Water Pollution

Indian river systems and pollution

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Godavari River (image right) and Krishna River (image left) discharging to the Bay of Bengal. NASA

The Indian River Systems can be divided into four categories – the Himalayan, the rivers traversing the Deccan Plateau, the Coastal and those in the inland drainage basin (Figure 1). The Himalayan rivers are perennial as they are fed by melting glaciers every summer. During the monsoon, these rivers assume alarming proportions. Swollen with rainwater, they often inundate villages and towns in their path. The Gangetic basin is the largest river system in India, draining almost a quarter of the country.

The rivers of the Indian peninsular plateau are mainly fed by rain. During summer, their flow is greatly reduced, and some of the tributaries even dry up, only to be revived in the monsoon. The Godavari basin in the peninsula is the largest in the country, spanning an area of almost one-tenth of the country. The rivers Narmada (India’s holiest river) and Tapti flow almost parallel to each other but empty themselves in opposite directions. The two rivers make the valley rich in alluvial soil and teak forests cover much of the land. While coastal rivers gush down the peaks of the Western Ghats into the Arabian Sea in torrents during the rains, their flow slow down after the monsoon. Streams like the Sambhar in western Rajasthan are mainly seasonal in character, draining into the inland basins and salt lakes. In the Rann of Kutch, the only river that flows through the salt desert is the Luni. The major river system of India are discussed below.

Indus River System

The Indus originates in the northern slopes of the Kailash range in Tibet near Lake Manasarovar. It follows a north-westerly course through Tibet. It enters Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir. It forms a picturesque gorge in this part. Several tributaries - the Zaskar, the Shyok, the Nubra and the Hunza join it in the Kashmir region. It flows through the regions of Ladakh, Baltistan and Gilgit and runs between the Ladakh Range and the Zaskar Range. It crosses the Himalayas through a 5181 m deep gorge near Attock, lying north of the Nanga Parbat and later takes a bend to the south west direction before entering Pakistan. It has a large number of tributaries in both India and Pakistan and has a total length of about 2897 km from the source to the point near Karachi where it falls into the Arabian Sea. The main tributaries of the Indus in India are Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej.

caption Figure 1: Major Rivers in India

Brahmaputra River System

The Brahmaputra originates in the Mansarovar lake, also the source of the Indus and the Satluj. It is slightly longer than the Indus, but most of its course lies outside India. It flows eastward, parallel to the Himalayas. Reaching Namcha Barwa (7757 m), it takes a U-turn around it and enters India in Arunachal Pradesh and known as dihang. The undercutting done by this river is of the order of 5500 metres. In India, it flows through Arunachal Pradesh and Assam, and is joined by several tributaries.

Ganga River System

The Ganga (Ganges) rises from the Gangotri Glacier in the Garhwal Himalayas at an elevation of some 4100 metres above the sea level under the name of Bhagirathi. This main stream of the river flows through the Himalayas till another two streams – the Mandakini and the Alaknanda – join it at Dev Prayag, the point of confluence. The combined stream is then known as the Ganga. The main tributaries of the Ganga are Yamuna, Ram Ganga, Gomati, Ghaghara, Son, Damodar and Sapt Kosi. The river after traversing a distance of 2525 kms from its source meets the Bay of Bengal at Ganga Sagar in West Bengal.

Yamuna River System

The River Yamuna originates from the Yamunotri glacier, 6387m above mean sea level (msl), at the Banderpoonch peak in the Uttarkashi district of Uttarakhand. The catchment of the river extends to states of Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the entire union territory of Delhi. The river flows 1367 km from here to its confluence with the River Ganga at Allahabad. The main tributaries joining the river include the Hindon, Chambal, Sind, Betwa and Ken. The annual flow of the river is about 10,000 cumecs. The annual usage is 4400 cumecs, irrigation accounting for 96% of this.

Narmada River System

The Narmada or Nerbudda is a river in central India. It forms the traditional boundary between North India and South India, and is a total of 1,289 km (801 mi) long. Of the major rivers of peninsular India, only the Narmada, the Tapti and the Mahi run from east to west. It rises on the summit of Amarkantak Hill in Madhya Pradesh state, and for the first 320 kilometres (200 miles) of its course winds among the Mandla Hills, which form the head of the Satpura Range; then at Jabalpur, passing through the 'Marble Rocks', it enters the Narmada Valley between the Vindhya and Satpura ranges, and pursues a direct westerly course to the Gulf of Cambay. Its total length through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat amounts to 1312 kilometres (815 miles), and it empties into the Arabian Sea in the Bharuch district of Gujarat.

Tapti River System

 The Tapi is a river of central India. It is one of the major rivers of peninsular India with the length of around 724 km; it runs from east to west. It rises in the eastern Satpura Range of southern Madhya Pradesh state, and flows westward, draining Madhya Pradesh's historic Nimar region, Maharashtra's historic Khandesh and east Vidarbha regions in the northwest corner of the Deccan Plateau and South Gujarat before emptying into the Gulf of Cambay of the Arabian Sea, in the State of Gujarat. The Western Ghats or Sahyadri range starts south of the Tapti River near the border of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The Tapi River Basin lies mostly in northern and eastern districts Maharashtra state viz, Amravati, Akola, Buldhana, Washim, Jalgaon, Dhule, Nandurbar, Malegaon, Nashik districts but also covers Betul, Burhanpur districts of Madhya Pradesh and Surat district in Gujarat as well. The principal tributaries of Tapi River are Purna River, Girna River, Panzara River, Waghur River, Bori River and Aner River. 

Godavari River System

The river with second longest course within India, Godavari is often referred to as the Vriddh (Old) Ganga or the Dakshin (South) Ganga. The name may be apt in more ways than one, as the river follows the course of Ganga's tragedy. The river is about 1,450 km (900 miles) long. It rises at Trimbakeshwar, near Nasik and Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in Maharashtra around 380 km distance from the Arabian Sea, but flows southeast across south-central India through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh, and empties into the Bay of Bengal. At Rajahmundry, 80 km from the coast, the river splits into two streams thus forming a very fertile delta. Some of its tributaries include Indravati River, Manjira, Bindusara and Sabari. Some important urban centers on its banks include Nasik, Bhadrachalam, Rajahmundry and Narsapur. The Asia's largest rail-cum-road bridge on the river Godavari linking Kovvur and Rajahmundry is considered to be an engineering feat.

Krishna River System

The Krishna is one of the longest rivers of India (about 1300 km in length). It originates at Mahabaleswar in Maharashtra, passes through Sangli and meets the sea in the Bay of Bengal at Hamasaladeevi in Andhra Pradesh. The Krishna River flows through the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. The traditional source of the river is a spout from the mouth of a statue of a cow in the ancient temple of Mahadev in Mahabaleshwar. Its most important tributary is the Tungabhadra River, which itself is formed by the Tunga and Bhadra rivers that originate in the Western Ghats. Other tributaries include the Koyna, Bhima, Mallaprabha, Ghataprabha, Yerla, Warna, Dindi, Musi and Dudhganga rivers.

Kaveri River System

The Kaveri (also spelled Cauvery or Kavery) is one of the great rivers of India and is considered sacred by the Hindus. This river is also called Dakshin Ganga. The headwaters are in the Western Ghats range of Karnataka state, and flows from Karnataka through Tamil Nadu. It empties into the Bay of Bengal. Its waters have supported irrigated agriculture for centuries, and the Kaveri has been the lifeblood of the ancient kingdoms and modern cities of South India. The source of the river is Talakaveri located in the Western Ghats about 5,000 feet (1,500 m) above sea level. It flows generally south and east for around 765 km, emptying into the Bay of Bengal through two principal mouths. Its basin is estimated to be 27,700 square miles (71,700 km²), and it has many tributaries including Shimsha, Hemavati, Arkavathy, Kapila, Honnuhole, Lakshmana Tirtha, Kabini, Lokapavani, Bhavani, Noyyal and Famous Amaravati. 

Table 1:  Major River Basins of the Country 

Name of the River Origin Length (km) Catchment Area
(Sq. Km.) 



Mansarovar (Tibet)




a.) Ganga

Gangotri (Uttar Kashi)




b.) Brahmaputra

Kailash Range (Tibet)



c.) Barak & other rivers flowing into Meghna, like Gomti, Muhari, Fenny etc. 






Aravalli Hills (Rajasthan)





Dhar (Madhya Pradesh)










Betul (Madhya Pradesh)





Ranchi (Bihar)





Nazri Town










Mahabaleshwar (Maharashtra)





Kolar (Karnataka)





Coorg (Karnataka)





Source: Central Water Commission, W.M.Directorate (Reassessment of Water Resources Potential of India, 1993).

Mahanadi River System

The Mahanadi River system is the third largest in the peninsula of India and the largest river of Orissa state.

 The basin (80º30’–86º50’ E and 19º20’–23º35’ N) extends over an area approximately 141,600 km2, has a total length of 851 km and an annual runoff of 50X109 m3 with a peak discharge of 44740 m3 s-1.

The basin is characterised by a tropical climate with average annual rainfall of 142 cm (NWDA, 1981) with 90% occurring during the SW-monsoon. The river begins in the Baster hills of Madhya Pradesh flows over different geological formations of Eastern Ghats and adjacent areas and joins the Bay of Bengal after divided into different branches in the deltaic area. The main branches of River Mahanadi meet Bay of Bengal at Paradip and Nuagarh (Devi estuary). The tidal estuarine part of the river covers a length of 40 km and has a basin area of 9 km2. Based on physical characteristics, the estuary has been characterized as a partially mixed coastal plain estuary. Major river basins and their resource potential of India summarized in Table 1 and 2.

Environmental factors of River water quality

River water quality is highly variable by nature due to environmental conditions such as basin lithology, vegetation and climate. In small watersheds spatial variations extend over orders of magnitude for most major elements and nutrients, while this variability is an order of magnitude lower for major basins. Standard river water for use as reference is therefore not applicable. As a consequence natural waters can possibly be unfit for various human uses, even including drinking.

There are three major natural sources of dissolved and soluble matter carried by rivers: the atmospheric inputs of material, the degradation of terrestrial organic matter and the weathering of surface rocks. These substances generally transit through soil and porous rocks and finally reach the rivers. On their way, they are affected by numerous processes such as recycling in terrestrial biota, recycling and storage in soils, exchange between dissolved and particulate matter, loss of volatile substances to the atmosphere, production and degradation of aquatic plans within rivers and lakes etc. As a result of these multiple sources and pathways, the concentrations of elements and compounds found in rivers depend on physical factors (climate, relief), chemical factors (solubility of minerals) and biological factors (uptake by vegetation, degradation by bacteria). The most important environmental factors controlling river chemistry are:

  • Occurrence of highly soluble (halite, gypsum) or easily weathered (calcite, dolomite, pyrite, olivine) minerals
  • Distance to the marine environment which controls the exponential decrease of ocean aerosols input to land (Na+, CI-, SO- , and Mg2+).
  • Aridity (precipitation/runoff ratio) which determines the concentration of dissolved substances resulting from the two previous processes.
  • Terrestrial primary productivity which governs the release of nutrients (C, N, Si, K).
  • Ambient temperature which controls, together with biological soil activity, the weathering reaction kinetics.
  • Uplift rates (tectonism, relief) Stream quality of unpolluted waters (basins without any direct pollution sources such as dwellings, roads, farming, mining etc.

River Water Pollution

Most of the Indian rivers and their tributaries viz., Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna, Sone, Cauvery Damodar and Brahmaputra are reported to be grossly polluted due to discharge of untreated sewage disposal and industrial effluents directly into the rivers. These wastes usually contain a wide variety of organic and inorganic pollutants including solvents, oils, grease, plastics, plasticizers, phenols, heavy metals, pesticides and suspended solids. The indiscriminate dumping and release of wastes containing the above mentioned hazardous substances into rivers might lead to environmental disturbance which could be considered as a potential source of stress to biotic community.

As for example, River Ganges alone receives sewage of 29 class I cities situated on its banks and the industrial effluents of about 300 small, medium, and big industrial units throughout its whole course of approximately 2525 kms. Identically Yamuna is another major river, has also been threatened with pollution in Delhi and Ghaziabad area. Approximately 5,15,000 kilolitres of sewage waste water is reported to be discharged in the river Yamuna daily. In addition, there arc about 1,500 medium and small industrial units which also contribute huge amounts of untreated or partially treated effluent to the river Yamuna every day.

Similarly many other rivers were surveyed during past two decades with respect to their pollutional status. In addition to domestic and industrial discharge into the rivers, there were continued surface run off of agricultural areas, mines and even from cremation on the river banks. According to a report, over 32 thousand dead bodies were cremated at the major burning Ghats per year in Varanasi alone in the year 1984.

Pollution in the Ganga River

The Ganga Basin, the largest river basin of the country, houses about 40 percent of population of India. During the course of its journey, municipal sewages from 29 Class-I cities (cities with population over 1,00,000), 23 Class II cities (cities with population between 50,000 and 1,00,000) and about 48 towns, effluents from industries and polluting wastes from several other non-point sources are discharged into the river Ganga resulting in its pollution. The NRCD records, as mentioned in audit report, put the estimates of total sewage generation in towns along river Ganga and its tributaries as 5044 MLD (Million Litres per Day). According to the Central Pollution Control Board Report of 2001, the total wastewater generation on the Ganga basin is about 6440 MLD.

Many towns on the bank of the Ganga are highly industrialised. Most of the industries have inadequate effluent treatment facilities and dump their wastes directly into the river. A high concentration of tanneries in Kanpur has further aggravated the situation. Besides other chemical and textile industries, Kanpur has 151 tanneries located in a cluster at Jajmau along the southern bank of the Ganga with an estimated waste water discharge of 5.8 to 8.8 million litres per day. Out of 151 tanneries in Jajmau, 62 tanneries use exclusively the chrome tanning process, 50 tanneries use vegetable tanning processes, and 38 tanneries use both chrome and vegetable tanning. The Indian government under the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) has implemented several schemes for the abatement of pollution of the Ganga by tanneries. However, there are violations of the pollution control measures, and tannery effluents are still found in the river. 

Pollution in the Yamuna River

River Yamuna is the primary source of drinking water for Delhi, the capital of India, and also for many cities, towns and villages in the neighbouring states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Haryana. In the last few decades, however, there has been a serious concern over the deterioration in its water quality. The river has been receiving large amounts of partially treated and untreated wastewater during its course, especially between Wazirabad and Okhla, National Capital Territory (NCT) of Delhi. Pollutants flowing into the river are contributed from the waste of the cities situated along its bank.

If London is famous for beauty of its river the Thames, Delhi is known for pollution of the Yamuna River. Once the lifeline of Delhi, Yamuna has now became the most polluted water resource of the country. It now looks like a sewer.

From big industries and factories to people living in big colonies, slums and rural areas, all pollute the river with impunity because of untreated water. Increasing pollution of the Yamuna has now become an international issue and a cause of concern for environmentalists.

Impact of River water pollution

The pollutants include oils, greases, plastics, plasticizers, metallic wastes, suspended solids, phenols, toxins, acids, salts, dyes, cyanides, pesticides etc. Many of these pollutants are not easily susceptible to degradation and thus cause serious pollution problems. Contamination of ground water and fish-kill episodes are the major effects of the toxic discharges from industries. Discharge of untreated sewage and industrial effluents leads to number of conspicuous effects on the river environment (Table 3). The impact involves gross changes in water quality viz. reduction in dissolved oxygen and reduction in light penetration that’s tends loss in self purification capability of river water. 

Table 3 : Environmental implications of the discharge of sewage and industrial effluents
S.N. Factor Principal environmental effect Potential ecological consequences  Remedial action

High biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) caused by bacterial breakdown of organic matter

Reduction in dissolved oxygen (DO) concentration

Elimination of sensitive species, increase in some tolerant species; change in the community structure

Pretreatment of effluent, ensure adequate dilution


Partial biodegradation of proteins and other nitrogenous material

Elevated ammonia concentration; increased nitrite and nitrate levels

Elimination of intolerant species, reduction in sensitive species

Improved treatment to ensure complete nitrification; nutrient stripping possible but expensive


Release of suspended solid matter

Increased turbidity and reduction of light penetration

Reduced photosynthesis of submerge plants; abrasion of gills or interference with normal feeding behavior

Provide improved settlement, insure adequate dilution


Deposition of organic sludges in slower water 

Release of methane and hydrogen as sulphide matter decomposes anoxically, Modification of substratum by blanket of sludge 

Elimination of normal benthic community loss of interstitial species; increase in the species able to exploit increased food source 

Discharge where velocity adequate to prevent deposition

Other poisons

Presence of poisonous substances

Change in water quality

Water directly and acutely toxic to some organisms, causing change in community composition; consequential effect on pray- predator relation; sub- lethal effects on some species 

Increase dilution

Inert solids

Particles in suspension

Increased turbidity. Possibly increased abrasion 

Reduced photosynthesis of submerged plant. Impairing feeding ability through reduced vision or interference with collecting mechanism of filter feeders (e.g. reduction in nutritive value of collected material).Possible abrasion

Improve settlement


Deposition of material

Blanketing of substratum, filing of interstices and/or substrate instability

Change in benthic community, reduction in diversity ( increased number of a few species)

Discharge where velocity adequate to ensure dispersion

Source: S. C Santra


On the worldwide scale, the river water pollution leads hazardous impact on aquatic animals and plants. Some studies show alarming condition of river pollution implications.  Pratap B and Vandana performed detailed study on pesticide accumulation in Fish species and concluded that, pesticide bioaccumulation was higher in cat- fishes as compared to carps and have species specific in their tissues (liver, brain and ovary) causing metabolic and hormonal imbalance affecting at GnRH and GTH secretion. The reproductive sex steroid hormones were lowered in catfishes and carps of the polluted rivers. They suggested that the bio accumulated insecticide in ovary may cause blocking of the receptor site so that natural hormone cannot bind at the site of estrogen receptor which may cause the dysfunctions of the reproduction in catfish and carps inhabiting the polluted river Gomti and Ganga. They also suggested that the fish bio accumulated insecticide beyond permissible limit must be avoided for the food purpose from such polluted rivers.

Contamination by synthetic organic pollutants is a more recent phenomenon which is even more difficult to demonstrate for lack of appropriate monitoring. The DDT content of the Yamuna river which flows through Delhi is one of the highest ever reported many other problems affect river water quality on a global scale. Very severe pollution by pathogenic microorganisms is still the prime cause of waterborne morbidity and mortality although it is difficult to establish reliable statistical correlation in each case. Many streams and rivers in South America, Africa and paxticulaxly on the Indian sub-continent show high coliform levels together with high BOD and nutrient levels. Eutrophication, which has spread widely to lakes and reservoirs of developing countries now also, affects slow flowing rivers.

caption Figure 2: Dead bodies of Ghariyals in Chambal Sanctuary

Another shocking incident came in picture recently, shows a death alarm of river pollution. Yamuna river water is behind death of ghariyals in the Chambal Sanctuary. Chambal lost over 100 ghariyals in the last 72 days to a mysterious toxin released, in all possibility, by its very own sanctuary – the river Yamuna (Figure 2). Initially ghariyal deaths were reported from 35 km stretch of National Chambal Sanctuary, where the Chambal and Yamuna rivers meet, but now ghariyal deaths are reported from upstream also. Beside, other forms of aquatic life are also coming in the area of the impact. For instance, two dolphins and a Crocodile have also died recently. Vets and research labs involved in the probe have confirmed that toxins caused around 103 deaths. They unanimously agree toxins came from either the contaminated food or the Yamuna water. After almost three months since 16 bodies were fished out from Barchauli village in Etawah range of national Chambal sanctuary on December 8, it is gout which has been noted in regularity in all 103 carcasses. The bodies show uric acid deposition in visceral organs and also joints of animals. Initial findings point towards ecological degradation of river system. Experts agree that Tilapia, an exotic fish species, could be the possible carrier of toxins and consumption of this species by ghariyals may have led to their death. 

Prevention and Control of Pollution

Some actions have been taken by The Government of India to control pollution in the river systems. Ganga action plan is much known of them discussed bellow:

Ganga Action Plan

An action plan, popularly known as “Ganga Action Plan” (GAP) for immediate reduction of pollution load on the river Ganga was prepared by Department of Environment (now Ministry of Environment & Forests) in December 1984 on the basis of a survey on Ganga basin carried out by the Central Pollution Control Board in 1984. The Plan approved by the Government in April 1985 pursued two objectives: to reduce the pollution load in the Ganga and establish sewage treatment systems in 25 Class I cities bordering the river.

To oversee the implementation of the GAP and lay down policies and programmes, Government of India constituted the Central Ganga Authority (CGA) under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister in February 1985. It has been renamed as the National River Conservation Authority (NRCA) in September 1995, as a wing of the Department of Environment, to execute the projects under the guidance and supervision of the CGA. The state agencies like Public Health Engineering Department, Water and Sewage Boards, Pollution Control Boards, Development Authorities, Local Bodies etc. were responsible for actual implementation of the scheme.

Failure of Ganga Action Plan

The Ganga Action Plan launched by the Government of India with much fanfare has failed miserably in its objectives. The pollution levels in Ganga are either same or even higher. What is worse, though the authorities, viz. the Jal Nigam and the State and Central Governments refuse to acknowledge the failure.

The Sankat Mochan Foundation found that the schemes for Varanasi under the GAP Phase-I suffered from several shortcomings. Some major ones are:

  1. The sewage pump at Konia terminal, when run to its capacity causes heavy surcharging of the old trunk sewer. It causes erosion of the sewer linings and also spillage of sewage from manholes in low-lying areas of the city.
  2. Over 115 mld sewage, which could be easily handled by the Konia Terminal, is actually being diverted to Dinapur Sewage Treatment Plant. The Dinapur STP can handle only 80 mld, resulting in by-passing of 35 mld untreated sewage into Varuna and eventually into Ganga. This is also very expensive in terms of energy consumption. 
  3. Power breakdowns, which are common in Varanasi, causes a sudden back pressure in the system and massive spillage of sewage onto the roads and streets of the city.
  4. The plant at Dimapur has to be shut down completely during monsoons. Thus for three to four months in a year all the sewage goes untreated.
  5. The biogas generator in the Dinapur STP does not function hence the plant is ineffective due to shortage of power. Tens of millions of Rupees have been wasted on its construction, while the villages around the Dinapur STP suffer from polluted water, water borne diseases and mosquitoes.

The realities of the GAP Phase-I Schemes for Varanasi

  1. BOD in the religious bathing area remains dangerously high even after completion of the GAP I. The BOD is as high as 25 mg/l at the confluence of Ganga and Varuna. 
  2. The fecal coliform varied from  70000 mpn/100ml to 1.5 million/100ml. The BOD and the fecal coliform levels increase from upstream to downstream as more and more untreated sewage enters the river. 
  3. These values when compared with those six kilometers upstream of Assi are an eye opener. The figures in this area, where the city of Varanasi starts and no point discharges of effluents take place are 2mg/l of BOD and undetectable fecal coliform.
  4. Even in the treated sewage coming out from the Dimapur STP, the BOD is dangerously high at 50mg/l against a maximum permissinle value of 20mg/l. Suspended solids are 100mg/l. Fecal coliform levels remain as high as that entering the STP, since there is no arrangement for controlling it.

A ccording to environmentalists, about 90 per cent of pollution into the holy river is caused by sewage generation while only about 5 to 6 per cent can be blamed on bathing and other activities. While the real sources of pollution -- sewage -- continue to flow into the river.

 By 1996, the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan was completed and the government expanded its pollution abatement activities by enlarging the bureaucracy. They created the National River Conservation Directorate (NRCD) and folded the Ganga Action Plan into that Directorate. They also began to create other river action plans (e.g. The Yamuna Action Plan), modeled off the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan.

The Ganga Action Plan Phase-II

Since GAP-I did not cover the pollution load of Ganga fully; the Ganga Action Plan Phase II (GAP-II) was launched in stages between 1993 and 1996.

(a) On the tributaries of river Ganga viz. Yamuna, Damodar and Gomati

(b) In 25 class-I towns left out in Phase-I

(c) In the other polluting towns along the river.

The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved the GAP-II in various stages during April 1993 to October 1996. The States of Uttarakhand, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal were to implement the GAP-II by treating 1912 MLD of sewage. Against this, a treatment capacity of 780 MLD has been created so far (October 2003). The approved cost of GAP-II is Rs. 2285.48 crore (excluding establishment charges) against which, an amount of Rs.792.38 crore has been released till 30.11.2003. The total number of schemes sanctioned under GAP-II so far is 495 at a cost of Rs.1380 crore, out of which 318 schemes have been completed. The revised date for completion of GAP-II was kept as December 2005. The Ministry of Environment & Forests have now stated that as the second Phase of Gomti Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan have been approved and these are targeted to be completed by March 2007 and September 2008 respectively, the GAP-II is now targeted to be completed by December 2008 provided commensurate funds are made available in time.  

Water pollution regulation in India

This section gives an overview of the current state of the Indian environmental regulation system. We mention the main relevant texts regarding the regulation of water pollution. Finally we discuss the role of informal regulation by local communities.

Water pollution – related legislation

Unless there have been some environment related acts in India as early as the nineteenth century, the first significant laws regarding the protection of environmental resources appeared in the 1970's with the setting up of a National Comimittee on Environmental Planning and Coordination, and the enactment of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.

Since then, three main texts have been passed at the central level, that are relevant to water pollution: the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Cess Act, 1977 and the Environment (Protection) Act (1986).

The Water Act 1974 established the Pollution Control Boards at the central and state level.

The Water Cess Act 1977 provided the Pollution Control Boards with a funding tool, enabling them to charge the water user with a cess designed as a financial support for the board's activities.

The Environment Protection Act 1986 is an umbrella legislation providing a single focus in the country for the protection of environment and seeks to plug the loopholes of earlier legislation relating to environment.

The law prohibits the pollution of water bodies and requires any potentially polluting activity to get the consent of the local SPCB before being started.

Use of Informal regulation of pollution

The design of policy instruments for industrial pollution is not only complex but also very daunting in the case of developing countries. In principle, the regulator has an array of physical, legal, monetary, and other instruments at his/her disposal. But the presence of a large number of pollution sources in the form of small-scale industries (SSIs) that lack knowledge, funds, technology and skills to treat their effluent frustrates any instrument applied and leads to overall failure. The failure of industrial pollution control is also attributable to rigid command-and-control regulatory approaches. Regulators are constrained by meagre resources, limited authority and political interference. These problems are compounded by information asymmetries. For all these reasons, numerous studies in India have concluded that despite a strong legal framework and the existence of a large bureaucracy to manage environmental regulation, implementation is very weak. The failure of formal regulation to control pollution has highlighted the significance of informal regulation for achieving environmental goals. There is now considerable interest in “information disclosure” and “rating” as potential tools of industrial pollution control. Some times referred to as the “third wave” of environmental policy, this approach acknowledges the difficulties of monitoring and enforcement and recognises that there are many more avenues of influence than just formal regulation or fines. Firms are sensitive, for example, about their reputation and the future costs that they may incur as a result of liability or accidents. The emergence of this new paradigm for regulation is also related to advances made in our understanding of asymmetric information. Bishwanath and Banerjee (2004) made an attempt to assess the impact of informal regulation of pollution on water quality in Indian rivers. For this purpose, an econometric analysis of determinants of water quality in Indian rivers were carried out using water quality (water class) data for 106 monitoring points on 10 important rivers for five years, 1995–1999. Results showed significant favorable effect of informal regulation of pollution on water quality in rivers in India.


The Indian River Systems can be divided into four categories – the Himalayan, the rivers traversing the Deccan Plateau, the Coastal and those in the inland drainage basin. The Gangetic basin is the largest river system in India, draining almost a quarter of the country. The rivers of the Indian peninsular plateau are mainly fed by rain. During summer, their flow is greatly reduced, and some of the tributaries even dry up, only to be revived in the monsoon.

Most of the Indian rivers and their tributaries viz., Ganges, Yamuna, Godavari, Krishna, Sone, Cauvery Damodar and Brahmaputra are reported to be grossly polluted due to discharge of untreated sewage disposal and industrial effluents directly into the rivers. The indiscriminate dumping and release of wastes containing hazardous substances into rivers lead to environmental disturbance which could be considered as a potential source of stress to biotic community. River water pollution leads sever impact on living community. Some recent studies show terrific facts like; Death of ghariyals in the Chambal sanctuary, pesticide pollution in Yamuna River etc.

Though, CPCB has laid down new stringent environmental norms in the form of CREP (Corporate Responsibility for Environmental Protection). But it was observed that only about 45% of the grossly polluting industrial units have installed Effluent Treatment Plants. Out of these, over 18% did not function properly and also did not meet the technical standards. The NRCD also have no mechanism to ensure that the installed Effluent Treatment Plants function properly. Therefore, punitive action should be taken against the violators of norms in this regard and defaulting industrial units should either be closed down or allowed to function only after they install ETPs and ensure their proper functioning. It was also observed, that the contribution to the pollution load by various sources was estimated at 75% and 25% each for domestic effluent and industrial waste.

Apart from ensuring proper operationalisation of assets created under different schemes, it is need to strengthen mechanism and the capacity of institutions for effective control of water pollution and waste from point source by emphasizing socio-economic measures at the same time as using law enforcement measures.


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Further readings



Shukla, D. (2012). Indian river systems and pollution. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/153800


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