Challenging apathy to clean up the deadly Ganges

Posted: 17 October 2005

The latest 'Clean Ganges Day', in September, has once again heightened public awareness in India about the need to cleanse the world's most important river: lifeline for nearly 500 million people. Here Ganges river activist Roger Choate reports on the uphill battle to restore to good health this most holy of rivers, and on a pond treatment system which is helping to deal with the pollution which contributes to the death of thousands of Indian children every year.

The nationwide campaign to clean up the Ganges is led by a bold Brahmin, Dr Veer Bhadra Mishra, who uniquely combines his roles as a professor of hydraulics and also as Hindu high priest (Mahantji) to press for cleanup of the river flowing alongside his ancestral home. Not surprisingly, the long-running campaign seeks to combine Hindu cultural values with the empirical evidence of water contamination.

This is not always easy, to put it mildly. Many ordinary Hindus cannot grasp the thought that the river they literally worship as spiritually pure is in fact materially damaged. Nor is the concept of collective civic action very well understood. The Indian Government does not help matters by suppressing its own river pollution statistics. Measurements must thus be taken by private organizations.

As India's oldest environmental campaign, we first got underway back in 1982. Many battles later, in 1999, Time Magazine nominated Mahantji as "hero for the planet" for awakening global opinion to the plight of the polluted Ganges where millions live along her banks. "Bathing in it. Drinking it. Washing clothes in it, irrigating their fields, dying by it and then having their ashes borne away by it," as British Writer Eric Newby put it.

The goddess can kill

So the Ganges is worshipped by Hindus as a divine goddess who is, by definition, pure.But empirical evidence tells another story. The goddess can be a killer.

Heavy metals, pesticides, arsenic, mercury and even, in one place, reported traces of plutonium contaminate the great waterway. To say nothing of disease-causing fecal coliform-animal and human waste in water.

Every day our modest laboratory in Banaras takes samples of fecal coliform at one or more ritual bathing ghats. The count can reach as high as about 67,000 times the accepted Indian standard for human bathing.

This count rises still higher at those ritual bathing areas near the drainage pipes that dump raw municipal sewage into Ganges.

Drinking untreated Ganges water in Banaras is not exactly salutary and could conceivably move you far more swiftly into the Next Life. Bearing in mind that up to 40,000 pilgrims arrive every day in the holy city to ritually sip some river water, and you can easily understand what our campaign is all about. And because of Ganges pollution overall, across her entire length, millions suffer. To die of dysentery is a ghastly exit.

The Ganges is thought to perhaps contribute to the deaths of as many as 1.5 million Indian children under the age of 5, struck down by waterborne diseases such as dysentery and diarrhea. These figures are extrapolated from estimates from the World Health Organization and other sources, and cannot be verified with any exactness. Specialists are constantly debating the numbers and the causes of waterborne deaths. But in addition to filthy water, we also know that poor hygiene is another important reason for child death in India and elsewhere in the developing world.

The exact number of adult deaths due to contaminated water is not really known either. Eight out of 10 Indians are said to suffer from major stomach complaints at some stage in their lives, according to the WorldWatch Institute in Washington. When I asked an Indian colleague about this, he only laughed and said the figure is too low. "It should be 10 out of 10!"

In Banaras, perhaps 40 to 45 percent of those who take a dip in the river regularly have skin or stomach ailments, according to doctors and state government health officials. A major hospital in Banaras has stated its concern about an alarming increase in skin infections and waterborne diseases along the great ghats.

Despite all this, the religious significance of the Ganges looms larger. To bathe in it is thought to remove all sins, although even a single drop of the water grazing the cheek might conceivably cause skin rash. To die along the Ganges in the holy city of Banaras-and to have your ashes deposited into the river-can assure a direct pathway to salvation in Hindu belief.

Eternal campaign?

The Campaign for a Clean Ganges (Swatcha Ganges Abhiyaan) is one of the oldest environmental efforts in India. It all started back in 1982 when a group of concerned citizens in Banaras spearheaded by professors and engineers were appalled by mounting levels of contamination in the river, and decided to do something about it. They formed the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which in turn launched the Campaign.

Led by Mahantji, the campaign early on played a leading role in pressuring the national government to take action. In 1986 the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came to Banaras and announced the launch of the Ganges Action Plan to clean the waterway in 29 cities. There was a solid round of applause.

Five years later Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. At the same time, it became clear that the Action Plan was not acting at all well. In most of the selected cities, wastewater treatment plants were plagued with problems or simply non-operational. "The Plan quite simply failed," says Mahantji.

For instance: power cuts several times daily in many parts of northern India because demand exceeds supply. When the power fails, the plants simply stop, and it takes a long time to get them going again, long after the power has been switched back on.

In any event, many municipalities cannot always afford to pay their electrical bills. This causes closures for long periods. Faulty engineering and faulty maintenance often plague the plants themselves. Meantime, there was, and is, continued dumping of raw sewage into Ganges by 103 cities in the Gangetic Plain. This grows exponentially every year because of steady migration from the Indian countryside into already crowded urban centres.

A dream unfulfilled

So the dream of Rajiv Gandhi was unfulfilled. By the early 90s it became evident to the Campaign that our work was far from over. On the contrary, we would have to fight a second battle to purify the Ganges.

It would prove formidable. Forces arrayed against us now included the entire Action Plan bureaucracy of 27,000 people and also civil servants who wanted the failures hushed up. But critics were not cowed. The Auditor General of India stated that that the Ganges Action Plan "was formulated without proper assessment of actual ground realities."

In 1992 the Campaign convened an international seminar in Banaras to assess river damage. We went on to propose a non-electrical wastewater treatment system that bypasses the problem of electrical supplies altogether. The system relies instead on photosynthesis and plenty of sunlight, which tropical India easily provides.

Municipal sewage is intercepted and diverted into a sewer line, and then moved by gravity some 2 miles to ponds on an island. Each of the four ponds has a special purifying function, utilizing microbes and algae to treat the water. Unlike conventional systems, the pond system effectively removes fecal-coliform, which is the main river pollutant in Banaras. The system is effective in any area where there is sufficient land for the ponds - in the case of Banaras, 800 acres of unutilized lands are at our disposal.

The "pond system" plan-devised by our own engineers and the University of California-has been officially endorsed by the Banaras City Council as the solution of choice. This decision has since been thwarted by illegal actions by the Uttar Pradesh state government that wants the old Action Plan resuscitated, even though it can never be made to work.

We have taken them to court. And the fate of Ganges and other Indian rivers may rest on this one constitutional case. The issue is this: Can a municipality determine the kind of environmental policies it wants, as stipulated in the Indian Constitution?

A tide of sewage

With our case still undecided, we are struggling to somewhat alleviate the environmental disaster in the holy city that sees around 80 million gallons of municipal sewage dumped into the river every day.

Our own squads of cleaners remove refuse and litter along the riverfront daily, and also remove animal carcasses and human corpses floating in the river itself. In a recent demonstration project, we cleaned and beautified a stretch of seven ghats along the river in cooperation with the British High Commission. This is the first time in several generations that an attempt has been made to beautify the ghats: those flights of broad stone steps leading down to the river.

Downstream pollution is a huge problem. For instance: Flooding from the Ganges has infected groundwater systems in towns near Banaras. So we implemented fresh water supply programs with assistance from Australian environmentalists. This specifically means drilling deep-water wells. Before that happened, an estimated 25% of the local population suffered from various waterborne ailments. Children were the main victims, infected by viral sores and rashes.

We still have miles to go when it comes to public awareness in India. To his credit, Mahantji has spearheaded a cultural démarche in attempting to reconcile traditional Hindu belief with the facts of scientifically measurable pollution. Instead of describing the river as a potential killer, he explains to devout Hindus that Mother Ganges is not feeling well. She can be cured by eradicating pollution.

So public awareness is high on our agenda. We give Hindu priests operating along the ghats regular pollution updates, and also convened the very first conclave of river priests to discuss more comprehensive measures. Meantime, we have staged workshops and seminars across the Ganges Basin to alert politicians and the public about river deterioration. We have also conducted environmental education programs in Banaras' schools and institutions.

In 2003 we staged the nation's first Clean Ganges Day, in Kolkata (Calcutta). This 12-hour event consisted of a river seminar, student manifestations and a gala concert along the Hoogli River. Its success led us straight to a second Ganges Day in New Delhi in August 2004 when the river seminar was covered by 18 international television channels, along with widespread national coverage.

A third "Clean Ganges Day" in September this year gained added momentum from the involvement of industry in the first ever "Ganges Workshop" for leading corporates. Participants were told that the Indian business community has been handed an historic opportunity because of an international pledge made by the Union Government.

This promised the world that unsustainable exploitation of rivers like Ganga will be halted by 2015. And that safe water will be available for most of our citizens by then. The pledge was made in accordance with the UN Millennium Development Goals(MDGs).

The year 2015 may sound far away. But huge infrastructural projects normally take a long time to bear fruit. And they cannot be achieved without active participation by business.

Participants realised that when it comes to Ganga, the challenge is daunting, to say the least. A total of 103 cities dump toxics and raw sewage into the waterway every day.

The seminar concluded with the thought that Ganga presents an historic opportunity for the business community. Even the start of a true cleanup will send a positive signal across India and the developing world where virtually all rivers are polluted.

Next life for Ganges

The political climate in India seems to have changed somewhat with the transition last year to a centre-left national government guided by Ms Sonia Gandhi. She has expressed sympathy with the Campaign - and it is clear that the great Ganges vision of her late husband, Rajiv Gandhi, still needs to be fulfilled.

Smashing through the firewall of political apathy, however, remains our job. Because no great river in the world - be it the Thames or Hudson - has ever been cleaned without public pressure being brought to bear. A ravaged holy river tells us that a way of life that lays waste to the environment is a way of life that cannot hold. Note: This article is adapted and updated from the original version published in /i>The Ethical Record, London, June 2005

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