Surat gets it right on water

Written by Isher Judge Ahluwalia | Updated: May 29 2013, 09:14am hrs
It has emerged as a model of response, resilience and sustainability in the face of a challenging jal pareeksha

Surat, the city of diamonds, textiles, and zari was earlier known as Suryapur. Located about 250 km north of Mumbai on the left bank of River Tapi, it is the second largest city in Gujarat and eighth largest in India. Surat has a habitable area of over 200 sq km as of 2013 (the city limit got extended in the year 2006 from 112.3 sq km to 324.6 sq km but not all of the additional area is habitable so far). With GDP growth of over 11 per cent per annum in the last 10 years, it is one of the fastest growing cities of India.

Rapid growth of cities is usually expected to generate urban sprawl and deterioration in public service delivery. Not so in Surat as was earlier reported in this column, Surat: building a city that cares (Indian Express, September 29, 2010), and it remains as true today. Surat has not only managed growth with advance planning but has also emerged as a model of response, resilience and sustainability in the face of a challenging jal pareeksha (testing by water) with the floods of 1994. The incredible story of Surats transformation from the city of plague in 1994 to one of the three cleanest cities of India has been told by many.


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When I visited Surat last Friday, almost 20 years after the deluge, it was clear to me that the lessons learnt from the experience of 1994 and then again of 2006 have not been forgotten. The leadership of S.R. Rao, then commissioner, Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) and now commerce secretary, government of India, in bringing about the major turnaround is still remembered by one and all in Surat with affection and reverence. The institutional legacy that he left at SMC and the motivation that he generated in the Suratis has sustained the process of change that he initiated. The challenging task of SMC has been made a little lighter by the enthusiastic support and cooperation of the public, the elite, the NGOs and the political class.

Managing and disposing of a citys wastegarbage as well as sewageis crucial for creating the basic conditions for public health. If garbage in Indian cities is left at dumpsites on street corners for days unattended (not to speak of scientific disposal), if open defecation is forced upon people because they have no private toilets and also have no access to community toilets that actually function, if a sewerage network is missing, if sewage is not properly treated in sewage treatment plants before being discharged into nallahs, rivers or other water bodies, if storm water drains are not designed and maintained to harvest the water run-off and take the surplus efficiently from the streets to a water body, if covered trenches being used for the purpose of drainage get clogged and are not regularly cleaned especially before the rainy season, then we must recognise that our urban areas will head towards the plight of Surat of 1994.

But present day Surat has left that surat (literally meaning appearance) far behind and is working not only on its integrated waste management practices but also on a mission to take pre-emptive adaptation measures to mitigate the impact of climate change. Since the Tapi river is the only reliable source of water for Surat and the projections are that the available water is likely to be inadequate for meeting the summer demands of Surat from around 2015 onwards, the Suratis recognise the importance of recycling domestic waste water, along with demand management and water conservation. The Surat City Resilience Strategy is a reflection of this recognition on the part of SMC.

What impressed me most about the approach of SMC was their attention to the nitty-gritty of the extension and maintenance of the sewerage network, and augmentation/upgradation of a highly efficient and almost comprehensive system of treatment of waste water, on the one hand, and their focus on longer-term sustainability through a series of initiatives using biogas to generate electricity, generating windmill energy and experimenting with generation of solar energy, building a tertiary treatment plant to generate revenue through the sale of water to industry, setting up a common effluent treatment plant through public-private partnership in Pandesara, and a non-incineration based solid waste-to-energy plant (expected to be commissioned by June 2014) using state-of-the-art Concord Blue gasification technology to produce clean energy, on the other.

Among the feast of initiatives on sustainable development, we focus on SMCs work on waste water treatment and its use of sewage treatment plants (STPs) to generate electricity from biogas. This enables SMC to meet some of its electricity demand for its multiple operations in the city and also to contribute to a better environment.

Lying in an almost flat terrain poses a special challenge to sewerage and storm water drainage systems for Surat. In the last 10 years, considerable effort has been directed at developing a storm water drainage system, but even so, as of 2012-13, the coverage is only 64 per centbetter than in most Indian cities, but not good enough. The JNNURM has played an important role in helping augment the storm water drainage network in the old city area and in developing networks in the Vesu urban settlement and in the New East Zone areas.

Waste water treatment in Surat covered as much as 92 per cent of the population in 2006 but the very large expansion in city limits brought the coverage down to 75 per cent in that year. Through concerted effort, Surat has managed to increase its waste water treatment coverage of population to over 90 per cent in 2011-12, once again. This compares with an average of 30 per cent for all Indian cities. Navi Mumbai is the only city in India that treats 100 per cent of its waste water before disposing the same.

As the network of sewer lines and rising mains (pressure pipes to transport the sewage from the lowest point of the sewerage network through pumping to the treatment plant and/or the outfall point) has increased to 1,428 km in 2012-13, 35 sewage pumping stations and nine STPs have been put in place to treat waste water. Once again, the JNNURM has made a major contribution through funding projects worth R432.2 crore for augmenting sewerage network and augmenting/upgrading STPs. SCADA (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition), at a project cost of R30.6 crore, was also a gift of the JNNURM for the old city area for operating its system of 23 pumping stations and six STPs. It enables monitoring and operating the system from a central office, which leads to significant saving in energy consumption and efficient operations.

Converting sewage gas from STPs to generate electricity has been a major initiative of sustainable development on the part of SMC. Altogether, seven STPs are producing 3.5 MW of electricity in Surat. Another 11.6 MW is generated through windmills and an additional 8.4 MW from the same source will come on stream by June next year. M.K. Das, municipal commissioner, SMC proudly informed me that 30 per cent of SMCs peak demand (46 MW) for electricity is being met through these green initiatives.

All in all, Surat has come a long way. Its vulnerabilities have not vanished, but the approach of the Suratis is one of grit and determination to prepare for any challenge that may come their way. If Surat can do it, why not others

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is Chairperson, ICRIER, and also former Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure Services