Cleaning up India's rivers by hybrid PPP in sewage treatment

For taking action to clean up the rivers in India, there has been a high decibel debate regarding sewage treatment plants (STPs). The idea became clear when the Central government gave the Supreme Court an 18-year plan to clean up the rivers of the country. One worrying aspect of the plan is that it seems strikingly similar to the plans that have been tried earlier. Such as preparing STPs, building crematoriums, and then cleaning up the ghats and riverfronts.

The latest move to innovatively shore up funding for sewage treatment plants at various places across the country, to begin with, needs to be wholeheartedly welcomed. The simple fact is that the vast bulk of sewage flowing from our towns and cities is just released untreated into rivers and water bodies. And we clearly need well-structured finance to boost resource allocation, and ensure performance, efficiency and sustainability in sewage treatment.

The STPs  at various places across the country would be as per the so-called hybrid annuity public-private partnership (PPP) model, which has garnered significant funds for highway projects in the last three years or so. The way ahead is to float a special purpose vehicle under the Companies Act for each project, so as to enable transparency in governance, functional autonomy and, most importantly, the levy of reasonable user charges for effluent treatment, as per the polluter-pays principle.

There is vast scope to replicate the hybrid PPP model for sewage treatment all along the rivers of India. The plants would provide relatively risk-free returns over the long term, and so should be attractive to sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and other investors. The way forward is to have hybrid PPP in place for solid waste management in our large urban centres. In fast urbanising India, PPP for sewage and solid waste treatment is an idea whose time has come.

Under the Integrated Ganga River Conservation Mission, National Mission for Clean Ganga has sanctioned 87 projects worth Rs 12,684 crore for the development of 1,433 MLD sewage treatment infrastructure.

Namami Ganga Programme, in collaboration with the state government of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh has successfully designed and bid out the first two hybrid annuity projects in the cities of Haridwar and Varanasi.

The hybrid annuity PPP programme is now being rolled out in Mathura, Allahabad, Kanpur, Patna and Kolkata. The programme endeavours to integrate the existing/brown field sewage treatment infrastructure in these towns with the new Greenfield sewage treatment plants.

Besides establishing the sewage treatment plants, the contract is for their operation and maintenance for a period of 15 years. Subsequently, they will be handed over to the local bodies concerned. The model will serve as the template for similar projects all over the country.

While discussing the cleaning of the Yamuna some years ago, the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) found that Delhi generated 2,500 million litres (mld) of sewage every day—that the DJB and CPCB have such divergent numbers tells its own story— as compared to the sewage treatment plant (STP) capacity of 2,330 mld.

Worse, just 35% of the STPs ran at full capacity, 18% ran at 60-90%, 24% at 30-60% and 23% at under 30%—where there were STPs, there was no waste and where there was waste, there was no STP.

One more face of dirty rivers is Ganga. As much as 43 per cent population of the country depends on it. About 3036 million liters per day (MLD) sewage is generated from 118 towns located in the main stream of Ganga. Only 50 per cent of the sewage is treated. The experts expect that the total sewage generated by 2035 would be 3719 MLD. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many poorer people rely on the river on a daily basis for bathing, washing, and cooking.

As per CPCB, 30 per cent of the STPs monitored in UP, Uttarakhand, Bihar and West Bengal are not operational and 94 per cent do not comply with the prescribed effluent standards.

But the question is that when our rivers will be cleaned up and can the government meet its targets?

A lot will depend on how soon the STPs are commissioned. On average, they will take about a year-and-a-half to work at their optimal capacity. The tanneries, a major polluter, will have to install new systems to ensure that no discharge leaches into the river. Given that several employ techniques that have not been tried on a large scale in Indian rivers, it is unclear how soon they will deliver results.

Moreover, a clean river also implies that it maintains minimum levels — called ecological flows — across all stretches of the river. This requires management on a larger scale, including controlling the several dams along the river that bring with them their own challenges.

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