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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Jaiswal's battle to clean up the Ganges has achieved some successes. Largely because of his corpse-cleanup drive, a cemetery was established beside the Ganges—it now contains thousands of bodies—and a ban was enforced, obviously often violated, on "floaters." In 2000, the second phase of the Ganga Action Plan required 100 large- and medium-sized Kanpur tanneries to set up chrome-recovery facilities and 100 smaller ones to build a common chrome-recovery unit. Enforcement, however, has been lax. Ajay Kanaujia, a government chemist at Kanpur's wastewater treatment facility, says that "some tanneries are still putting chrome into the river without any treatment or dumping it into the domestic sewage system." This treated sewage is then channeled into canals that irrigate 6,000 acres of farmland near Kanpur before flowing back into the Ganges. India's National Botanical Research Institute, a government body, has tested agricultural and dairy products in the Kanpur area and found that they contain high levels of chromium and arsenic. "The irrigation water is dangerous," Kanaujia says.

I'm in a motorboat at dawn, putt-putting down the Ganges in Varanasi, where the river takes a turn north before flowing into the Bay of Bengal. Called Benares by the British, this ancient pilgrimage center is the holiest city in India: millions of Hindus come each year to a three-mile long curve of temples, shrines and bathing ghats (steps leading down to the river) along its banks. With a boatman and a young guide, I cruise past a Hindu Disneyland of Mogul-era sandstone fortresses and green, purple and candy cane-striped temples. None of the pilgrims sudsing themselves in the Ganges, bobbing blissfully in inner tubes or beating their laundry on wooden planks, seem to pay the slightest attention to the bloated cow carcasses that float beside them—or to the untreated waste that gushes directly into the river. If toxic industrial runoff is Kanpur's special curse, the befouling of the Ganges as it flows past the Hindus' holiest city comes almost entirely from human excreta.

The boat deposits me at Tulsi Ghat, near the upriver entrance to Varanasi, and in the intensifying morning heat, I walk up a steep flight of steps to the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which, for the past two decades, has led Varanasi's clean-river campaign. The foundation occupies several crumbling buildings, including a 400-year-old Hindu temple high over the Ganges. I find the foundation's director, Veer Bhadra Mishra, 68, sitting on a huge white cushion that takes up three-quarters of a reception room on the temple's ground floor. Draped in a simple white dhoti, he invites me to enter.

Mishra looks at the river from a unique perspective: he is a retired professor of hydraulic engineering at Banaras Hindu University and a mohan, a Hindu high priest at the Sankat Mochan Temple, a title that the Mishra family has passed from father to eldest son for seven generations. Mishra has repeatedly called the Ganga Action Plan a failure, saying that it has frittered away billions of rupees on ill-designed and badly maintained wastewater treatment plants. "The moment the electricity fails, the sewage flows into the river, and on top of that, when the floodwaters rise, they enter the sump well of the sewer system pumps and stop operations for months of the year," he tells me. (Varanasi currently receives only about 12 hours of power a day.) Moreover, he says, engineers designed the plants to remove solids, but not fecal microorganisms, from the water. The pathogens, channeled from treatment plants into irrigation canals, seep back into the groundwater, where they enter the drinking-water supply and breed such diseases as dysentery, as well as skin infections.

A decade ago, Mishra, with hydraulic engineers and scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, designed a water-treatment scheme that, he says, is far better suited to Varanasi's needs. Known as an "advanced integrated wastewater pond system," the process relies primarily on gravity to carry domestic sewage three miles downstream to four huge pools where oxygen-enriched bacteria break it down and pathogens are killed by sunlight and natural atmospheric action in a "maturation" pond. The projected cost of the system, which has been endorsed by the Varanasi municipal government, is $60 million.

Mishra was named one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Planet in 1999; in 2000, President Clinton praised him for his environmental work. But in spite of the honors that have come his way, Mishra has grown discouraged. The national government and the state government of Uttar Pradesh, which would have to fund the wastewater project, have openly opposed it on grounds ranging from doubts about the proposed technology to objections that treatment ponds would lie in a flood plain.

Meanwhile, the city's population keeps growing—it has doubled to three million in a generation—along with the bacteria count. Mishra says he's especially concerned for the future of India's most devout Hindus, whose lives are entirely focused on Mother Ganga. He calls them an endangered species. "They want to touch the water, rub their bodies in the water, sip the water," he says, "and someday they will die because of it," admitting that he himself takes a dip in the river every morning. "If you tell them 'the Ganga is polluted,' they say, 'we don't want to hear that.' But if you take them to the places where open sewers are giving the river the night soil of the whole city, they say, 'this is disrespect done to our mother, and it must be stopped.'"

But how? Suresh Babu of the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi believes that if municipalities were obliged to draw their drinking water from downstream rather than upstream, "they would feel an obligation" to keep the river clean. But growing pressures on the Ganges seem destined to outstrip all efforts to rescue it. By 2030, according to Babu, India will draw eight times the amount of water from the Ganges it does today. In the same time, the population along the river and its tributaries—up to 400 million, or one-third of India's total population—could double. Trivedi admits that the government "lacks a single coherent plan" to clean up the river.

Rakesh Jaiswal tells me that after all the years of small achievements and large setbacks, he finds it difficult to remain optimistic. "My friends tell me I've made a difference, but the river looks worse today than when I started," he says. In 2002, the Ford Foundation gave him enough money to hire 15 employees. But the next year, when the foundation cut its Environmental Equity and Justice Program, Jaiswal had to let his staff go and now works with one assistant out of a bedroom in his sister's house near the river. On his dresser stands a framed photograph of his wife, Gudrun Knoessel, who is German. In 2001, she contacted him after seeing a German TV documentary about his work; a long-distance courtship led to their marriage in 2003. They see each other two or three times a year. "She has a job in Baden-Baden," he explains. "And Kanpur needs me." So he often tells himself. But sometimes, in darker moments, he wonders if anybody really cares.

Writer Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin, Germany. Photographer Gary Knight lives in the South of France.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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