Sacred shit

The most sacred river of the Hindus has been rendered into a stagnant sewage drain, leading to mass and hidden epidemics. But Hindutva and other parties care a damn.

"The Ganges, above all, is the river of India which has held India's heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilisation and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man."
Jawaharlal Nehru

Pandit Nehru's Ganges - a story of Indian civilisation - is dying a definite, slow death. The most sacred river of the Hindus has been rendered into a stagnant sewage drain, leading to mass and hidden epidemics. Half burnt corpses, animal carcasses, vast quantities of human waste and excreta, ritualistic flowers inside polythene bags, muck, plastic, glass, rubber and non-biodegradable substances, can be seen floating in the river. Such is the extent of industrial effluents and sewage pollutants that a recent study concluded that the Ganga is no longer even fit for agriculture -  forget drinking and bathing. (Though, the river still has magical preservative/healing qualities at its source in Gaumukh, where the glacier is fast receding. Surely, if the glacier disappears one day, the river, too, must.)

World Wide Fund for Nature has put Ganga on the list of top ten most threatened river basins in the world courtesy dams, industrial/sewage degradation, water extraction and climate change. A recent study by the Uttarakhand Environment Conservation and Pollution Control Board says that the river at one of India's holiest Hindu sites - Haridwar - has an amazingly high coliform level of 5,500. Coliform level of 50 is for drinking purposes, less than 500 for bathing and below 5,000 for agricultural use.

In Haridwar, five drains open in the Ganga adding thousands of litres of sewage and human excreta, according to Dehradun-based People's Science Institute. In Varanasi, another Hindu sacred city - the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by WHO. The high level of coliform is due to drainage disposal of human faeces, urine and sewage directly into the river.

"To know why 1,000 Indian children die of diarrhoeal sickness every day, take a wary stroll along the Ganges in Varanasi. As it enters the city, Hinduism's sacred river contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitre, 120 times more than what is considered safe for bathing. Four miles downstream, with inputs from 24 gushing sewers and 60,000 pilgrim-bathers, the concentration is 3,000 times over the safety limit. At many places, Ganga becomes black and septic. Corpses, of semi-cremated adults or enshrouded babies, drift slowly by," reported The Economist

The tannery industry in Kanpur and other north Indian cities is a major threat to the river as it discharges liquid waste that contains high concentration of chromium, sulphide, ammonium and other salts that cause cancer, paralysis and other fatal diseases.
Citing increasing pollution levels in the river, the Centre launched Ganga Action Plan in 1985. Launched with much fanfare, it failed to decrease pollution levels. Rs 7,000 crore plus have been spent on the project with zero results. Environmentalists believe that funds were siphoned off while most political parties kept quiet. BJP - that claims to champion the Hindu cause - has been steadfastly silent at the degradation of the holiest Hindu river. Other parties anyway care a damn for the rivers of India, most of which have turned into dirty nullahs and sewage drains, like the Yamuna in Delhi.

Year after year, successive governments have made false promises of cleaning the poisoned and toxic Ganga, but not an iota of sincerity has been reflected in reviving the Ganges that holds the keyto the survival of human civilisation from Gaumukh in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. 


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2009