When the Bagmati Area Sewage Construction/Rehabilitation Project was announced five years ago, there were only a handful who believed that the project would restore the Bagmati to its original pristine condition. With a mandate to clean up the Bagmati from Sundarijal to Chobhar, there was a lot the Project could do to transform the Valley\'s principal river from the sewer it is at present.
Three projects chiefs and Rs 310 million later, the Bagmati remains as polluted as ever. But things may be about to change for the better. At least for the stretch that flows by the holy Pashupati Temple Complex. In its first and second phases, the Project concentrated on the Bagmati above the Pashupati area, given the religious significance the river has to Hindus as it flows by the cremation area at Aryaghat.
The plan is to set up a sewage treatment plant beyond the Gujeswori temple at Tamraganga, to which all the sewers between Gokarna and Mitra Park will be connected. (The sewers empty directly into the Bagmati at present.) The treated water was to be carried through a 522-metre tunnel under the Mrigasthali hill and released into the Bagmati at Tilganga. Work on the tunnel was begun by a Nepali company but it later pulled out citing lack of technical know how. The Chinese company that took over has so far completed 227 metres, and construction work is going on at both ends of the tunnel.
Initially, it had been suggested that during the dry season the treated water from the plant would be used to flush the Bagmati. But the idea was dismissed after the Mul Bhatta (head priest) of Pashupatinath opposed it saying the treated water may be clean but not "pure and holy".
Meanwhile, the project cost has risen from its earlier estimate of Rs460 to Rs 500 million, and the deadline for the two phases has been extended by a year from the original July 2000. Project officials are confident they will be able to complete the work in time. Says Bidur Poudel, chairman of the project, "All the work of the first and second phase will be completed by early next year. The tunnel will be completed by next July and the treatment plant will be operational by March."
What is not clear, however, is how the flow will be maintained after the project is completed and the Bagmati cleaned up. The water level is never particularly high above the Pashupati, mainly because Bagmati water is siphoned off at Sundarijal for public distribution by the Water Supply Corporation.
While the project insists alternatives such as boring deep wells are being looked into, it does not look particularly promising. Which is why a second scheme, the Ganga Aryaghat Project, comes almost as a complement. The Ganga project has been initiated by industrialist Binod Chaudhary, who was shocked by the state of the Bagmati when he had to cremate his mother earlier this year.
Says Bhutan Tuladhar, the team leader, there has to be constant flow of water in Bagmati. "We plan to clean the Bagmati water. We will be bringing water from the Dhap area (in the Indrawati watershed near Sundarijal) and mix it to the Shyalmati river (a tributary of the Bagmati). The second thing we\'re doing is to build another water reservoir above the existing one and bring that water through a 13-km pipeline to Aryaghat." says Tuladhar.
With two projects working towards similar ends, there is some confusion. But Tuladhar brushes it aside. "There shouldn\'t be any confusion regarding our work as we\'re concentrating only on Aryaghat area," he says. "Our working area is from Suryaghat and Raj-Rajeshwarighat, both within the Pashupati complex."
Lately, the Chaudhary project has also come under flak for naming the project "Ganga", after his mother. But Binod Chaudhary feels the name issue has been unnecessarily blown up. "A project is always temporary and its name would cease to exist once it is complete. After all, we are not proposing that we rename Aryaghat itself."
Amidst work on the two projects, there are some who want to look beyond and offer a more comprehensive plan. Among them is Gopal Shiwakoti "Chintan", who says there should be wider involvement for a cleaner Bagmati. "Since it is also a heritage site, UNESCO should be included and there must be a master plan which cover all aspects of Bagmati," he says.
Another activist, Hutaram Baidya, involved in the "Better Bagmati" campaign for some years now, says, "Apart from the master plan, we should also think about the sustainability of these projects after their completion."
The bigger challenge for the Bagmati Sewerage Construction/Rehabilitation Project will be to clean the Bagmati flow throughout the Valley. Project head Poudel says, "After the completion of the first and second phase, the project will go for the third and fourth, that is, from Tilganga to Chobhar gorge."
Given its track record, nothing much should be expected of Project anytime soon, but at least there is a distinct possibility that devotees will soon be able to take a truly holy dip at Aryaghat.