2. Filthy flows the Ganga

Posted: 5 January 2001

Author Info: Darryl D'Monte is President of the Indian Federation of Environmental Journalists.Related link:Clean Ganga

India's holiest river, the Ganges, is being polluted on a heroic scale. Here Darryl D'Monte explains why efforts to clean up are failing.

Hindus bathing in the Ganges© Hermut Schwartzbach/Still PicturesIt is astonishing that a river that all Indians revere as symbolising its ancient culture and spiritually is treated with utter disrespect physically. The Ganga rises in the Himalayas and flows down eastwards, passing through Bangladesh into the sea. It brings sustenance to the Indo-Gangetic plain, which is one of world's most bountiful food-growing areas. The river basin is inhabited by a little over a third of India's population.

During its 2,525-km-long journey to the ocean, it brings life-giving water to eight states and accounts for nearly half the country's irrigated area. Although devout Hindus still pay obeisance to this holiest of rivers, it has now become almost synonymous with pollution and filth.

There are nearly 700 towns and cities drained by the Ganga river basin, and a hundred of these are located along the river itself. Two notable examples are Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh state, and Patna, the capital of Bihar. These towns release vast quantities of sewage, solid waste and industrial effluents into the river.

This is compounded by the age-old belief that the Ganga, unlike other rivers, has some magical self-cleansing properties, which can absorb any amount of contamination. Dr D. S. Bhargava, an environmental engineer from Rourkee University in Uttar Pradesh, who undertook a three-year journey along the course of the river, found that some 27 major towns dump millions of litres of sewage and industrial waste into the river every day. This includes the effluents from 151 tanneries which empty toxic chrome into the river: only 25 have opted for technology to recover it. There are also the notorious burning ghats or funeral pyres along the banks, where the last rites of thousands of people are performed. Owing to the steep rise in the prices of firewood in recent years, bodies are often only half-burnt and then dumped in the river, which adds to its contamination.

Funeral ghats on the Ganges© Chris Stowers/Panos Pictures

Population pressure

The entire Indo-Gangetic belt is home to some of the most populous regions in the world. With increasing urbanisation, the demands on water from the Ganga are bound to grow. Already, the National Capital Region around Delhi, involving a handful of states, is witnessing a massive change in land use from agriculture to industry. This area bids to outrank the Bombay-Pune region as the country premier industrial belt. It is difficult to imagine how new city-dwellers there will be able to obtain clean water. In Patna, the disruption of water supply for a few days has led to "water riots". The primary demand for water, of course, is from irrigation. India has the largest irrigation system in the world, servicing some 70 million hectares of crops. China, by contrast, is aiming at 55 million hectares by the turn of the century. Critics like B. B. Vohra, believe that despite spending Rs 30,000 crore ($9,000 million) in surface irrigation projects since 1951, when India began her five-year plans, half the potential of the these projects is unused and the productivity of the lands served by them is poor, thanks to poor land and water management. There is tremendous waste of water from canals served by the Ganga, because farmers pay "ridiculously low" irrigation charges and often flood their fields. Instead of spending more funds on creating more irrigation potential, the alternative would be to use water more carefully. One way is to rely on ground water, instead of surface irrigation. A farmer is always more wary about using such water because he has to pay for the electricity to pump water from wells. Vohra makes out a case for emulating Israel in metering water for all use, whether it is for irrigation, industries or households. Canal systems should be improved and existing water charges increased so as to reflect the cost of delivery. Half India's total irrigated land depends on ground water today, which is twice as productive as surface irrigation in terms of output, though its use should also be regulated to prevent over-use.

Pollution contol

To combat the pollution of the river, the late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, started the Rs 900 crore ($270 million) Ganga Action Plan exactly fifteen years ago. At the launch he said: "The Ganga is a symbol of our spirituality, our tradition, our tolerance and our synthesis. But it is the most polluted river with sewage and pollution from cities and industries thrown into it. From now, we shall put a stop to all this. We are launching the plan - not for the PWD, but for the people of India." These brave new words have been swamped by bureaucratic delays. Nearly half the total was spent in the first phase, with little to show for it. The Uttar Pradesh government patted itself on the back for treating a fraction of the 1,400 million litres of sewage and 260 million litres of industrial waste emptied into the river every day. The second phase, aimed at cleaning up its tributaries - the Yamuna (which flows past Delhi, and the Taj Mahal) and Gomti - has not received the publicity the plan enjoyed earlier for obvious reasons. Another threat to the river is from silt deposited in its higher reaches in the Himalayas. The Uttar Pradesh forest department is attempting to plant trees in the catchment areas to prevent soil erosion, but at the current rate of 3,000 hectares of forest a year, it will take 150 years to arrest siltation fully. According to an independent study commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the pollution levels in the Ganga will be worse than 1985 levels if work conducted during the first phase of the Action Plan is not extended and the river's tributaries are not included. Attempts to put up latrines to rid the river of human waste have only partly succeeded. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, only 60 per cent of the sewage treatment plants have been completed. A few community toilets - even pay toilets have proved viable - have been installed.

Under the Action plan, electric crematoria are supposed to substitute for burning ghats. However, of four erected in Uttar Pradesh, only one was functioning. In Bihar, the situation was even worse, with one in nine working. Both these states have a poor record in administration and this is reflected in the indifferent progress made in cleaning up the Ganga.

Dead bodies are often half-burned and then dumped into the Ganges© Sean Sprague/Panos Pictures

A major reason why the plan has not worked satisfactorily is the negligible participation of people along the river. According to Dr R. K. Sinha, a professor in the Zoology department of Patna Science College, who is associated with the programme in Bihar, "No plan can achieve success without the participation of the local community. If slum dwellers are defecating and polluting the banks and the water, it is because there is no alternative accommodation for them."

The Uttar Pradesh forest department has been trying to rope in school children and villagers to raise nurseries for seedlings for afforestation schemes to stop soil erosion but has admitted that non-governmental organisations have not been involved.

People power

A genuine people's movement, as distinct from a government-sponsored one, which shows what alternatives there are for cleaning up the river is the Ganga Mukti Andolan, or Free the Ganga Campaign. It began 14 years ago to resist the "paanidari' system which gave exclusive rights to big landlords to fish over stretches of the river in Bihar. In time, the movement has spread to agitating for a ban on the use of cloth nets and the killing of spawn, both of which have led to a big decline in the catch of small fishermen. In 1992, the Bihar government banned "paanidari", but new problems have cropped up. As Parvati Devi, an activist, says: "Our bellies are still empty. We have to fight against pollution of the Ganga." The movement has called for the closure of factories that pollute the Ganga. The activists have singled out four factories along the 256 km-long stretch from Barauni to the Farakka Barrage near the Bangladesh border which release harmful effluents. These include the Bata shoe factory and the McDowell distillery, both of which empty 250,000 litres of waste a day. Other pollutants have rendered village wells along the banks unfit for use. Anil Prakash, a leader, says: "The use of cloth nets has now been stopped. But in spite of this, the Ganga has not yet become free. There are many other chains which need to be broken." The movement has also been demanding that use of burning ghats should be made free, so as to rid the river of the mafia which runs these pyres and exploits the boatmen. The last resort, of course, is legal action. The activist Supreme Court lawyer, M. C. Mehta, has filed a case on behalf of the residents of Delhi to ensure that the Yamuna is kept clean. In response, the Court issued directives from time to time, requiring the authorities to set up sewage treatment plants, since the population of the capital has increased to 9.4 million in 1991. The river is reasonably clean until it enters Delhi where 18 major drains empty waste into it. Mehta believes that the Ganga Action Plan has failed. "The people are helpless; the institutions have failed. The courts had to step in: there was no other remedy. There is no political will to clean up the environment. Politicians are close to industrialists and their parties are funded by industrialists. They put pressure on the official agencies to adopt a soft attitude towards the polluting industries. The Supreme Court has emerged as the saviour of the environment."