In the News:
Why Can't We Clean Up Mother Ganges?

by Joshua Hammer Smithsonian magazine

Posted June 14, 2009

The River Ganges has been revered by millions in India as a symbol of spiritual purity. "Mother Ganga" is described by ancient Hindu scriptures as a gift from the gods; that is, 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," proclaims Lord Vishnu in the Ramayana.

For some time now, this romantic view of the Ganges has collided with India's grim realities. The country's explosive population growth, industrialization and rapid urbanization have put unyielding pressure on the sacred stream. Irrigation canals siphon off ever more water to grow food. Industries 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. 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 aquatic creatures for at least a decade.

In Varanasi, the coliform bacterial count is at least 3,000 times higher than the standard established as safe by the World Health Organization, according to Veer Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and Hindu priest who has led a campaign 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.

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," says Ramesh Chandra Trivedi, a scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board, the monitoring arm of India's Ministry of the Environment and Forests.

Rakesh Jaiswal has waged a lonely 15-year battle to clean up the river. 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 said. "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 sanatorium, 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."

Mishra says he's especially concerned for the future of India's most devout Hindus, whose lives are entirely focused on Mother Ganga. "They want to touch the water, rub their bodies in the water, sip the water," he said, "and someday they will die because if it."

"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'."

There is no sign of any real prospects for solutions. "We can send a shuttle into space; we can build the Delhi Metro 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."

Excerpted from "A Prayer for the Ganges" by Joshua Hammer in Smithsonian,November, 2007; pages 75-82.