1. Weight of the Dead

Topics covered from the syllabus:

GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.

Context: Many COVID-infected dead bodies were found in the Ganga river and its banks in both the first and the second waves of the COVID-19. This has the potential to spread the contamination of diseases as well as disturb the aquatic life in the river.

Prelims Focus

Geo Textiles: These are the synthetic fabrics used to control the melting rate of glaciers.

They have high reflectivity to reflect the incoming and solar radiation and reduce the rate of melting of glaciers.

They have been used by Italy to cover Presena glacier each summer since 2008. Similarly, China used the blankets in the Sichuan province in 2021.

Ganga River:

•    Importance of Ganga River: Ganga river basin is the largest river basin in India. It spans 11 states and covers an area of almost 29% of the landmass of the country. It is also the most populous river basin in the world, with about 43% of the Indian population depending on it for its water needs.

o    Similarly, it is also home to a range of biodiversity, including 143 species of fish, 90 amphibians and several birds.

•    Holy Ganges: The river holds special importance in the day to day life of the people on its banks. Many ceremonies including the first tonsure of child and cremation of the dead bodies are undertaken on its banks. Therefore, it is considered a holy river.

•    Deterioration of the River: The river has suffered deterioration due to various factors:

Huge Population leading to wastewater discharge

Increased Urbanisation

Industrial discharge including the leather industry in Kanpur

Absence of proper treatment of wastewater before discharge

•    Effect of COVID on Ganga: Dead bodies of many COVID patients as well as other deceased were released in the Ganga river during the lockdown. It happened at multiple points including in Kanpur, Varanasi and Patna. It has led to multiple concerns:

o    Fear of the Spread of pandemic: Although WHO has denied water as a medium of transmission for COVID, it has not been ruled out by the scientific community in toto. Therefore, the spread of the pandemic can lead to a faster rise in the spread of the pandemic in the community.

o    Spread of other diseases: Even if COVID is not spread through the river, there is a possibility of decomposition of the bodies in the river. This might lead to a rapid increase in bacterial infections. The condition would be exacerbated amid the monsoon season. This is because many bodies which have been buried on the river banks would be unearthed as a consequence of surface runoff.

o    Transmission to the Aquatic Animals: Cases of the spread of the virus to the animals have been reported in the media. For e.g. a Lioness died at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai. Also, in the second quarter (April to June) of 2021, approximately 20 incidents of COVID infection to the Lions and Lionesses have been reported in the country. Therefore, the possibility of transmission to aquatic animals cannot be denied in the future.

o    Food Security: Fishes from the river form an important source of food for the people living along the banks of the river Ganga. The spread of the pandemic to the aquatic ecosystem has the ability to disrupt the food chain of the marine ecosystem. This can cause food insecurity for the people in the nearby areas.

Reasons for Body Dumping in the River:

•    Traditional Burial Practices: As stated above, Ganga river has been traditionally accorded a holy status in Hinduism. Therefore, pyre burning on the banks of the river, discharging the ashes in the river as well as the direct release of the dead body in the river are considered liberating for the spirit of the individual.

•    Lack of Adequate infrastructure:  Deaths due to COVID led to the burdening of not only the health infrastructure but also the crematoria, which have a limited capacity. Media reports indicated a long wait time for burning the pyres and burying the dead, leading people to search for alternatives.

•    Expensive Rituals: Just like the essential day to day items, COVID times saw a rise in the prices of items used in burning or burying the dead, like cloth, coffin, wood etc. At the same time, the loss of jobs left the poor with no option but to substitute the graveyards with the river.

•    Fear of Contracting the Pandemic from the Crematorium: Another cause of concern for the relatives of the deceased was the probability of contracting the diseases from the dead bodies in the crematorium.

•    Lack of Awareness: Due to lack of education and the absence of proper information system regarding COVID, people do not understand the consequences of releasing the dead bodies in the river. There is a need to leverage the Ganga Praharis to make the people understand the undesired effects of dumping dead bodies in the river.

Initiatives to improve the River Ganga:

•    Namami Gange Mission: The mission was started by the Union Government in 2014 to restore the cultural, social, economic and ecological value of the Ganga river. Under the mission, the following bodies have been formed to rejuvenate the river:

o    National Ganga Council: It is the governing body, chaired by the Prime Minister. It has the overall responsibility to supervise the various government schemes and initiatives formed to look into the cleaning of the Ganga river. It is formed under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

o    National Mission for Clean Ganga: It is the implementation arm of the Mission. It has a two-tier management structure with a Governing Council and an Executive Committee.

•    Ganga Praharis: They are the citizen volunteers looking into the conservation of aquatic species and restoration of the ecosystem services in the Ganga Basin. Ganga Praharis are appointed by the Wildlife Institute of India under the ‘Biodiversity Conservation and Ganga Rejuvenation’ project, which was started in 2014. The volunteers also look to enhance public awareness about the threats to the aquatic ecosystem in the River Ganga and will contribute to conducting the population census of aquatic animals.

2. Inefficient as Always


GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.

GS-3: Infrastructure: Energy, Ports, Roads, Airports, Railways etc.


Context: Despite the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), many thermal power plants have not cut down on freshwater consumption. This is harmful to the environment and questions the sustainability of the power plants.


•    Ministry: The guidelines were issued by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). They were issued under the Environment Protection Act, 1986.

•    Objective: Among others, the objective of issuing the guidelines was to curtail water usage in the thermal power plants.

•    Water Usage: Thermal power plants consume water for four major uses:

Generation of steam from water to move the turbines

Condensation of steam to form water

Mixing of coal ash and its disposal in the form of slurry

Domestic usage

•    Norms: With reference to the water usage, the thermal power plants were divided into three parts:

o    Plants using seawater for water needs: They were completely exempted from the guidelines. The amendment to exempt them was issued six months after the guidelines.

o    Plants using freshwater but installed before 1st January 2017: They had to limit their water consumption rate to 3.5 cubic metres per Megawatt-hour (cu. m/MWh).

o    Plants using freshwater but installed after 1st January 2017: This category of thermal power plants had to limit their water usage to 3 cu. m/MWh. Earlier, this limit was 2.5, which was later revised to 3 cu. m/MWh.

•    Zero Discharge: Also, these plants must recycle their wastes within the power plant and no waste should be discarded in any water body or in any other way.

•    Reporting: The guidelines mandate filing of an annual report by the power plant, which contains the water consumption of the plant along with fuel consumption and emissions. This report shall be submitted to the state pollution control board. Later, the Central Pollution Control Board asked the power plants to file the report every quarter.


•    Major Source of Pollution: Thermal power plants are considered a major source of pollution. For example, they utilize almost 70 % of the total freshwater used by the industry sector in India. Also, the emissions from the plants have a major impact on the air pollution of the region.

•    Disturbance to the Aquatic life: Thermal power plants either use the cooling tower for recycling the water to be used for rotating the turbine or they suck the surface water from a nearby water body before returning it back to the source. Releasing the hot water in the water body raises the temperature of the water body and has the potential to disturb the aquatic life. This is because aquatic life is not accustomed to large fluctuations in temperature.

•    Waste Leakage: As stated above, the new thermal power plants must recycle their water as well as not allow such water to enter any water body. However, leakage of water from the ash ponds and overflows are rampant in the industry and leads to contamination in the environment.

•    The issue is complicated by the lack of adequate monitoring by the government agencies. It is difficult to ascertain that out of 42 freshwater using plants established after 1st Jan 2017, how many actually practice zero discharge.

•    Inefficient Water Usage: Almost half of the power plants are in the water stressed districts of the country. During the summer season, they are closed down to tide over the water shortage. If the plants limit their water usage as per the 2015 guidelines, it will be helpful in continuous running of the plants even during the period of water shortage. At the same time, it will allow water availability for irrigation and domestic use of the people.

•    Non-Compliance of Guidelines: It was found in a study that the average water consumption in the non-compliant thermal power plants was over 4 cu. m/MWh. Some of them reported water consumption to the tune of 12 cu. m/MWh.

•    Laxity in Enforcement of the Guidelines: Instead of enforcing the guidelines, the Ministry has continuously diluted them. For e.g. the power plants using seawater (and not freshwater) were exempted from the guidelines. Similarly, Ministry increased the limit for water consumption from 2.5 cubic metres/ MWh to 3 cm/MWh.

o    Similarly, the deadlines have also been extended to accommodate delays in upgradation of power plants. For e.g. the earlier deadline for enforcement of the guidelines was in 2017, which was extended indefinitely.

•    Under-reporting: The guidelines mandate annual reporting of the emissions and quarterly reporting of the water usage data of the thermal power plants. However, as per a study conducted by an NGO, many of them underreport the water usage, by not including the water usage of domestic processes as well as sluicing the coal-ash.

•    Inconsistent Formatting: Another issue in reporting is the lack of a consistent format in the sector. This makes comparisons difficult for the journalists.


•    COVID has had multi-dimensional effects on the economy and society of the country, with the aquatic life being the latest victim of the pandemic. However, dumping dead bodies is more of an anthropological act, rather than an act of nature and needs better monitoring from the government, before it leads to irreversible damage to the aquatic ecosystem.

•    Thermal power will continue to be the backbone of energy infrastructure in the country in the coming years. However, the energy sector in India is in the need of a complete overhaul in the interest of environmental sustainability in the country. This would mean better monitoring and increased strictness in the implementation of the guidelines by the concerned Ministries.

Practice Question

1.  Despite spending Billions of Rupees, the government has not been able to restore the cleanliness in the Holy Ganga river. Analyze, while throwing light on the government initiatives in the direction.

2.  Discuss the recent initiatives taken by the Government to decrease the harmful effects of Thermal power sector on the Environment in the country. Also, throw light on the challenges faced by the thermal power sector as well as the outlook for the sector.

UPSC Previous Years Questions

1.  The Namami Gange and National mission for clean Ganga (NMCG) programmes and causes of mixed results from the previous schemes. What quantum leaps can help preserve the river Ganga better than incremental inputs?                                                                                                                                     (GS3 - 2015)

2.  With growing energy needs should India keep on expanding its nuclear energy programme? Discuss the facts and fears associated with nuclear energy.                                                                                     (GS3 - 2018)

3.  Access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy is the sine qua non to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Comment on the progress made in India in this regard.                    (GS3 - 2018)