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The Ganga Herself: India’s Most Critical Environmental Disaster

The Ganga Herself: India’s Most Critical Environmental Disaster

No river in the world is as religiously revered, as economically crucial or as devastatingly polluted as the Ganges [Ganga] River.  Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru proudly declared that, “The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever-flowing, Ganga.” Yet, the Ganga is sadly changing for the worst, as pollution continues to dirty the sacred waters. The personified goddess, is becoming unrecognizable with pollution levels reaching unprecedented levels. The Ganges, is arguably the most important river in the world not only because of the water supply and economic accessibility, but for the cultural significance. Ganges water is in many Hindu houses around the world and for massive pilgrimages to cities such as Varanasi or Allahabad the river is foundational to these cities themselves.

The Ganges river runs more than 1500 miles from the Himalaya mountains to the Bay of Bengal. As of 2015, the river itself supports 500 million people, and accounts for twenty-five percent of India’s water resources. The use of the river spans from Hindu religious rituals, irrigation of crops, daily water supply and a habitat for many animals. The Ganges is essential to life of many people around the world along with those who live closest to the banks of the river.

Wading Through the Waters in Varanasi

From early European visitors who encountered the murky, muddy waters to locals who bathe daily at the ghats in Varanasi, India, the cleanliness of the Ganges has always been a question. Whereas early visitors were concerned about the mud, today the level of pollution has increased dramatically that the Ganges is the fourth most polluted river in the world.

Victor Mallet, in his book, River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, takes the reader on a journey on the Ganges from mouth to delta. Mallet states that it is critical to consider the massive scale that this river supports, 700 million people (a little less than the total population of Europe). With every use of the Ganges, the toxic water directly or circuitously impacts about one tenth of the world’s population. From providing much needed water supply in the irrigation of crops in Uttar Pradesh to the fish collected for consumption in West Bengal, to the daily ritual dip in cities such as Allahabad, Rishikesh or Varanasi  – when in contact with the river, a once rich resource, now can have devastating even deadly impacts.

Industrial Waste and Domestic Waste

Industrial and domestic waste are the chief culprits in polluting the Ganges River, especially in cities like Varanasi. The water is often tested in Varanasi at various places and the findings are not surprising. From industrial waste, high levels arsenic and mercury are above permissible levels, along with an array of various other poisons. Mallet reported that India has no standard for toxins found in sediment. So when testing the impact of Ganges water, the samples are compared to the international toxicity standards for drinking water, which are stricter than sediment standards but nonetheless a base comparison. Researchers found in the Ganges sediment “796 part per million of chromium and 4.7 ppm of mercury, thousands of times above the international toxicity standards for drinking water. Research done by Anand Singh and Jitendra Pandey of Banaras Hindu University found that the concentration of heavy metals only steadily increases downstream, becoming more dangerous as the river flows. In 2017,  65 percent of the water stations, that had data available, were at unsatisfactory levels. In Bihar, that number rose to 76 percent of the water tested was unsatisfactory – “with no station reporting satisfactory water quality”.

The problem: the sewage capacity for many treatment plants in Varanasi and other cities is only able to treat half of the sewage that is generated. Anil Kumar Singh, an official at the UP Pollution Control Board, stated that, ‘Treatment capacity [in Varanasi] is about a quarter of the total discharge’. The current infrastructure simply cannot handle the sheer amount of it all especially as India’s population continues to grow.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken upon himself to make cleaning the Ganges his personal mission and also divine purpose. Modi stated that, “Ma Ganga is screaming for help. She is saying, ‘There must be one of my sons who will come and pull me out of this filth’ … There are many tasks that perhaps God has set for me”. However very little has been done beyond the superficial.  While personally living in Varanasi, Prime Minister Modi has visited twice, and both times major temporary construction has occurred before his visit. The first visit in fall 2017 included the covering of the Assi river, a small river that flows into the Ganges. The Assi River is better known by locals as the Assi sewer, that is filled with high levels of plastics caught between bridges as well as so much human waste that it gives off a powerful stench. The second time, was when French President Macron visited, in Spring 2018 and Assi Ghat was completely swept, resurfaced  and even had a red carpet along the steps leading down to the river. Such superficial and surface level action is often described in India as ‘putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari’. Resources spent on pretending the problem does not exist but never addressing the core issues.

Who’s Doing What

The local government, central government and non-governmental organizations(NGOs) has taken action to address this issue, however, resulting in little to no progress.

Local Government

The local initiative for Clean Ganga in Varanasi reported that most change has been on superficial levels. The change that has occurred: the addition of 3,000 trash cans along the ghats, nighttime street sweeping and a garbage disposal plant, is much needed, but has been having no major impacts. The biggest change is the addition of two sewage disposal projects still in the building stages. Little progress has been seen made on any noticeable differences in the water quality, and many people feel that the condition of the water is continuously getting worse. With the end of the monsoon and increased water levels, the concentration of the pollutants is lower, but now they are just defused until the water levels lower.

Central Government

The Finance Minister, Arun Jaitely stated in the Union budget of 2018-2019 that the Central Government initiative, Namami Gange, has completed 47 of the 187, and the rest are in “various stages of execution”. The Namami Gange projects seek to address: “sewage treatment infrastructure, river surface cleaning, afforestation, industrial effluent monitoring, making villages on the banks of Ganges open defecation free, riverfront development, among others. The bulk of the projects sanctioned are sewage treatment plants”. While this governmental action is exactly what needs to happen, both local and central government are showing to be ineffective at the implementation of these programs. While the Finance Minister stated that 47 projects have been completed, data suggest otherwise. The National Mission for Clean Ganga reported that only 18 projects have been completed out of the 95 sanctioned with no project being completed in Bihar, Delhi, Haryana, and Jharkhand. Namami Gange, was launched in 2014, with 20,000 core equivalent to about 3.52 million USD allocated for the project.

Non-Governmental Organizations

The Sankat Mochan Temple started a campaign, later an organization, called the Sankat Mochan Foundation whose slogan was “not one drop of sewage”. The founder Veer Bhadra Mishra, the temple’s senior priest, was also a water engineer. Spending years lobbying politicians and government authorities to work towards addressing the problem of sewage pollution in Varanasi. Toward the end of his life, Veer became disheartened by his extraneous 40 years of campaigning and very little action done by the government. At his death in 2013, his son took over religious responsibilities as well as the foundation. While passionate about the work his father started, he continues to meet politicians in hopes of persuading them into action.      

The Sankat Mochan foundation along with an array of other NGOs have campaigned and work towards addressing the need of the cleaning of the Ganges but the little action that they do has had very little impact. The work that these NGOs have done is valuable – but ineffective. Inquiry being conducted by Fullbright researcher, Olivia Trombadore has found that the Sankat Mocha Foundation tests the water in Varanasi for an array of harmful substances, yet these recordings have done very little beyond continuing to provide evidence that pollution exists. Providing concrete data is essential in the process, but not enough work is being done.  In an interview with Vinod, a wood seller who has spent time researching pollution levels, he even stated that, “a lot of money is going into a slogan[targeting the Sankat Mochan Foundation]”.

The common theme amongst the local government, central government and NGOs, is that inaction and ineffective action is the course of action. The problem is known and solutions are in place – but why is there little to no change in the condition of the river? This answer lies in the lack of collaboration between the local government, central government and NGOs. Rather than working together, each entity focuses on one particularity. Which is resulting in the expansion of the sewer treatment plan but no simultaneous growth to the infrastructure of the sewage lines. Resulting in the potential of more sewage to be treated but falls short when crumbling infrastructure makes it impossible for the sewage to even reach the treatment plant.

Solutions

A local solution for Varanasi could be the addition of simple programs such as the publishing of data and informing the public about the dire state of the Ganges. With renown Banaras Hindu University, combining resources could be both a project for the university and further inform the public. Free water testing for households with questionable water sources is another implementation that would help improve the community with little investment done by the Sankat Mochan Foundation.      

The Central Government needs to simply better implement and accountability to the programs they have allocated funds to as well as sanctioned. An alternative solution was offered in March of 2017, when Indian High Court of Uttarakhand state declared the Ganges and Yamuna river legal status as people . It was believed that giving the rivers rights would serve in helping conserve and protect the sacred waters. However, just four months later, the Indian Supreme Court determined that the cause was legally unsustainable. On October 11, 2018, G.D. Agrawal, a renown Indian environmental professor, engineer and activist, who dedicated his life to the cause of the Ganga, died after a four month hunger strike. Agrawa’s self-sacrifice was an attempt to pressure the Indian government to take immediate action to rescue the Ganges by writing a list of demands to PM Modi. A governmental minister was sent to meet Agrawal; he refused give up his fast and his demands were not met.

International solutions have been seen in 2014  Kyoto-Varanasi partner city agreement in which the city of Varanasi, India and Kyoto, Japan cultural exchange as well as the mingling of local university and solutions to environmental problems and cultural preservation with development. The main intention of turning Varanasi into a 21st city that maintains the deep historical traditions. A major focus was the implementation of Japanese water cleaning technology to be introduced and used in Varanasi. Little evidence of this has been seen in the impact of the partner city agreement.

The most damaging part of all this information is how few Indians understand what is happening each time they turn on the faucet or buy vegetables at the local markets. The degree and level that pollution is at, especially in the context of the Ganges, is practically invisible to the public. The information is not hidden, rather the information is not often sought out by the general populous. India is a classist society, those who are being impacted the most, the poor, do not have water filters in their house, regularly bathe, wash clothes and dishes in the Ganges and are the ones who do not have the accessibility to the information they desperately need. Information that could save their life. Pollution of the Ganges is as momentous as the mountains in which the river comes from, but is on the verge of becoming an environmental massacre.

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