Pollution Abatement in Kalyani River: “A Sustainability Game”

The National Mission Clean Ganga (NMCG) aims to rejuvenate River Ganga and its tributaries. It is an enormous task that essentially comprises two components: 1) pollution abatement, and 2) increase river flows, specifically in the dry season.

A visit to Kalyani River in Rudrapur—a city in Utterakhand with a population of over 200,000 and lots of industries—in August 2022 was insightful.

Kalyani is a small river. We visited three sites: 1) near the headwaters, 2) the location where the river leaves the industrial area, some 7 kilometers downstream of site 1, and 3) a location in the middle of a large urban area with high population density, some 2 km downstream of site 2.

No point to comment on the below pictures. They convey the scale of the challenge ahead.

Kalyani – pristine head waters
Kalyani – just downstream of the industrial area – some 7 km downstream from the location in photo 1
Kalyani – within the urban area – some 2 km downstream of the location in photo 2

Evidently, Kalyani is a dirty and heavily polluted river. But the story is bigger. In fact, an effort was made to reduce industrial pollution and industries spent substantial funds on establishing treatment plants. This is mandatory in large parts of India, which actively pursues a policy of ‘zero discharge’ (of waste).

But the treatment plants just do not work right now. What happened?

Google Earth image (2022)

Reportedly, there is a blame game going on. Industries claim that most of the pollution is caused by untreated liquid waste and solid waste from the domestic population (non-point source pollution). This may be the case for point 3 but clearly not for point 2. After all, a Google Earth image shows that there are few domestic dwellings in the industrial area.

The image also shows that there are over a hundred industries—from small to large. I think this provides a clue to what has happened. With so many players, it is convenient from an individual perspective to ignore the environmental regulations and go for profit maximization (or cost minimization). Even more so when you expect that law enforcement is weak and water agencies do not have the tools (or time) to pinpoint the exact location of a point-source pollution. And when one industry pollutes—and gets away with it—others will soon follow. It is a vicious cycle. Before you know, individual rationality will lead everyone to pollute at the expense of the collective well-being. It is, unfortunately, a plausible scenario.

Kalyani river highlights the tension between individual selfish behavior and collective interests. It therefore represents a prisoner’s dilemma with many players. Unfortunately, without effective mechanisms to ensure compliance to environmental regulations, environmental pollution has become the dominant strategy. After all, who wants to be the last industry to clean its effluent (at a substantial cost) only to discharge it into a heavily polluted river?

In one paper I read, a game theorist called this the “Sustainability Game”. It’s an apt description.

Ganga rejuvenation will need to find a solution for the Sustainability Game and associated ‘free-rider’ problem. A few thoughts:

  • Government regulation is required since the dominant strategy for all players is to pollute; most people are aware of this; nevertheless, most ongoing interventions are still concerned with ‘hard’ measures related to pollution abatement infrastructure; at this point in the process to rejuvenate the Ganga, institutional measures may be more critical
  • Effective (and relatively quick) law enforcement is key; without it, Ganga rejuvenation is a difficult proposition
  • Effective law enforcement may require ‘defensible’ water quality data that will stand up in a court of law, since it is likely that (some) industries will sue environmental regulators if their operations are suspended
  • The above points to the importance of ‘sequencing’; measures should be introduced in the proper order to be effective; for instance, do not force industries to invest in treatment facilities until a very effective compliance mechanism is established (that includes the capacity to win court cases and get high-quality water data, among others)
  • Ensure that not a single (large) polluter ‘gets away with it’, lest it discourages everybody else to invest in treatment facilities etc.; when it comes to environmental pollution, the free rider problem is always present
  • Probably best to start upstream and do not move downstream until a particular reach—or tributary—is completely clean; else individual polluters will not see the point to spend financial resources on waste treatment, become cynical, and look for ways to dodge regulations; it will make enforcement of environmental regulations even more difficult.

The Kalyani scenario provides an object lesson in what not to do. In this scenario, industries were encouraged to invest in treatment plants, but no effective mechanisms were in place to enforce compliance to the ‘zero waste’ policy. Free riders soon prevailed, and the river remains heavily polluted. As one stakeholder stated: “lots of money was wasted on ETPs”.  It is an unhappy story.

The Urban Zone

Cleaning the river at point 3 requires a different approach. It is an area with very high population density. Among the main problems here is encroachment of the alluvial zone up to the river. There is literally no space for sceptic tanks, drainage systems, or a solid waste collection system. Consequently, waste is dumped directly into the river.

Hence cleaning the river starts with addressing riverbank encroachment. This is admittedly a very difficult undertaking. But is there an alternative?

As discussed in the previous paragraph, it will be very difficult to convince polluters further downstream (of the urban area) to make investments to achieve ‘zero discharge’ if the river remains heavily polluted with solid waste and liquid discharge from the urban area.

Further, the alluvial zone close to the river—now densely built-up without essential infrastructure—is generally vulnerable to flooding, which causes additional pollution and leads to public health risks and safety concerns during (periodic) flood emergencies that must be addressed by city administrators.

Floodplain regeneration in urban areas creates green spaces for recreation, can help in buffering floods, recharges groundwater, etc. It is an essential step in rejuvenating the river. Moreover, the alluvial zone is public land. Hence, in the final analysis, removing encroachment—while undoubtedly very difficult—seems unavoidable in the Ganga rejuvenation effort.


Carrozzo Magli, A.; Della Posta, P.; Manfredi, P. The Tragedy of the Commons as a Prisoner’s Dilemma. Its Relevance for Sustainability Games. Sustainability 2021, 13, 8125.

Romagny B., Lobry C., Canalis-Durand M. Tragedy of the Commons and Prisoner’s Dilemma. Document de travail du groupement de recherche en économie quantitative d’Aix-Marseille (GREQAM), n° 97A20, 1997, 16 p.