not normal.

The State Pollution Control Board has marked Bharalu as one of the most polluted river stretches in the country falling under Priority 1 as per CPCB with a BOD level of 52.0 mg/l, hence making it totally unfit for drinking and bathing purposes. Moreover, the pollution level at Bharalu is regarded as one of the major sources of contamination affecting the overall quality of Brahmaputra’s water.

Bahini, the upper stretch of Bharalu river, near Basistha temple in Guwahati, Assam

Bharalu enters the Guwahati city through its southeastern corner and is known as the Bahini or Bihini in its two upper reaches. The Bahini finds its way through thickly inhabited areas of Basistha, Beltola, Rukminigaon, Mathura Nagar, Dispur, Hengerabari, Ganeshguri and then along the RG Barua Road of the city where it finally meets with a major drain near Assam State Botanical Zoo carrying stormwater from public sector establishments and domestic wastage disposed from a large area situated in eastern part of Guwahati. It is here where Bahini assumes its name, Bharalu.

At this point, Bharalu makes a sharp west turn, crosses the RG Barua Road and flows through a dense residential area consisting of Rajgarh, Saraniya and other localities. The river then crosses GS Road at Bhangagarh and flows past Ulubari, Fatashil and Kumarpara prior to joining the Brahmaputra at Bharalumukh.

Bharalu flowing by the side of RG Baruah Road near Jonali in Guwahati

Another stretch of the Bharalu separates out towards the Borsola beel near Guwahati railway station in Paltan Bazar. From there, it runs through Sarabhatti locality and flows in a straight manner on the back of the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium in Sarusajai crossing National Highway 37 near the Inter-State Bus Terminal of Guwahati in Lokhra. This polluted river stretch then continues for another 3-4 km until it falls into the state’s biggest wetland wildlife sanctuary of Deepor Beel located in the south-west part of Guwahati city. Hence, the contaminated water and waste carried by Bharalu river are also causing harm to the biodiversity of the wetland conservation, home to many aquatic species and hundreds of migratory birds.

Bharalu river crosses NH-37 near ISBT in Guwahati, continues its flow till it falls at Deepor Beel

Speaking on the action plans submitted by the State Pollution Control Board to tackle the pollution caused to Bharalu river over the years, an official informed that the department has proposed for installation of three sewage treatment plants (STP) in total along the 6.2-km stretch starting from Jonali to Bharalumukh, where it merges with the Brahmaputra.

“We have proposed for installation of three STPs along Bharalu in its entire stretch, the first one is proposed at Jonali, the second to set up in the middle somewhere near ASTC workshop in Ulubari and the last is proposed at Bharalumukh,” the source added.

Bharalu meeting Brahmaputra river in Bharalumukh, Guwahati

The source from the State Pollution Control Board also informed that Bharalu is the most polluted river stretch in the state with a BOD level of 52.0 mg/l and it won’t be easy to bring it down in such short notice.

“We cannot attain the bathing and drinking standards, which is having a BOD level less than 3 mg/ l in case of Bharalu river but our achievable goal is to make bring it Class E of the pollution characterisation, which is fit for propagation of wildlife and fisheries,” the source said.

Meanwhile, talking about the roles to be played by other departments concerned, the source expressed that every stakeholder including the Guwahati Municipal Corporation and state water resource department and has to play key role in implementation works of the entire action plan.

“GMC is the sole authority responsible for implementation of the renovation works after approval of the action by CPCB and further identifying and clearing of establishments and settlements that has illegally encroached into the river banks of Bharalu over the past years,” the source added.

Expressing concern of the degrading condition and pollution caused to the Bharalu over the years, Colonel PK Choudhury, who retired from Indian Army in 1989, said he has dedicated almost half of his life in raising voice about the rising threats to nature. The concerned citizen residing in Anil Nagar locality of the city has been fighting against the administration, visiting government offices and forcing the authorities to pay a heed to the rising threat and requesting them to initiate renovation works for restoration of Bharalu, which can be a good drinking water source and inland water transport medium for denizens living in the city.

“I have fought the government for almost 18 years, provided righteous suggestion in the form of a master plan that could have been initiated for cleaning the Bharalu back in 2010, but all my efforts went in vain,” Col Choudhury said.

Taking about the ‘Master Plan-2025’ that was designed and proposed to Assam government by the Greater Guwahati Citizens’ Coordination Committee back in 2010, the army veteran informed that the forum had than itself suggested the state administration for installation of sewage treatment plants in its proposed plan but it was never implemented.

Copy of letter submitted to the GMC by the Greater Guwahati Citizens’ Coordination Committee

“Prior to it, three Master Plans were prepared in the year 1965, 1971 and 1986 respectively have failed to fulfil its objective allegedly due to lack of sincerity in the state mechanism,” the retired army officer said.

Not only as an Army officer, shouting for cleanliness in his department, but keeping alive the spirit, Col Choudhury tried every way to keep his home city clean. He made a cycle van that went door to door to collect garbage in packets and finally pile the wastage in dustbins that he himself had installed at few central locations of Guwahati and it was later carried by the trucks of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC). He charged a minimum monthly token money from every household in the locality, to meet expenses in the service and gradually increased the numbers of his garbage carrying vans to nearly 75.

“I have seen people throwing garbage here and there and many of them directly dispose it to the Bharalu flowing near to the settlements, turning it into a waste carrying canal and so I started to collect garbage from door to door,” he said.

Interestingly, according to data obtained from sources in Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC), it has been stated that the total quantum of municipal garbage collected from the city at present is 550 metric tons every day. Being such a huge quantity, the municipal garbage extracted every day gravely demands a proper treatment and recycling process.

Garbage piled near Machkhowa in Guwahati

However the state government has set up only one treatment plant at Paschim Boragaon, Guwahati that disposes 50 tons of garbage every day. This is very less compared to the amount generated and that too is not functional at the moment, revealed a source from GMC.

Pointing out to some reasons why Bharalu has been suffering and triggering flash floods at some of the major locations of Guwahati during monsoons, Retd Colonel Choudhury highlighted that the Bharalu has a maximum water holding capacity of 32 cubic metres per second, but in reality it carries 52 cubic metres per second in pressure to water flowing from other sources including nearby streams and drains carrying wastes from the establishments and households across Guwahati.

“Bharalu carries an excess amount of water including wastage amounting to nearly 21.32 cubic metres per second exceeding its holding capacity, till it falls into the Brahmaputra near Bharalumukh,” the Colonel added.

The retired Army colonel further revealed that there was a time, decades ago, when school and college students in Guwahati would go for a picnic and have fun sitting beside the Bharalu river as the water was crystal clear, fit for drinking and bathing unlike now when it is black in colour.

“My heart aches if I look back to those days, those green childhood days,” remembered Col Choudhury.

Pointing out some of the advantages that can be achieved from Bharalu, benefiting the residents across Guwahati, if the rampant pollution is controlled and treated in proper planned manner, a source from Centre for Environment in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati highlighted that water of Bharalu river can serve as a major drinking water source for the people as there is a big scarcity of underground water in most of the locations in the city.

“Water of Bharalu near Basistha Mandir is crystal clear and is also used for drinking and bathing purpose by many residing there,” the source said.

The IIT Guwahati source informed that the water of Bharalu river is contaminated from industrial waste and chemicals, and if treated properly, this can also be used as fertilizers if discharged to paddy fields after reducing the unwanted substances it carries.

Bringing to light to a serious concern, the source also informed that hardly 4 km from Bharalumukh where Bharalu discharges its dirty water, Gammon India is working on a project, installing pipelines and plants to intake water from the Brahmaputra river to meet round the clock water supply to every location in Guwahati.

“Scientifically proved, it requires a distance of nearly 10 km flow for a contaminated water body to dissolve into a bigger source, but in case of the construction undertaken by Gammon it won’t meet its drinking and bathing standards which can turn up to hazardous in coming years,” the source said.

Highlighting to some of the initiatives that can be undertaken by the state administration in curbing the ongoing pollution and increase water quality of Bharalu river, the source from the environment department informed that STPs should be installed at some locations for treatments and emphasis should be on utilisation of treated sewage so as to minimise extraction of ground or surface water. Also setting up of biodiversity parks and pavements with walking space on the embankments by removing encroachments can act as a major component for rejuvenation of Bharalu.

Adding to it, the source asserted that if the authorities can create awareness among the public to dispose garbage in dustbins placed nearby, and by directing all big residential establishments to discharge water into drains after minimal treatments and filtration can help in controlling the increasing pollution.

“Bharalu will be clean in one stretch of rainfall in a year if such initiatives are undertaken by the government,” the source explained.

Bharalu has been facing a potential threat from unhealthy waste disposal to it over the years in almost every locations of Guwahati. Even though the living standards of people in Guwahati has changed massively, the methods of garbage waste management in part of the authorities concern still remains primitive with not much done for its conservation.

Due to the alleged lackadaisical attitude of the government, the river which once was home to varied aquatic species, today remains black and dirty throughout the year. The source of waste is many without proper scientific disposal method and hence the river is becoming a matter of health risk to people residing in the city.

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