A Look at Wastewater Treatment in India

Water management in India is still woefully inadequate. Vast population in the country does not have access to clean drinking water. Even water for agriculture and other purposes falls far short of requirements. In many parts of the nation water management is still confined to the vagaries of monsoon. As a consequence, we swing from droughts to floods from season to season and region to region.

In urban areas the scarcity of water is even more worrying. The densely populated cities with their complex consumption in patterns are often too short of water sources to satisfy the population. Water often comes from hundreds of miles away, from the nearest river. In rural areas, we are largely just dependent on the rains. The status of wastewater treatment in India also falls short of requirement. Needless to say, this is far from ideal.

Wastewater Treatment

Developed, and even developing nations, have long addressed their wastewater treatment problems. A comprehensive treatment plan is an essential part of water management. In the absence of treatment facilities, most of this wastewater flows back into the ecosystem. This can have serious environmental repercussions.

This is because wastewater, by its nature, contains high levels of contaminants. In many cases this will include toxins like chemicals. Even household waste today contains harmful contaminants. Left untreated, all this goes into the nearest drains or back into the soil where it pollutes the groundwater. The drains deposit the waste into rivers. As the river flows, it carries the pollutants with it, contaminating further downstream and at the banks. We already face this severe problem with all our rivers.

However, these negatives can easily be turned into positives with wastewater treatment. Wastewater flows into wastewater plants where it undergoes treatment to remove contaminants. Some plants have an effectiveness of close to completely sterilising the water! Even basic treatment makes this water usable for multiple purposes, such as agriculture, irrigation, household use (other than drinking) and so on.

So, wastewater treatment serves two extremely important functions — reducing pollution of our sources of water and to provide an alternative source of water.

Wastewater Treatment in India

So, what is the state of wastewater treatment in India? Unfortunately, the answer is far from ideal. According to a recent report, the wastewater generation from Class I cities and Class II towns is 38,254 MLD(million litres per day). However, the treatment capacity of our STP plants is at only 11,787 MLD. This means almost 70% of wastewater goes untreated. The treatment for industrial waste shows better figures. But even here, just 60% of the wastewater is treated.

The reason is the far from adequate numbers of STPs in India. In fact, for such a densely populated nation, we have only 269 sewage plants. Many of the smaller towns do not even posses a single operation plants. Add to this the mismanagement of plants and we are faced with a bigger mess. Most of these plants are ill maintained, many not even operational.

It is estimated that around 39% of the operational STPs fail to meet even the general standards as laid down in the Environmental (Protection) Rules that govern discharge levels into streams. The rising population level means that the situation will simply go from bad to worse. Some estimates predict that by 2051 urban wastewater levels will cross 120,000 MLD and rural areas will also generate around 50,000 MLD.

Rising population and shrinking sources of water will only make water worse. Without a comprehensive wastewater treatment plan today, we are facing a sure catastrophe tomorrow.

Why Are We Falling Short?

Given the severity of the problem, we cannot find a solution unless we know where we are going wrong.

  • STPs are expensive set-up, operate and maintain.
  • Most of the STPs operational today suffer from poor maintenance and barely meet the prescribed standards.
  • There are no direct financial return, which means that many municipal bodies pay these scant attention.
  • Most STPs are badly designed and operated.
  • There is severe lack of manpower skilled in operating and maintaining the plants.
  • Frequent power breakdown interrupt the working and eventually effect the efficiency and working of the plants.


Wastewater treatment in India is an essential part of managing our resources efficiently and reducing pollution of our water sources. However, the state of wastewater treatment in India is far from adequate and needs our immediate attention.

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