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The Dirt of Ganges

April 22, 2015

The Ganga River or the Ganges, as it is internationally known, has great significance to the people of India. It originates in the Himalayas as five headstreams that together merge to form the Ganga. The river runs for a length of 2,510 kilometres before finally terminating into the Bay of Bengal. Just before, it unites with the Brahmaputra through a delta that lies mostly in Bangladesh. The Ganga River has received mention in historical accounts that date back to the third century BCE to the time of the Mauryan Empire of Emperor Ashoka. But the Ganga you see today is a dying river and is battling disastrous levels of pollution to stay alive.

Historical and Religious Significance

To completely understand the irony of pollution in the Ganges, one must first understand the significance of the river to the millions of Hindus in India. Since ancient times, the Ganga has been revered as a Goddess who descended from heaven to bring salvation to the people of earth. It is believed she possesses the mystical power to purify anything she touches and can absolve humans of all the sins they have committed in their past lives. Anyone who bathes in her waters or drinks even a few drops, attains “mukti” or union with the Supreme Entity.

It is, unfortunately, this very legend that has proved to be a bane for the mighty river that flows through five states, with a basin that covers almost a fourth of the landmass of India. Since times immemorial, Hindus flocked to the banks of the river to perform the last rites for their dead or simply on pilgrimages. Numerous cities have grown along the river and, because of their proximity to the holy river, they are also considered sacred destinations. In present times, the Ganges supports close to an amazing 43 percent of the population of the country.

Being a predominantly agricultural economy, India’s farmers have, over the centuries, tapped the river water for irrigation and domestic use. The cities and the small-scale crafts industries also depended on the river for water and to serve as a drain for waste. But at the time, low population levels and the volume of water allowed the river to simply wash itself clean.

Effects of Modernization

As India stepped into the era of industrialization and population levels began to explode, the river has also become a source of energy with numerous dams being constructed for large-scale irrigation and hydroelectricity projects. Even as more and more water is being diverted for other uses, the volume of waste being emptied into the river has multiplied too quickly. Today, drains from the 25 cities empty an unbelievable amount of not just human waste and sewage but also highly toxic waste water that emerges from industries such as paper, tanning, sugar, pulp, chemicals, fertilizers, distilleries and others. Some of the main plants are Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited (BHEL), Indian Drug Production Limited (IDPL), Bata Shoe Factory and McDowell Distillery to name a few.

The problem is further worsened by the fact that this sewage and waste finds its way into the river in its raw form without being treated. Then again, it is not just river water that is used and discarded but a large amount of water pumped up from aquifers is also used and eventually finds its way into the river.

Efforts of the Government

It is not that steps are not being taken by the government to deal with the problem. In the year 1986, The Ganga Action Plan or GAP was initiated. Yet another revised plan, GAP-2 was implemented in the year 2009. Both the initiatives had one main objective in mind, to divert the sewage towards sewage treatment plants and treat it before discharging into the river.

On paper, it seemed like the perfect solution but 30 years down the line, the problem is looming large as ever. Studies have shown that not only are the pollution levels rising, but also the sections that were previously considered clean are now showing high levels of pollution. And this issue is now being detected close to the main source of the river at Gangotri. Even as the river reaches the upstream cities of Rudraprayag, Devprayag and Rishikesh, a high influx of pilgrims and rapid development has resulted in high levels of fecal coliform. This is a major cause for worry since this close to the source; the river should be well oxygenated. But instead, the pollution levels indicate that not enough water is present in the river as it passes through the cities. Another factor is that these problems are not restricted to only the main river but many of its tributaries are also displaying similar conditions.

Despite the central government taking many measures and awarding funds to the states, the river is still in danger of dying with many stretches running dry during the summer and winter months. In many locations, what one does see is not river water, but only sewage and waste water. The only times when there is water in the river is in the months from April to June when the snows melt in the Himalayas and during the monsoons. While there are many sewage treatment plants installed along the river, mainly in the urban areas, they are, unfortunately, operating far below their capacity. There are a number of reasons for this fact.

Inefficacy of the Treatment Plants 

The first and foremost reason is that the cities that have grown along the river have very old drains and sewer systems that will have to be reworked on a major scale to divert their contents to the treatment plants. Lack of connectivity between the open sewage drains and the treatment plants makes their presence useless. Resolving this issue will involve an expenditure of an enormous amount of funds that the states don’t have. The central government has offered aid to the states so that more of advanced treatment plants can be constructed. But to set them up, already scarce reserves of land will have to be allocated. The cities themselves are old and congested and laying down sewage systems is a very difficult task. Then again, to run these plants, electricity is needed as well as labour force. All of these inputs cost money, that again, the states are short of.

Another factor is the many of the factories are classified as small-scale and it is believed that they cannot cause much damage. But the reality is that they do cause damage, simply because of their sheer numbers. Then again, many of them operate illegally and when surveys were carried out, it was found that despite laws that said they were not allowed to release untreated waste, this is precisely what they were doing. In this way, lack of law enforcement and awareness is another factor that is taking a toll on the river.

Religious Factor

While enacting laws and enforcing them can work on the industries, there is one main factor that lawmakers cannot interfere with. And that is the religious factor. India is a country where 85 percent of the population is Hindu and all Hindu religious rites are incomplete without the Ganga or water from it. Perhaps, the most important fact is that after cremating the dead, Hindus must immerse the ashes and bones in the waters of the Ganga. Dead and unwanted babies are weighed down and also immersed into the river. Centuries of following this practice have resulted in the riverbed getting choked with bones. This problem is especially serious in and around the holy cities like Haridwar and Varanasi. And sadly enough, unburnt corpses, partially burnt wood and animal carcasses also find their way into the river.

Another religious rule says that after performing any ritual, the milk, flowers, leaves and whatever offerings have been made to the Gods, must be immersed in the river. This is a practice that all Hindus living along the river follow carefully and during the festival season, the river gets loaded with these items. In the past, the practice might not have caused a problem since fruit, flowers and leaves are all biodegradable. But in present times, there is also a massive amount of plastic being discarded. And in some festivals, idols made of plaster of paris getting dumped in the river compound the problem greatly.

In many locations, the authorities have banned the immersion of post-ritual items but a lack of awareness and education among the people results in their looking for loopholes and continuing with the practice.

Kumbh Melas

Every 6 years, the Kumbh mela is organized at either Allahabad or Haridwar in rotation. An astonishing 100 million Hindus converge to these cities and live there for around a month. This time is considered auspicious and anyone bathing in the river can attain certain salvation. The authorities set up camps for the visitors and the water needed to run the camps for activities like cooking, washing and sanitation, is all drawn from the river. Later, the entire waste is dumped into the river which when combined with the communal bathing of millions of people, takes a severe toll on the river. To combat the pollution levels, the authorities order the release of large amounts of water from the dams upriver but all these measures prove to be ineffective in the face of the sheer volume of visitors to the cities.

Affects of Pollution

Ultimately, it is humans that suffer because of their own mistreatment of the river. Poverty and lack of access to clean water for drinking forces people to depend on the polluted river water. As a result, waterborne diseases are becoming rampant among the people living along it. Jaundice, polio and typhoid along with skin diseases, stomach infections and kidney damage are only a few of the problems. Every year, more and more deaths are reported because of these diseases.

Possible Solutions

If steps are not taken quickly and on a large scale, the Ganga could soon vanish from the earth. To begin with, the states at the upstream locations should be pressured to release enough water to dilute the pollution and maintain ecological flow. For instance, during the summer and winter months, the states must release enough water for an ecological flow of 50 percent while at other times, 30 percent. Instead of reworking the drainage system of the cities, it is more practical to ensure that no untreated sewage flows into the river by working at the source of the sewage. It is also necessary that after treatment of sewage, the remnants and effluents are not discharged back into the river but are instead disposed off properly. States must also be pressured to purify their wastewater and convert it into drinking water for the citizens.

All these actions will require a lot of financial input that the central government must be prepared to help the states with. Above all, it should be made mandatory for polluting industries to clean up after themselves and look for other methods of disposing off their waste.

Strict measures and some serious practical thinking are needed to come up with viable solutions to save the river. Because saving the river also means saving the lives of the millions of people that depend on it. The government is taking steps by way of the Ganga Action Plan but the people also need to be made aware and contribute in their own way to restore the sacred river to its former status and glory.

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