To hundreds of millions of Hindus, the Ganges is not just a river but also a goddess, Ganga, who was brought down to Earth by Lord Shiva. The myth persists that the river has a self-purifying quality—sometimes ascribed to sulfur springs, or to high levels of natural radioactivity in the Himalayan headwaters, or to the presence of bacteriophages, viruses that can destroy bacteria. Despite that, the mysterious river is among the five most polluted rivers in the world.
Ganga is India’s largest river basin: it covers 26 per cent of the country’s landmass and supports 43 per cent of its population. In 1986, the government of India launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). In August 2009, GAP was re-launched with a reconstituted National Ganga River Basin Authority. The objectives in the past 30-odd years have remained the same: to improve the water quality of the river to acceptable standards (defined as bathing water quality standards) by preventing pollution from reaching it – in other words, intercepting the sewage and treating it before discharged into the river. But despite programs, funds and some attention, the Ganga still runs polluted.
More than a billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial effluent enter the river every day. Two problems are paramount. One is pollution from the tannery industry, which is centered in Kanpur, roughly midway along the river. The other is sewage from Varanasi, two hundred miles downstream—an ancient city, considered the spiritual center of Hinduism, where the river is effectively an open sewer. Both cities are in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has a population of two hundred and fifteen million.
-Ganga has been declared one of the world’s fastest shrinking and most threatened rivers by the United Nations.
-In Varanasi, 70% of those who use the Ganga for bathing or drinking will contract a waterborne disease.
-In Patna, 110 million litres of sewage is dumped into the Ganga daily.
-In Kolkata, nearly 90% of municipal drinking water is contaminated with fecal matter.
-In Allahabad, over 10,000 MPN/100 ML of fecal coliform exist.
-In Kanpur, industrial toxins emitted by tanneries cause cancer, organ failure, convulsions and deaths.
-In Haridwar, 89 million liters of sewage is dumped into the Ganga daily.
The Hindu-nationalist government’s restoration initiative is inspired by the transformations of the Chicago River and of the Thames, but they are barely a tenth the length of the Ganges. Restoring the Rhine, which is half the length, took almost three decades and cost forty-five billion dollars. The budget for Namami Gange is about three billion dollars over five years.
In seventies, thirty-five sewage-treatment plants were built in the three most populous states along the river—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal—but their capacity was based on the population at the time, and they quickly became obsolete. Moreover, although the central government paid for the plants, municipalities were left to operate them, and often failed to pay the wages or the electricity bills to keep them running.
In 1993, under Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao, new treatment plants and other pollution-abatement projects were added on several of the river’s larger tributaries. This phase was followed by the creation, in 2009, of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, by the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. For the next two years, the cleanup was directed by Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister, who is now an opposition member of Parliament.
Along with implementing a detailed legislation that prevents any source of pollution, restoration initiative will involve continual stakeholder involvement, including persistent and consistent efforts to implement policies and plans that connect state and local bodies, while addressing their challenges and encouraging training and capacity-building programs. Successful restoration will also require mass awareness campaigns and media-based water eco-consciousness campaigns that are aimed at raising awareness of the pollution problem among the population.