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Wastewater Management in India

2022 NOV 21

Mains   > Environment & Ecology   >   Pollution   >   Water pollution


  • According to research findings recently published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, pharmaceutical pollution is a worldwide issue that is likely harming the health of the world’s rivers.
  •  Almost half, or 43 per cent, of the world’s rivers are contaminated with active pharmaceutical ingredients in concentrations that can have disastrous ramifications on health.
  • Given the expanse of the Indian pharmaceutical industry and healthcare industry, a framework that limits the levels of antibiotic residues in the waste waters of pharmaceutical manufacturing units and healthcare facilities is the need of the hour.


  • According to a recent report published by Central Pollution Control Board (March 2021), India’s current water treatment capacity is 27.3% and the sewage treatment capacity is 18.6 % (with another 5.2 % capacity being added).
  • Though India’s waste and sewage treatment capacity is higher than the global average of around 20%, considering the enormity of the problem, it is far from adequate, and without swift measures, there could be serious complications without a prompt response.
  • As per NITI Aayog, overall, 70 percent of the freshwater sources in the country were found to be contaminated.
  • According to a Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) report(2018), 351 polluted river stretches have been identified on 323 rivers in the country.



  • Health impacts:
    • Humans are affected by water pollution and can contract diseases such as hepatitis through faecal matter in water sources.
    • Poor drinking water treatment and unfit water can always cause an outbreak of infectious diseases such as cholera, etc.
    • As already discussed, almost half of the world’s rivers are contaminated with active pharmaceutical ingredients can accelerate the build-up of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) which can have disastrous ramifications on human health.
  • Huge impact on the food chain:
    • Water pollution disrupts the food-chain.
    • Cadmium and lead are some toxic substances found in polluted water >> these pollutants upon entering the food chain through animals (fish when consumed by animals, humans) can continue to disrupt at higher levels.
  • Soil Degradation and impacts on crops:
    • Wastewater is often treated and repurposed for use in irrigation.
    • Chemicals that are harmful to crops may find their way to the soil when the wastewater isn’t properly treated.
    • These chemicals will cause the soil to yield fewer crops at a slower rate. Consider that these crops will eventually be eaten, which can be harmful to humans
    • For instance, a study conducted in 2017 finds that globally 65% of all irrigated areas within 40 km downstream of urban centres (35.9 million hectares) worldwide are affected by untreated wastewater. This puts 885 million global consumers, food vendors, and farmers at serious health risk.
    • 86% of these irrigated croplands were located in five countries: China, India, Pakistan, Mexico, and Iran.
  • Effects on water bodies and aquatic life:
    • Water bodies are generally most at risk to the harmful effects of wastewater. Toxic compounds in the effluent disrupt aquatic ecosystems.
    • When a large amount of biodegradable substances end up in the water, organisms will start to break them down, and they use a lot of dissolved oxygen. Dissolved oxygen is critical for marine life to thrive, and as it becomes depleted, it can be life-threatening for fish.
    • Also, the excess nutrients in waste water cause eutrophication in the water body and gradual deterioration of the water quality.
    • Wastewater may also contain oil and grease that are harder to break down and can settle on the surface of the water. This blocks the light that photosynthetic aquatic plants need and can also suffocate fish.
  • Lack of potable water:
    • The UN says that billions of people around the world have no access to clean water to drink or sanitation, particularly in rural areas.
    • For instance, as per NITI Aayog, overall, 70 percent of the freshwater sources in India were found to be contaminated.
  • Economic impact
    • As per World Bank findings >> "Deteriorating water quality is stalling economic growth and exacerbating poverty in many countries".
    • When biological oxygen demand - the indicator that measures the organic pollution found in water - exceeds a certain threshold, the growth in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the regions within the associated water basins falls by a third.


  • Lack of wastewater treatment plants:
    • The management of wastewater treatment must start with an adequate wastewater treatment infrastructure. However, this very infrastructure is severely lacking in India.
    • According to a recent report published by Central Pollution Control Board (March 2021), India’s current water treatment capacity is only 27.3%.
    • For instance, two of our biggest cities, Delhi and Mumbai, are running less than half of the required number of waste treatment plants.
  • Non-functional water treatment plants:
    • Out of the existing waste treatment plants in India, many are not even functioning. Either they are in severe need of repairs and maintenance or they simply never took off.
    • For example, according to a 2019 research report, most of the sewage treatment plants established under the Ganga Action Plan and Yamuna Action Plan are not working, and out of the 33000 million litres per day (MLD) of waste generated, only 7000 MLD is collected and treated.
  • Policy gaps:
    • Federal jurisdictional ambiguity:
      • Schedule 7 of the Indian constitution identifies water as a State matter, but it is explicitly subjected to the provisions mentioned in the Union List.
      • It enables the Parliament to legislate on regulating and developing inter-state waters in the larger public interest. While the State retains the autonomy to frame laws regarding the use of water within the State on matters like water supply, irrigation, drainage, embankments, water storage, etc.
      • These constitutional mechanisms have resulted in power imbalances between the Centre and the States, creating federal jurisdictional ambiguity.
      • The absence of clearly defined roles and responsibilities of all the concerned stakeholders either results in duplicity of efforts or truancy.
    • Disintegrated approach at state level:
      • This disintegrated approach to wastewater and its fallouts can also be seen within the States.
      • The governance of water resources is further fragmented at local levels, rural and urban, as per the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts.
      • Although a decentralized approach is needed for better assessment and redressal of wastewater issues, but for the efficient functioning of policies and overall development of water bodies, water governance needs to be recognized at all levels.
  • Lack of private partnership:
    • Given the magnitude of the problem, wastewater treatment in India cannot be just government responsibility.
    • The truth is that the government simply does not have the resources to meet the massive demand. The obvious solution is to look for private-public partnership. However, this too is short of the required capacity.


  • The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974:
    • It was the first legislative measure taken to directly address the issue of water pollution and conservation in the country. This Act deals with wastewater discharge as a matter of pollution.This Act provides for establishing Central and State Pollution Control Boards(SPCB)  responsible for the prevention and control of water pollution.
    • SPCBs inspect sewage & trade effluents, wastewater treatment plants, as well as reviews and sets standards for the same.
  • Environment (Protection) Act, 1986 and Water (Prevention & Control of Pollution), Act 1974:
    • As per the Provisions of these Acts >> Industrial units are required to install effluent treatment plants (ETPs) and treat their effluents to comply with stipulated environmental standards before discharging into river and water bodies.
  • National River Conservation Plan:
    • Pollution abatement works taken up under the NRCP include laying of sewerage systems to capture raw sewage flowing into the rivers through open drains and diverting them for treatment and setting up of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) for treating the diverted sewage among others.
  • Namami Gange Programme:
    • It is an Integrated Conservation Mission by the Union Government to accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of National River Ganga.
    • According to the National Mission for Clean Ganga website, 68 sewage treatment plants have been completed in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh under the Namami Gange Programme. Apart from it, 69 sewage treatment management projects have been under implementation.


  • Pre-treatment of wastewater:
    • Wastewater treatment is actually a systematic process and it starts at the very source. For instance, industrial waste or large domestic waste points like a large society/complex must have a sewage treatment plant (STP) system where wastewater goes through some sort of initial treatment before begin dumped into a large plant.
    • This is particularly important for industrial waste, especially for industries dealing with chemical waste.
  • Decentralised wastewater treatment:
    • Decentralised wastewater treatment plants can be set up to accommodate varying degrees of the operational scale.
    • It can be set up in small townships, urban and rural clusters, gated colonies, factories, and industrial parks. The benefit to such solutions is that they can be installed directly on-site, thus treating the wastewater directly at its source.
  • Private partnership in waste water management:
    • By inviting private partnerships in wastewater and sewage management, India can take advantage of better technology, localised systems and efficiency.
    • Private investment can provide smaller towns and villages with the resources they often lack to set up competent wastewater management plants. Also, private entrepreneurs can also be instrumental in managing and maintaining India’s ill-performing STP plants.
  • Uniform laws across states:
    • Only a handful of states such as Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh have adopted wastewater management policies.
    • In the absence of a blanket central mandate and uniform laws across states to govern the untreated wastewater flowing into the water bodies, the efforts of a few states to deal with water pollution are fiddled away.
  • Pricing of treated water:
    • Though setting up treatment plants can be capital intensive, the pricing must be appropriate. It is recommended that the price of treated water remain less than potable and drinking water in order for it to be widely accepted.
    • The value generated from nutrients (such as phosphorus and nitrogen) and biogas energy could offer a suitable financial model to cover the cost of recovery from setting up the treatment plants.
    • For example, organic compounds from sewage can be an abundant source of biogas which can be exploited to generate electricity. Such technologies have already been implemented in the American cities of Gresham, and Oakland. Such models have proven to be financially sound and energy-efficient.

Case studies / Best Practices :

  • Avadi Sewage Treatment Plant
    • The Tamil Nadu Police Housing Corporation (TNPHC) has successfully constructed an off-grid sewage treatment plant (STP) to improve living conditions in the police housing colony in Avadi, a suburb of Chennai.
    • This sewage treatment plant has not only solved the problem of sewage disposal but also provided a pond of treated water for fishing, vegetable cultivation and recharging of groundwater.
    •  It treats 12 lakh litres of sewage every day with no negative discharge, produces manure, recharges groundwater, removes the source of foul odour and waterborne diseases, and beautifies the area.
  • Use of sewage for fish culture:
    • The farmers around Kolkata city are using domestic sewage for fish culture almost a century ago and which is widely used to meet the growing demand of fish in this thickly populated Indian city. The system appears to have started long back although large scale use of sewage for fish culture began in 1930s


Q. "The social, economic, and ecological effects of wastewater have the power to not only cripple the economy but also pose major health risks and cause mayhem to the environment." Discuss the harmful effects of wastewater. Also, examine the challenges associated with waste water management in the country and suggest remedial measures.