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3 Smart City Awards for Varanasi, But Assi River Still Polluted

On what basis was a heavily polluted Assi RIver selected for India Smart City Awards 2020?

Published
My Report
5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>The eco-restoration of Varanasi's Assi River was awarded the India Smart Cities Award 2020, but on what grounds?</p></div>
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On 26 June, Varanasi won three awards in various categories under the India Smart City Awards, 2020. One of them was for eco-restoration of the Assi River via waste-water treatment, ie, removing contaminants from the river. As per the Smart Cities website, the project was completed at a total cost of Rs 5 crore, but my on-ground experience revealed a different picture. However, some restoration work was visible at the end of the 3.5-kilometre-long stream, where it meets Ganga.

The Assi River, also referred to as Assi 'nullah' by many, including the administration of Varanasi, is a very important part of the city. The name Varanasi derives from Varuna and Assi, two rivers that flow through it. For decades, these rivers have been ignored by the administration, so much so that Assi has been turned into a sewage canal.

  • 01/02

    Garbage dumped in Assi river flowing through the backyards

    (Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>Garbage dumped in Assi river flowing through the backyards</p></div>
  • 02/02

    The river that has turned into nullah.

    (Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

    <div class="paragraphs"><p>The river that has turned into nullah.</p></div>
The river has lost all its character – there is no fresh water source, the banks are illegally occupied, and there are a number of municipal sewage systems connected to the river throughout its 3.5-kilometre stretch.

We were taught that the ancient Assi river originates at Kandwa talaab in Varanasi. But according to Google Maps, its first glimpse can be found at Kirti Nagar in Sunderpur almost 4 km away from Kandwa. When I reached the Google Maps-directed spot, there was no sign of a river. But there was a vast wasteland. The actual stream that I traced, which we can call the Assi River, was behind the wall of a government college.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>The boundary of the government college through which Assi meanders.</p></div>

The boundary of the government college through which Assi meanders.

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

As I followed the supposed stream behind the wall, which is covered throughout the stretch between the government college and Sunderpur mandi, a large stream emerged along the road and later joined a sewage drain that goes through Lanka Road before moving towards Saket Nagar .

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Sewage flowing into the stream.</p></div>

Sewage flowing into the stream.

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

<div class="paragraphs"><p>A polluted stream.</p></div>

A polluted stream.

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

On some stretches, tracking the stream meant entering private properties. For a few, it is just a private backyard waste drain and for others, a construction zone filled with debris. At every passover built on the stream, solid waste collects on both sides of the pass.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>At the back of residential homes.</p></div>

At the back of residential homes.

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

At Saket Nagar, multiple sewerage lines meet the Assi stream. This increases the width of the river and makes it more like a river. Although encroachment of the river beds are very much evident on both sides of Assi.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Sewage mixes with the river.&nbsp;</p></div>

Sewage mixes with the river. 

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

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The river next travels through the posh area of Varanasi, where IAS officers, university professors and others reside in towers. At Lanka- Ravinderpuri Bridge, the damage is all too visible: a stream of black sewage with debris on the both sides.

Near the end, Assi merges with the Ganga at the Ravidas Ghat. The stench along the 100-metre-stretch is simply overwhelming.

3 Smart City Awards for Varanasi, But Assi River Still Polluted

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

Where is Restoration Visible? 

At the end of the Assi, there is a newly built sewage-pumping system due to which the stream has been diverted. So, Assi falls into the sewage-pumping system before merging with the Ganga.

However, there is no capping on the original stream yet. Caps act as a physical barrier between water and contaminated particles. A few days ago, the district magistrate had visited the site and pulled up the officials for the delay in the completion of construction work.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Sewage-pumping system under construction.</p></div>

Sewage-pumping system under construction.

(Photo Courtesy: Vikash Tripathi)

However, even after supposed treatment, untreated water can be seen in the Ganga, where Assi merges with it.

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Questions After My Trip 

Throughout the journey, there was only one spot where water treatment was visible. It is a wonder how 'Eco Restoration of Assi River' was awarded by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, when the river is not even close to being restored.

In fact, a plea regarding Varuna and Assi rivers' polluted water system was heard at the National Green Tribunal just a few days before the awards. As per Live Law, the bench had asked for an independent monitoring committee to be set up to review the action plan for rejuvenation in two weeks. When I asked the PRO of Varanasi Smart City project about the eco-restoration, he explained that it meant cleaning without any chemicals. In this process, waste is picked out from the river. He did not entertain further questions on if it has been done on Assi, stating that the corresponding charters are at his workplace.

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Varanasi Nagar Nigam's Response

In its response to the queries raised by The Quint, the Varanasi Nagar Nigam said that the authorities were 'concerned' about the condition of the Assi River and 'a number of remedial measures have been taken which includes water treatment, solid waste management, steel mesh fencing, among others as short-term measures.

"The long-term measures are the creation of infrastructure like sewage treatment plants, pumping stations sewerage network and systematic diversion of all polluting water," reads the statement by Varanasi Nagar Nigam.

It explains that the eco-restoration works are short-term measures that were implemented in the pilot phase in 2018- 19 as a CSR project and now are being implemented in 2020-21, the progress of which got a hit due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On getting the award, Nagar Nigam said, "Our submission to the Smart City Mission, which won the award, is the success story of the short-term measures implemented by us. We are nearing completing the projects meant for the long-term measures that will lead to a permanent solution in the near future." They are confident of achieving this milestone in the year 2021.

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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