Insight Edition: River Pollution, Solutions & Revolutions

Kiran Joshua Kennedy

A deep dive into the issues of river pollution in India & how we can try to understand it.

lighted buildings near body of water
Photo by Johannes Plenio on

India faces a challenge on the horizon with rising levels of water pollution. Water is the centre point of life for any settlement or civilization as far back as human society goes. Now we once again find ourselves on the brink, with our most precious resource becoming an endangered species.

India is home to some of the largest and most extensive networks of rivers, deltas and river basins. On the other end of the spectrum it’s also home to some of the highest levels of water pollution on the planet.

With an exploding population over the last decade or so, that now stands at over 1.3 billion souls, there seems to be no signs of slowing down. Now, with a rising population there are two major concerns: One is the ever-increasing demand for more resources that can sustain a decent quality of life. The second is the massive quantities of waste produced in the process of consuming so much of our pre-existing resources.

According to well-renowned environmentalist and activist Nityanand Jayaraman, it’s not only an increased population that contributes to river pollution in India, but due to several poor industrial and socio-cultural practices that we follow in India.

As he puts it, “Reductions in river flow because of upstream compoundment and extraction. Also, the discharge of domestic sewage, industrial waste and agricultural run-off are some of the main concerns when it comes to river pollution”.

The Big Polluters

When we have more sewage flowing into rivers than there is water, that’s a big issue. There is less dilution and the contaminants in the water are more concentrated and present a grave health hazard. The same goes for chemical dumping by industries and pesticide run-offs from the agriculture sectors.

Now one may assume big industries who can afford to take safety precautions, do so. This is not the case. For example, the Sterlite copper smelting plant in Tamil Nadu which faced huge public outcry for the poisoning of the rivers and natural water sources, which resulted in many health issues for the locals of Thoothukudi.

It was a big plant and had the capacity and money to take those steps but it didn’t. The fact of the matter is, at the end of the day money is the primary concern, not the environment. In cutting those corners and saving cost, many industries both small and big contribute greatly to river pollution.

Now if we look at the farming sector, it’s a similar story, be it commercial or small-scale. The cost cutting and damming of rivers upstream like the farmers of Punjab are doing, causes reduced water flow for the rest of the states and the excess of sewage becomes more concentrated.

“The farmers of Punjab are to blame because you have dammed the rivers upstream for agriculture, irrigation and electricity purposes, so the flow is affected and what is needed for agriculture is extracted from the river and used on land to grow your crops. The river ends up having that much less water.

Then you have cities like Delhi that extract ground-water or bring in water from the same rivers. The dams might give them water and they convert that water into sewage and this is discharged into the river,” said Jayaraman.

Now the question arises – Do we have the technology to combat this? What about sewage treatment plants?

The answer to that is simple. We have the technology. If we were to put a cluster of small and similar industries together in one area it would be feasible to create a common effluent treatment plan and the process could be executed. But, it’s not about availability, it’s about the willingness of the government to do it.

Jayaram stated that it’s not about tech. It’s about political will and a culture of integrity. If you don’t have that, if you don’t nurture that, you can bring in the most state-of-the-art tech and it won’t matter.

The Religious Problem

Parallelly we also have to look at the religious aspects of Indian society. Everyone knows how every year millions migrate to the rivers to perform religious rituals, last rites etc. Studies show that the other half of the pollution is caused by that.

Rivers have long been associated with religion and it’s not a bad thing. In this case however it is. The bathing, washing of bodies, dissolving idols made of man-made materials, the dumping of other religious trinkets all play a part and have a significant impact. Especially when it’s in the millions every year.

Nityanand Jayaraman further commented, “I don’t think that we are religiously connected anymore to the rivers, more ritualistic. The spiritual connection is lost. If there are religious leaders with foresight and visionary details, then they might be able to redefine things. Rituals need to change with time. It’s okay for a few hundred people at a time to practice those rituals on the banks of the Ganga.

Remember that these rituals were not made in a time where they thought India would have a booming population of 1.3 billion. I think that those connections are there, but right now those connections are there only in kind of very superficial conversations. It’s not in the hearts of people. We are not connected to our land in the way that one needs to be in order to take care of it. It’s a spiritual, political and social exercise but if we look at things like Namami Gange it’s entirely technological. All the interventions are technological.”

Where does this leave us?

It seems that we’re always playing a game of catch-up when it comes to planning these interventions. Because, once you put a plan into process, it takes 10 to 15 years to go through all the proper channels. Contractors have to get their pays; all kinds of new parties will be coming in and governments will change and the whole process has to be done again.

So, by the time the plant is up and running, your total waste water load will end up being double that of what the plant was designed for. Your old plan no longer suits the new issues that need to be tackled and all that time and money is wasted.

At the end of the day it becomes a question of what you see as the problem. Policies and laws are there but they don’t help. It’s a social question and hurdle that we need to overcome.

Is the problem the industry that pours poison into our rivers or is it the fault of a culture and a people that allows this waste water to be dumped without feeling really insulted by it? As Jayaraman put it, “I think that we need to clean our heads before we can clean the ‘Galla’. We need to clean the parliament before we can clean the ‘Galla’.”


River pollution is not just about waste dumping and a large population anymore, it’s a social, cultural and political challenge that needs to be addressed at the highest level. With sufficient planning and recourse however, it is possible to effect change.

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