Buffaloes bathing in world’s largest open sewer

I read an obnoxious article on Tehelka.com recently on the River Ganga (Ganges). The investigative report found that Ganga today is more polluted than when the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1985 to, ironically, reduce the level of pollution in the river. Just how polluted is the river?

  • Near Haridwar, coliform bacteria, which cause diseases like gastroenteritis and diarrhoea, are present at a concentration of 5500 mpn/100ml. The permissible levels are 50mpn for drinking, 500mpn for bathing and 5000mpn for agriculture. Such high concentations are because the 12 municipal towns located on Ganga’s banks from Gangotri to Haridwar release around 90 million litres of sewage, urine and faeces into the river every day.
  • Near Kanpur, the river turns toxic due to industrial sewage disposal. Despite repeated awareness campaigns against tanneries, they release about 40 million litres of effluents/day of which only 9 million litres is treated. These effluents contain chromium at a concentration of 248 mg/litre, when the WHO limit for drinking water is 0.05 mg/litre, a shocking 5000X higher concentration!! Chromium toxicity can cause a wide range of problems, from allergic reactions and dermatitis to cancer and dementia.
  • Near Varanasi, around 300 tonnes of half-burnt carcasses, corpses and ashes are thrown into the river each year. Coliform bacteria are present at 2 lakh mpn/100ml. Of the three sewage treatment plants, two are not operational.
  • Near Patna and Kolkata, the situation is the same – extremely high amount of coliform bacteria, huge volumes of industrial effluents and skyrocketing concentrations of toxic compounds!

The Gangetic Dolphin, the vehicle of Goddess Ganga – both of whom we have managed to kill in the last 50 years

This is a shame, and we all know it. This seems even more bizarre in the context of the current leadership in Uttar Pradesh – Akhilesh Yadav, the state’s Chief Minister, studied Civil Engineering and Environmental Engineering! What is the use of these degrees if, even after almost being the KING of the state, one cannot hasten the process of purification of the most sacred river in the country! Alas, the political parties in the state can spend millions of dollars building statues and parks but not for developing a robust system to curb the pollution of Ganga. (Note: The Ganga Action Plan, conceptualized in 1985 as “the largest single attempt to clean up a polluted river anywhere in the world.” has been termed a colossal failure, despite spending Rs.10 billion up until 2000)

What are the implications of Ganga’s pollution? Here are a few facts:

  • The Gangetic basin is the most heavily populated basin in the world, supplying water to 400 million people!
  • Ganga provides water to 40% of India’s population in 11 states. This water is used for everything – cooking, drinking, washing clothes, agriculture, bathing…everything!
  • A study found that 66% of the families near Varanasi were affected by diseases like cholera, dysentery, Hepatitis-A, Typhoid etc.
  • The pollution has threatened more than 140 fish species, 90 amphibian species and the Gangetic River Dolphin. The latter dolphin species, which is considered the vehicle of Goddess Ganga, is almost extinct.

Hindus believe that bathing in Ganga will wash away all your sins. “Ganga consumes all your sins and still remains pure…that is why it is divine”, they say. I would suggest forcing numb-nuts who make such arguments drink the water of Ganga for a week. Such capital punishments should also be meted out to owners of industries which release effluents in the river. Without a few strong, well-publicized cases of repugnant action, we will never be able to bring Ganga back from the dead. No amount of awareness campaigns will work. Ganga has soaked our sins for the past four thousand years, however, we have effectively managed to KILL IT in the past fifty years alone!