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Pious But Polluted

October 2003
Pious But Polluted

With pollution from multiple sources reaching alarming levels, the Ganga can no longer be saved by its divinity alone.


BY Fatima Chowdhury

"The land where the Ganges does not flow is likened in a hymn to the sky without the sun, a home without a lamp, a Brahmin without the Vedas." So writes Jean Tavernie in Travel in India.

From the geopolitical to the socio-economic, the Ganges ? popularly known as Ganga ? occupies an integral and sacrosanct place in India's history. From ?Gaumukh', the place where Ganges originates in the Southern Himalayas, to the ?Triveni Sangam' close to Varanasi (Banaras), there are innumerable sites all along the river that are legendary in Hindu history and mythology. Endearingly, the river is often referred to as ?Ganga-ma' [meaning, ?mother Ganga'].

Diana Eck, in her book Banaras: City of Light has this to say: "There are few things on which Hindu India, diverse as it is, might agree. But of the Ganges, India speaks with one voice. The Ganges carries an immense cultural and religious meaning for Hindus of every region and every sectarian persuasion."

A sacred river revered by the Hindus and glorified in mythologies, stories, songs and poems, the Ganges is the very heart and soul of India. A river this dear to a people would be cherished and protected with zeal wouldn't you think? But alas, perhaps it is the very significance of the river in Hindu customs and belief that has and continues to push it to its nadir.

Today, the Ganges is threatened by the very divine prominence it has been accorded by her people. Every year thousands of them congregate on the banks of the river to attend various festivals such as the Sangam, Sagar Mela and Kumbh Mela. This mass of humanity that the river sustains has an environmentally adverse effect on it. Over the years the glaciers that the river emerges from have been decreasing by hundreds of feet and the decline in average snowfall in the region has prevented their replenishment.

According to a number of glaciologists, part of the problem may lie in the burning of fossil fuels by pilgrims who assemble in tents near the glaciers.

Sadly, the reverence given to the river seems to be limited to rituals wherein one takes away from it or ?uses' it, without any thought or consideration for what it does to Ganga-ma. For example, practices such as immersing ashes of the dead in the Ganges may have a divine impetus behind them, but have deadly effects on the river.

Similar callousness is evident all along the Ganga basin, where it is estimated that almost 350 million people reside. As it flows through several towns and cities, untreated human, animal and industrial wastes are discharged into the river. In Kanpur, for example, chromium and other harmful chemicals from the nearby leather industries seep into the river unrestricted.

According to the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF) that launched the Campaign for a Clean Ganga, fecal coliform pollution in several bathing areas is more than 3,000 times above the level acceptable for human beings. Decomposed corpses that have not been cremated properly are left to float in the river. This not only pollutes the sacred waters but also threatens marine and human life.

The Indian authorities have realized that unless serious measures are taken, the water supply of the Ganges will dwindle with time. In 1985 The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was established to clean the Ganges. Several waste treatment facilities were constructed with the help of British and Dutch companies to stop the sewage at a point and redirect the water for treatment. Many electrical crematoria were built for this purpose. But there is a vast difference between the desired goals and the results that materialized.

Almost 17 years later, very little has been accomplished. Some environmentalists believe as much as $600 million has been spent so far to implement the GAP. However, money has been wasted on inappropriate technology. For instance, a continuous supply of power is required to operate the sewage treatment plants. Unfortunately, such power supply is unavailable. As a result the sewage treatment plants have been rendered useless.

The consensus now is that GAP has failed to yield the desired results. M. C. Mehta, a Supreme Court lawyer and activist believes that "there is no political will to clean up the environment." According to him, politicians are in cahoots with industrialists who fund them. Hence there is not much regulation of the polluting industries.

According to Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, President of SMF, "The struggle to clean our river is ultimately a battle about information rather than technology. It's a battle to create a climate of public awareness to break through the firewall of official indifference in our country." The reality is that we need to manage our waters more efficiently and promote greater environmental consciousness and responsibility amongst the people.

In the Ganges lies our future water resource. A failure to protect the Ganges could prove detrimental to our own lives, as water scarcity becomes the crisis of the future. Saving the Ganges is not an option but a necessity. If we consider the Ganges to be holy, then why are we failing so miserably to respect it?

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