Banibrata Choudhury, Senior Research Associate and Shilpi Chakraborty, NIUA

India has 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only 4 per cent of its water resources. A large number of Indians face high to extreme water stress. This highlights the importance of addressing the issue of pollution of freshwater, write Banibrata Choudhury, Senior Research Associate and Shilpi Chakraborty, NIUA.


Although urbanisation is now a global phenomenon, its effects are more apparent in developing nations. However, rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation and development activities have an ill effect on the precious water resources, both in quantitative and qualitative terms. Water resources are also directly associated with the impacts of climate change. The SDGs were adopted to allow for this growth and development to occur in a sustainable way. Also, India has 18 per cent of the world’s population, but only 4 per cent of its water resources. A large number of Indians face high to extreme water stress.¹ This highlights the importance of addressing the issue of pollution of freshwater.

It is estimated that around 70 per cent of surface water in India is unfit for consumption.² Also, the health and economic impacts of water pollution are quite critical. Annually, about 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases, 1.5 million children die of diarrhoea and 73 million working days are lost leading to an economic burden of $600 million a year.³ Also, as per the latest assessment by the Central Pollution Control Board, number of polluted river stretches in the country are 345, out of which 45 are critically polluted. Both these numbers have gone up from their last assessment. Against this backdrop, India needs to take serious actions towards sustainable urban development focusing on the SDG target 6.3, which focuses on improving water quality by reducing discharge of untreated wastewater, increasing recycling and reuse of treated wastewater and restoration and preservation of water bodies.

Also Read | Wastewater Management in Urban India

India: Urbanisation and river system

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, aspiring to become a $5 trillion economy by 2026 and $40 trillion by 2047 when India marks 100 years since its independence. In this process, the country is urbanising at a rapid pace. The number of inhabitants in Indian cities is estimated to have increased almost fourfold between 1970 and 2018, from 109 million to 460 million.⁴ Rapid urbanisation in the country is evident from the fact that urban population in India has increased from 10.8 per cent in 1901 to 31.2 per cent in 2011 and similar is the case with the number of cities in India.⁵ Historically, cities have grown over the banks of rivers. India is home to more than 400 rivers, which either drain into the Arabian sea or the Bay of Bengal. Hence, every city of the country lies on the basin of one river or the other. Almost 60 per cent of the class I cities and 80 per cent of the million plus cities in India are river cities. This highlights the importance of maintaining healthy rivers for improved quality of life in these urban centres.

Figure 1

Figure 1 Decadal trend of sewage generation and treatment capacity in Class-I cities and Class-II towns

India generates approximately 62,000 MLD of domestic sewage from its urban centres. There are approximately 1400 sewage treatment plants (STPs) operated primarily by municipal corporations, with an actual treatment capacity of close to 27,000 MLD, i.e., merely 37 per cent of generation.⁶ Remaining part of this wastewater generated ends up being drained into rivers and waterbodies. Other important issues in this context are that many of the existing sewage treatment plants are either non- functional or not being utilised to their installed capacities.⁷,⁸ Approximately 40 per cent of the capacity of STPs is not functional.⁹

As per the 2008-09 estimates of CPCB, out of 38,254 MLD of sewage generated in class I cities and class II towns, only 11,787 MLD was treated. But different cities are also slowly moving towards the utilisation of treated wastewater. Apart from using treated wastewater for irrigation, landscaping, horticulture, construction etc, cities like Chennai, Delhi, Jamshedpur, Nagpur, Surat etc are using this water in industries, thermal power plants, washing of vehicles etc. Though government missions like NMCG, AMRUT and some others have facilitated construction of STPs and several water rejuvenation programmes, most STPs do not operate on adequate efficiency.

Key gap areas

Monitoring is the key to addressing the issue of pollution of rivers. As per the online database of CPCB ENVIS, more than half of the metropolitan cities do not have regular and periodic monitoring of the water quality of their rivers. Another important issue in this context is that water quality is monitored mostly for the major and some of the medium rivers. But at present, no monitoring mechanism exists for many smaller rivers. For instance, in Kanpur city, water quality is monitored for river Ganga, but river Pandu, a tributary of Ganga, does not have any water quality monitoring station. Similarly, Varanasi, the spiritual centre of India, lacks information on the river’s water quality despite having its second syllable derived from the Assi. The city only monitors water quality of the rivers Ganga and Varuna. But most of these smaller rivers, being tributaries of some or other major rivers, become equally important to be monitored and in most cases, these are the ones which are under tremendous pressure of pollution, reduction in baseflow, floodplain encroachment etc.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Million-plus cities and their sewage treatment scenario

Urban lakes and waterbodies are also an important source of surface water (e.g. for cities like Bhopal, Udaipur etc.) But urban water bodies are also being harmed by the ill effects of pollution due to improper management of both solid and liquid wastes. In many cases, urban water bodies also become hotspots for solid waste dumping, making them vulnerable to encroachment. For instance, the municipal corporation has been disposing of solid garbage in Guwahati’s Deepor Beel since 2006. Solid trash is dumped even in Chennai’s Pallikaranai wetland. Heavy metal concentration can be found in lakes in Nagpur and Bhopal and the Hussainsagar lake in Hyderabad after idol immersion every year.¹⁰

Also, regarding pollution prevention, the focus has mostly been on construction of STPs and laying of sewer networks. But the operational efficiency of these critical infrastructures has always been a matter of question. Also, in lines of the SDG 6.1 and 6.2, India is striving hard towards provision of universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation for all. Under Jal Jeevan Mission (Urban), universal coverage of water supply to all households through functional taps in all 4,378 statutory towns and providing coverage of sewage/septage management in 500 AMRUT cities have been targeted.¹¹ But with the current gap in wastewater generation and treatment infrastructure, situations are going to be more challenging. Although India’s policy and regulating frameworks acknowledge the necessity of wastewater recycling and reuse, there hasn’t been much in the way of detailed benchmarks.

What is India doing for sustainability?

The government has been actively developing policies and supporting initiatives to move the nation toward a circular economy recently. A number of policies and regulations have been announced in the domain of municipal solid and liquid waste in order to promote scientific waste processing and resource recovery. With the introduction of Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) in 2014, the circular economy agenda for municipal solid & liquid waste gained major impetus at the national, state, and local levels. The Mission has been effective in raising urban India’s solid waste treatment capacity from 18 per cent in 2014 to 68 per cent today, thanks to the 3R principles (reduce, reuse, recycle) (including recycling).

Water resource protection is one of the main benefits of recycling water, since it lessens water pollution discharges and the need to extract water from natural practices. Out of the more than 54 million communities, 32 have successfully recycled and reused wastewater for commercial, irrigational, and agricultural reasons, whereas the remaining 22 have not done so. The National Water Policy-2012 promotes the reuse and recycling of treated water in accordance with established requirements. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has also released a variety of recommendations for urban cleanliness, including wastewater recycling and reuse. Water recycling and reuse is extensively covered in the 2013 Manual on Sewerage and Sewage Treatment Systems (CPHEEO 2013), and its rules serve as national standards.

The Ministry of Power, under its 2016 Tariff Policy, requires thermal power plants located within 50 km radius of a sewage treatment plant (STP) of a ULB to mandatorily use treated wastewater. Also, various states like Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab etc have developed state-specific policies for reuse of treated wastewater. National Mission for Clean Ganga has developed frameworks on Urban River Management Plan, Safe Reuse of Treated Wastewater. Key focus of these plans is to improve the quality of the urban rivers, majorly through management of liquid waste of the city. But cities need to proactively come forward to adopt these frameworks. A National Water Framework, which serves as an overarching set of basic principles managing water concerns by the Central government, the state governments, and the local governing bodies, must be integrated into the current water and wastewater policies and programmes. This ought to pave the way for crucial legislation on wastewater governance throughout the nation.

Figure 3

Figure 3: Map showing the state wise waste-water treatment scenario in urban centers in India

Keeping up with innovations

The processing of wastes may be restricted by convectional wastewater technology, which would exacerbate the already existing issues with potable water across the world. Therefore, it is imperative to create innovative techniques to lessen the impact of wastewater on the ecosystem, which is already deteriorating. It cannot be overlooked how some cities in India are also taking unique and innovative approaches to manage their river pollution. For example, RENEU technology for bioremediation of drains developed by NEERI, vertical STP by the Namami Gange in Rishikesh, and nature-based/ blue green solutions for treatment of wastewater.

Way forward

Access and treatment are only the beginning and conclusion of the problem of urban sanitation. Even though it isn’t stated explicitly in the SDGs, securing the whole cycle of urban sanitation, including safe and dependable collection and conveyance is necessary, if the targeted goal is enhanced public health. While more treatment facilities are required, there are also other improvements that must be made at every stage of the cycle, such as the safe containment of untreated excreta and the prevention of leaks into the open, routine and safe septic tank emptying and desludging, a switch to mechanical equipment for emptying (preventing manual handling), safe conveyance, plugging of exfiltration in the sewerage networks, and so on.

Also Read | SDG 6.3—Water Quality and Waste Water

The most typical method of wastewater management in Indian cities has been to dump the pollutants and garbage onto surrounding peri-urban and rural regions in order to relocate them. Urban India will need to take on the issue of planning and executing waste management innovations utilising regional (urban- to-rural continuum) frameworks over the future years, as increasing citizen awareness, judicial monitoring, and improved enforcement have indicated in many regions.

1. World Bank Group- Brief on World Water Day 2022: How India is addressing its water needs (2022)
2. Water pollution is killing millions of Indians. Here’s how technology and reliable data can change that, World Economic Forum (2019)
3. Water contamination and pollution – A growing challenge for health and biodiversity by Aarti Kelkar Khambete (2021)
4. Cities as Engines of Growth- Executive Summary by NITI Aayog and Asian Development Bank (2022)
5. India’s Urban System: Sustainability and Imbalanced Growth of Cities by Abdul Shaban, Karima Kourtit and Peter Nijkamp (2020)
6. Mitali Nikore and Mahak Mittal, “Arresting India’s Water Crisis: The Economic Case for Wastewater Use,” ORF Issue Brief No. 453, March 2021, Observer Research Foundation
7. National Inventory of sewage Treatment Plants by CPCB (2021)
9. National Framework on the Safe Reuse of Treated Water by National Mission for Clean Ganga (2021)
10. two-sides-of-the-same-coin-shrinking-water-bodies-and-urbanfloods-72702


Be a part of Elets Collaborative Initiatives. Join Us for Upcoming Events and explore business opportunities. Like us on Facebook , connect with us on LinkedIn and follow us on Twitter, Instagram.

Related Article