A Prayer for the Ganges

Across India, environmentalists battle a tide of troubles to clean up a river revered as the source of life

(Cheryl Carlin)
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A blue stream spews from beneath brick factory buildings in Kanpur, India. The dark ribbon curls down a dirt embankment and flows into the Ganges River. "That's toxic runoff," says Rakesh Jaiswal, a 48-year-old environmental activist, as he leads me along the refuse-strewn riverbank in the vise-like heat of a spring afternoon. We're walking through the tannery district, established along the Ganges during British colonial rule and now Kanpur's economic mainstay as well as its major polluter.

I had expected to find a less-than-pristine stretch of river in this grimy metropolis of four million people, but I'm not prepared for the sights and smells that greet me. Jaiswal stares grimly at the runoff—it's laden with chromium sulfate, used as a leather preservative and associated with cancer of the respiratory tract, skin ulcers and renal failure. Arsenic, cadmium, mercury, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes and heavy metals can also be found in this witches' brew. Though Kanpur's tanneries have been required since 1994 to do preliminary cleanup before channeling wastewater into a government-run treatment plant, many ignore the costly regulation. And whenever the electricity fails or the government's waste conveyance system breaks down, even tanneries that abide by the law find that their untreated wastewater backs up and spills into the river.

A few yards upstream, we follow a foul odor to a violent flow of untreated domestic sewage gushing into the river from an old brick pipe. The bubbling torrent is full of fecal microorganisms responsible for typhoid, cholera and amoebic dysentery. Ten million to 12 million gallons of raw sewage have been pouring out of this drainpipe each day, Jaiswal tells me, since the main sewer line leading to the treatment plant in Kanpur became clogged—five years ago. "We've been protesting against this, and begging the [Uttar Pradesh state] government to take action, but they've done nothing," he says.

Half a dozen young fishermen standing by a rowboat offer to take us to a sandbar in the middle of the Ganges for "a better view." Jaiswal and I climb into the boat and cross the shallow river only to run aground 50 yards from the sandbar. "You have to get out and walk from here," a boatman tells us. We remove our shoes, roll up our trousers and nervously wade knee-deep in the toxic stream. As we reach the sandbar, just downstream from a Hindu cremation ground, we're hit by a putrid smell and a ghastly sight: lying on the sand are a human rib cage, a femur, and, nearby, a yellow-shrouded corpse. "It's been rotting there for a month," a fisherman tells us. The clothed body of a small child floats a few yards off the island. Although the state government banned the dumping of bodies a decade ago, many of Kanpur's destitute still discard their loved ones clandestinely at night. Pariah dogs prowl around the bones and bodies, snarling when we get too close. "They live on the sandbar, feeding on the remains," a fisherman tells us.

Sickened, I climb back into the rowboat. As we near the tanneries, a dozen boys frolic in the water, splashing in the river's foulest stretch. Jaiswal calls them over.

"Why do you swim in the river?" I ask one of the boys. "Aren't you worried?"

He shrugs. "We know it's poisonous," he says, "but after we swim we go wash off at home."

"Do you ever get ill?"

"We all get rashes," he replies, "but what can we do?"

Walking back toward the main road, Jaiswal seems despondent. "I would never have imagined the River Ganga could get like this, with stinking water, green and brown colored," he says. "It's pure toxic muck."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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