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A Prayer for the Ganges

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

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I shake my head at the irony. For more than two millennia, the River Ganges has been revered by millions as a symbol of spiritual purity. Originating in the frozen heights of the Himalayas, the river travels 1,600 miles across the teeming plains of the subcontinent before flowing east into Bangladesh and from there spilling into the Bay of Bengal. "Mother Ganga" is described by ancient Hindu scriptures as a gift from the gods—the earthly incarnation of the deity Ganga. "Man becomes pure by the touch of the water, or by consuming it, or by expressing its name," Lord Vishnu, the four-armed "All Pervading One," proclaims in the Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic poem composed four centuries before Christ. Modern admirers have written paeans to the river's beauty, historical resonance and holiness. "The Ganges is above all the river of India, which has held India's heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history," Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, proclaimed.

For some time now, this romantic view of the Ganges has collided with India's grim realities. During the past three decades, the country's explosive growth (at nearly 1.2 billion people, India's population is second only to China's), industrialization and rapid urbanization have put unyielding pressure on the sacred stream. Irrigation canals siphon off ever more of its water and its many tributaries to grow food for the country's hungry millions. Industries in the country operate in a regulatory climate that has changed little since 1984, when a Union Carbide pesticide plant in the northern city of Bhopal leaked 27 tons of deadly methyl isocyanate gas and killed 20,000 people. And the amount of domestic sewage being dumped into the Ganges has doubled since the 1990s; it could double again in a generation.

The result has been the gradual killing of one of India's most treasured resources. One stretch of the Yamuna River, the Ganges' main tributary, has been devoid of all aquatic creatures for a decade. In Varanasi, India's most sacred city, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the United Nations World Health Organization, according to Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and Hindu priest who's led a campaign there to clean the river for two decades. "Polluted river water is the biggest cause of skin problems, disabilities and high infant mortality rates," says Suresh Babu, deputy coordinator of the River Pollution Campaign at the Center for Science and the Environment, a watchdog group in New Delhi, India's capital. These health problems are compounded by the fact that many Hindus refuse to accept that Mother Ganga has become a source of illness. "People have so much faith in this water that when they bathe in it or sip it, they believe it is the nectar of God [and] they will go to heaven," says Ramesh Chandra Trivedi, a scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board, the monitoring arm of India's Ministry of the Environment and Forests.

Twenty years ago, then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan, or GAP, which shut down some of the most egregious industrial polluters and allocated about $100 million for constructing wastewater treatment plants in 25 cities and towns along the river. But these efforts have fallen woefully short. According to a 2001-2002 government survey, the treatment plants could handle only about a third of the 600 million gallons of domestic sewage that poured into them every day. (The volume has increased significantly since then). Many environmentalists say that the Ganges has become an embarrassing symbol of government indifference and neglect in a country that regards itself as an economic superpower. "We can send a shuttle into space, we can build the [new] Delhi Metro [subway] in record time. We can detonate nuclear weapons. So why can't we clean up our rivers?" Jaiswal laments. "We have money. We have competence. The only problem is that the issue is not a priority for the Indian government."

Early in 2007 the Ganges' worsening state made headlines around the world when Hindu holy men, known as sadhus, organized a mass protest against river filth during the Kumbh Mela festival. "The river had turned the color of Coca-Cola," says scientist Trivedi, who attended the festival and, against the advice of his colleagues at the Central Pollution Control Board, took a brief dip in the Ganges. ("I was not affected at all," he insists.) The sadhus called off the protests after the government opened dams upstream, diluting the fetid water, and ordered another 150 upstream industrial polluters to close. "But it was a short-term solution," says Suresh Babu. "It didn't achieve anything."

This past May, I followed Mother Ganga downstream for 800 miles, half its distance, to witness its deterioration firsthand and to meet the handful of environmentalists who are trying to rouse public action. I began my journey high in the foothills of the Himalayas, 200 miles south of the river's glacial source. Here the cold, pristine water courses through a steep gorge cloaked in gray-green forests of Shorea robusta, or sal trees. From a beach at the edge of a litchi grove below the Glass House, an inn where I stayed, I watched rafts of helmet-clad adventure-tourists sweep past on a torrent of white water.

Fifteen miles downriver, at Rishikesh, the valley widens, and the Ganges spills onto the northern Indian plain. Rishikesh achieved worldwide attention in 1968, when the Beatles, at the height of their fame, spent three months at the now-abandoned ashram, or meditation center, run by the guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who today resides in the Netherlands). Built illegally on public land and confiscated by the government in the 1970s, the ruined complex rises on a thickly wooded hillside overlooking the Ganges. The place has been unoccupied ever since it was seized—an intragovernmental dispute has prevented its being sold or developed as a tourist resort—but I gave 50 rupees, about $1.25, to a guard, and he unlocked the gate for me. I wandered among derelict, stupa-like meditation chambers high above the river, which still conveyed a sense of tranquillity. Baboons prowled the ghostly hallways of the Maharishi's once-luxurious hotel and conference center, which was topped by three domes tiled in white mosaic. The only sounds were the chorusing of cuckoos and the cawing of ravens.

It's unlikely the surviving Beatles would recognize the busy, litter-strewn tourist town that Rishikesh has become. Down below the ashram, I strolled through a riverside strip of pilgrims' inns, cheap restaurants selling banana lassis and pancakes, and newly built yoga schools. A boat packed with Indian pilgrims, wild-haired sadhus and Western backpackers ferried me across the river, where I walked past dozens of storefronts offering rafting trips and Himalayan treks. A building boom over the past two decades has generated a flood of pollutants and nonbiodegradable trash. Each day thousands of pilgrims drop flowers in polyethylene bags into the river as offerings to Goddess Ganga. Six years ago, Jitendra Kumar, a local ashram student, formed Clean Himalaya, a nonprofit environmental group that gathers and recycles tons of garbage from hotels and ashrams every day. But public apathy and a shortage of burning and dumping facilities have made the job difficult. "It's really sad," Vipin Sharma, who runs a rafting and trekking company (Red Chili Adventures), told me. "All of our Hindus come with this feeling that they want to give something to the Ganga, and they've turned it into a sea of plastic."

From his base in Kanpur, Rakesh Jaiswal has waged a lonely battle to clean up the river for almost 15 years. He was born in Mirzapur, 200 miles downstream from Kanpur, and remembers his childhood as an idyllic time. "I used to go there to bathe with my mother and grandmother, and it was beautiful," he told me. "I didn't even know what the word 'pollution' meant." Then, one day in the early 1990s, while studying for his doctorate in environmental politics, "I opened the tap at home and found black, viscous, stinking water coming out. After one month it happened again, then it was happening once a week, then daily. My neighbors experienced the same thing." Jaiswal traced the drinking water to an intake channel on the Ganges. There he made a horrifying discovery: two drains carrying raw sewage, including contaminated discharge from a tuberculosis sanitarium, were emptying right beside the intake point. "Fifty million gallons a day were being lifted and sent to the water-treatment plant, which couldn't clean it. It was horrifying."

At the time, the Indian government was touting the first phase of its Ganga Action Plan as a success. Jaiswal knew otherwise. Kanpur's wastewater treatment plants broke down frequently and could process only a small percentage of the sewage the city was producing. Dead bodies were being dumped into the river by the hundreds every week, and most of the 400 tanneries continued to pour toxic runoff into the river. Jaiswal, who started a group called EcoFriends in 1993 and the next year received a small grant from the Indian government, used public outrage over contaminated drinking water to mobilize a protest campaign. He organized rallies and enlisted volunteers in a river cleanup that fished 180 bodies out of a mile-long stretch of the Ganges. "The idea was to sensitize the people, galvanize the government, find a long-term solution, but we failed to evoke much interest," he told me. Jaiswal kept up the pressure. In 1997, state and local government whistle-blowers slipped him a list of factories that had ignored a court order to install treatment plants; the state ordered the shutdown of 250 factories, including 127 tanneries in Kanpur. After that, he says, "I got midnight phone calls telling me, 'you will be shot dead if you don't stop these things.' But I had friends in the police and army who believed in my work, so I never felt my life was in real danger."

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About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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