Can faith heal?
Billed as the largest gathering of humanity in recorded history, Maha Kumbh has commenced in Allahabad. Over the next few weeks, pilgrims will jostle to take a dip at Sangam—the …
Sometime in 1895 after visiting Kumbh Mela, Mark Twain wrote: “It is wonderful, the power of faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and the frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear, I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act borne of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold white.” Surely, the American writer was left awestruck by the grandeur of the event. But given the event’s size as it is today and associated complexities one wonders whether the centuries-old Hindu festival would still have evoked similar sentiments in him.
Kumbh Mela is held every three years at one of the four locations—Prayag, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain—where it is believed that drops from a kumbh (pitcher) containing the nectar of immortality were spilled as gods and demons struggled over it. The festival gains special significance at the end of the 12-year cycle. Called Maha Kumbh, it attracts the largest throng: 70 million devotees in 2001 made it the largest gathering in recorded history. This year, 2013, is that 12th year and the festival has begun at Prayag in Allahabad city of Uttar Pradesh. By the time it comes to an end on March 10, a staggering 100 million would have congregated at Sangam—confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. People who flock to Sangam are mostly those propelled by tradition or the urge to seek salvation. Legend has it that a dip in the holy confluence during Maha Kumbh will wash away sins of lifetime and previous births and help one attain moksha, the state of liberation from rebirth and sufferings. Then there are others who are drawn by the desire to witness the spectacular show of faith and experience the power of congregation.
The inaugural day of the 55-day congregation was marked by the first Shahi Snan (royal bath) of 13 akhadas, which represent different sects of sadhus. It began much before daybreak, with thousands of Naga sadhus, naked, carrying silver tridents, maces and swords, their faces doused in ash, their matted hair coiled like serpents upon their heads, sprinting into the chilly waters in religious ecstasy. There was a mad frenzy in the national and foreign media, with photographers rushing to get award-winning shots of the Naga sadhus. There were also heavily decked-up chariots, some in silver and gold, winding their way to the Sangam, with hundreds following in procession on foot, beating drums, blowing conch shells and waving saffron flags.
It was a unique blend of austerity and opulence. The sadhus reserve the right to take the first dip in the confluence at an astrologically appropriate time. This year it was 5.15 in the morning. Elaborate arrangements were made at the ghat (bathing place along rivers) reserved for the sadhus and religious leaders. The fraternity was led by Mahanirvani akhada and followed by Niranjani, Anand and Juna akhadas among others. A ghat was reserved for politicians, celebrities and those considered VIP by the administration.
The inaugural day also laid bare how a sacramental congress could be turned into a fanfare of muck and mire, and exposed gaping holes in the arrangements made by the mela authorities for the world’s largest gathering of people.
Cleanliness v godliness
More than 11 million people who followed the godmen to take the ritual bath had to jostle for space at 34 ghats, extended over a little more than one kilometre. A holy bath was no less than an achievement given that each one got about 13.5 seconds to take a bath, offer prayers and move out.
Ahead of the Maha Kumbh, sadhus had protested over inadequate water in the Ganga. Tirth Maryada Raksha Samiti, a conglomerate of religious organisations, demanded additional water be released to ensure enough clean water for the holy dip. They asked the government to set up a cell to monitor river flow during the gathering. There were also interventions from the Allahabad High Court, which is hearing public interest petitions on the Ganga pollution, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who heads the National Ganga Basin Authority.
Following the pressure, on December 20, Jawed Usmani, chief secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government directed officials to release 71 cumec (cubic metre per second) of water from Narora barrage in Bulandshahr, from January 1 to February 28. The barrage is more than 500 km upstream of Sangam. The supply will be reduced to 42.6 cumec from March 1 until March 10 since fewer people are expected and only one Shahi Snan would remain. The quality of water at the confluence improved within 10 days. Even then it barely meets the bathing standards.
The monitoring station downstream Sangam shows several parameters of water quality have improved, though they barely meet the standards. For instance, the BOD (biochemical oxygen demands, indicating the amount of organic pollutants in water) was 4mg/l. Water above 3mg/l BOD is not suitable for bathing (see ‘A momentary sparkle’).
But pollution can be no deterrent for a devotee who must take a sip of the holy water as part of ritual. He must also fill bottles with the Ganga water to carry home as gifts for friends and relatives.
“How can the Ganga be dirty?” asked Pinaki Ghosh, a resident of Kolkata. “People store Ganga water in bottles for years but it never smells. Water from any other source, if kept in a container, starts smelling within weeks. There must be a reason to it.”
Anshu Patel, a resident of Vadodara in Gujarat, said, “We have read articles about the water being dirty but there are several researches that show the water has healing properties.” He escorted his parents for a holy dip at Sangam. Enthusiasm was palpable among devotees and tourists who turned up in record numbers on the day of the first Shahi Snan. The mela authorities say they are anticipating 10 per cent increase in the number of pilgrims from the last Maha Kumbh Mela in 2001. On important bathing days, which include the days of Shahi Snan, their number may go up (see graph).
To host them, a vast tent-city has sprung that has been given the status of a district for the mela period. An IAS officer, Mani Prasad Mishra, has been given the charge of managing the festival. The mela authorities have increased the fair area: from 15 sq km divided into 11 sectors in 2001 to 19 sq km and 14 sectors. Tents, hospitals, electricity lines, mobile towers, sanitation facilities, water pipelines, overhead tanks, pontoon bridges and a maze of roads; they have all been set up at a whopping Rs 256 crore. The congregation is 80 times bigger than the host city of Allahabad, five times of the country’s commercial hub Mumbai and 2.5 times of Tokyo.
Managing such a huge population for nearly two months is no easy task. Apart from the challenge of providing them with basic amenities like food, water, electricity and sanitation facility, there is always the risk of stampede and disease outbreak.
A press release issued by the authorities claims that extra arrangements have been made to ensure cleanliness and hygienic atmosphere in the Sangam City to prevent any disease outbreak. But on the first day of the festival, it took only six hours to turn the fair ground, prepared for two months, into a cesspool.
Holy ground turns unholy
Soon after paying offerings to the goddess Ganga, the devotees had left their mark in the form of urine, faeces and plastic at the confluence, which was illuminating with sodium lamps till daybreak. Despite a ban, innumerable polythene bags, plastic bottles of ghee, honey and even beer cans were seen floating in the river or strewn on the sandbank formed in the middle of the river.
Despite the administration making claims that 10,000 people have been assigned for waste disposal, there were just 50-odd people picking rubbish from ghats after the crowd started dwindling. Officials said they had made pits of one square metre at several places for solid waste disposal.
They were too busy with the security arrangements and controlling crowd to prevent people from disposing of waste into the river. Even if they could prevent waste, what about the flowers, ghee and other scented assortments offered to the goddess Ganga?
Going by a conservative estimate, even an insignificant 100 g of ritualistic offerings by each of the 11 million people who attended the first day of Maha Kumbh would have resulted in 1,100 tonnes of solid waste. To put it into perspective, Allahabad generates 500 tonnes of solid waste daily.
The state government handout boasted 47,000 toilets, which include 35,000 dry toilets and 7,500 eco-trench toilets where excreta gets collected in a tank and is treated with microbes. About 1,000 biodigester toilets were also promised.
Based on technologies developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation and IIT Kanpur, this toilet employs bacteria to feed on faeces in the biodigester tank and degrade it, and costs Rs 8,65,000. But the promised number of biodigesters are yet to be delivered.
Till the last week of January the Mela authorities had procured only 78 such toilets. Mishra said the delay in procurement was because the toilet is not manufactured on a large scale. Three biodigesters that Down To Earth could spot were locked. Just like 2001, open defecation was widespread.
By noon, toilets started overflowing and the visitors were greeted with stench from open garbage pits and water holes filled with urine and human excreta. People started using cubicles, made for women to change clothes after bathing, as toilets. Despite a Central law banning manual scavenging, the authorities have employed people for scooping faeces out of dry toilets and sewage pits. But they had to race against time (see ‘Scavenging still a reality’).
|Scavenging still a reality
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993 prohibits carrying night soil on head and seeks demolition of dry latrines in the country. Following a Supreme Court order to implement the law, Uttar Pradesh had committed to complete conversion of dry latrines into flush ones by March 2011. Yet about 28,000 dry latrines have been built in the Kumbh area. The mela authorities have also recruited 5,000 people to keep these toilets clean, apart from cleaning health clinics and the maze of roads in the mela area. They are set to recruit 5,000 more. Most of these sanitation workers are manual scavengers like Nilu and are from Bhadwari, Majhima, Tandwari and Baveru blocks of Banda district.
Even the census of 2011 had found that the state has about 200,000 dry latrines. Uttar Pradesh is not the only one to violate the Act. In 2002-2003, the Union Ministry for Social Justice and Empowerment admitted that there were 9.2 million dry latrines across 21 states and Union Territories, and 676,000 people lifted human excreta for a living. However, when Safai Karamchari Andolan filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2003, most states denied employing scavengers and claimed that most of them had been rehabilitated in alternative professions. But the Maha Kumbh Mela exposes the lie.
During Kumbh of 2007, sanitation workers formed a union and protested against irregular and poor pay. This year, formation of union has been barred. They are being paid Rs 156 for working 24 hours and are recruited through agents. They do not have a fixed contract. This is when upper caste people like the Kushwaha and Thakur, who are taking up sanitation works lately, are recruited through Zilla Parishads and are paid Rs 15,000 a month for fixed working hours. Valmiks come to the fair with families. Their quarters are on the fringes of the mela area near open drains and water outlets. They do not have toilets for themselves and are not allowed to use toilets made for pilgrims. “We are untouchables. No matter how much the politicians give speech about us, people always call us chhote log and treat accordingly,” says Nilu.
The government claims to have laid 570 km of water pipelines and is providing 80 million litres of water a day (mld) to the pilgrims. But thousands of kalpwasis (pilgrims who stay on the riverside in tents for a month and spend their time meditating and performing rituals) complain of water shortage and foul drinking water. Jal Nigam officials admit they are supplying water from deep bore wells without filtration. However, they say, there is enough tap connection to cater to the needs.
But this is a far cry going by the WHO standards, which say a person needs at least 40 litres a day for sustenance. The water provision at the Sangam City works out to be less than two litres per person per day after taking leakage losses into account, or even lesser as sanitary workers use the water to spray on roads for settling dust. With 20,000 tap connections, there is only one tap per 2,000 people in the Sangam City. Pilgrims complain that in several pockets pipelines are yet to be laid. They walk for about three kilometres to fetch drinking water.
This, along with other unsanitary practices, is keeping the medical department busy. Doctors at Main Hospital say they are receiving a large number of patients with stomach ailments. In one of the 14 sectors, about 50 cases of diarrhoea were reported in the first week. There is just 0.1 bed per 10,000 people against the national average of nine, and 0.04 doctor per 10,000 people against the national average of six.
Yet pilgrims feel blissful amid the chaos. “We have been attending Kumbh Melas since 1989. Dirty toilets and cramped ghats do not make much difference to us,” says Pradip Agarwal, a resident of Allahabad. “A dip in the river rejuvenates us.” Or, is it the power of congregation?
Based on studies of melas on the Ganga, Indian and British researchers have published a paper in peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One in October 2012. It argues that despite cold weather, endless noise, poor food and risk of disease, devotees who attend such events and participate in collective rites have higher levels of mental and physical wellbeing. Maybe, the study holds the answer to Mark Twain’s quest.
With inputs from Avikal Somvanshi
The 55-day-long Maha Kumbh has brought the Ganga some relief, though short-lived. Just before daybreak on the first day of the festival, the river was relatively clean and with substantial flow. But this picture of India’s longest river will last only till the festival lasts.
To placate the estimated 100 million sadhus, pilgrims and tourists attending the Maha Kumbh, the state government is following a three-pronged strategy to keep the Ganga clean and flowing. In keeping with the order of the Allahabad High Court, which has been monitoring pollution in the Ganga following a public interest petition in 2006, the government is releasing water from upstream reservoirs, treating sewage in Allahabad before releasing it into the river and has curbed effluent discharge from industries upstream.
As a result, the quality of the water at the confluence has improved, says Sanjeev Gogia, founder of Aaxis Nano Technologies. The company, based in Delhi, monitors water quality of the Ganga every 15 minutes at eight places along its course on behalf of the Central Pollution Control Board (see snapshot of monitoring report). Data from the state pollution control board shows by 6 pm on the day of Shahi Snan, BOD leveles in the water of the confluence had risen to 7.4 mg/l, up from 4.4 mg/l from the previous day. “This increase is mostly due to mass bathing,” says Gogia. “But it is insignificant when compared to the pollution load discharged by industries.”
Before reaching the confluence in Allahabad, the Yamuna is the sewage receptacle for several towns and cities, including Delhi, although it is somewhat diluted by tributaries en route. The Ganga travels through several cities and industrial areas, including the leather hub of Kanpur. Every day, it receives approximately 250 million litres of industrial effluents and 1.3 billion litres of partially treated sewage (see map on facing page). At Allahabad, their confluence creates a cocktail of pollutants.
With its sewerage system in a shambles, Allahabad heightens the pollution levels. Water at Sangam has been deemed unfit for bathing since the 1990s.
Holy but without sewer system
Until December 31, 2012, the city had just two sewage treatment plants (STPs) with a capacity of 89 million litres a day (mld). This is about one-third of the sewage the city generates. These STPs were installed under the Centre’s Ganga Action Plan, initiated in 1984 to check pollution in the river. Following the intervention of the high court in 2010, five more STPs have been installed.
They became functional just before the Maha Kumbh. Getting the administration to meet this deadline was difficult. In 2011 the court observed: “We are constrained to observe the state government, which is the ultimate authority to see that the people of the state are provided unpolluted river water, has been lethargic in taking significant steps to check the menace of tanneries discharge and sewage discharge enter the river untreated.”
As of now, these seven STPs are capable of treating 211.5 mld of sewage. Their capacity will be bolstered by 42 mld by June. But given that Allahabad is one of the oldest and populous cities of the country, most areas remain unconnected to the sewerage system (see map). “Besides, every now and then, political establishments allow illegal and unauthorised colonies,” says L K Gupta, general manager, Ganga pollution control unit of Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam. “Each year minor drains appear which carry raw sewage from these establishments and release it into the 57 storm water drains across the city that outfall into the Ganga or the Yamuna. On paper, Allahabad generates 240 mld of sewage but this is far less than the ground reality,” he adds.
Now with directive from the judiciary, the authorities are mechanically lifting sewage from storm water drains and treating it in STPs. But for this intervention, four of the seven STPs would not receive a drop of sewage. They are running at full capacity as they are intercepting, diverting and pumping the sewage flowing in nearby drains. “We will continue to do this until the yet-to-be-laid sewer lines bring sewage to the STPs,” says Gupta, acknowledging that it is a pipe dream.
For the 35 untapped drains, the state government gave the go-ahead to employ a bio-remedial technique, which uses microbes to break down the organic matter. A Ghaziabad-based firm has supplied the microbial solution. The authorities admit that the bio-remedial technique is not a proven treatment practice as per the guidelines of the Ministry of Urban Development. Yet, they say, the colour and odour in the drains have reduced markedly, and are expected to meet the prescribed discharge standards after treatment. The technique is likely to be discontinued on March 31, which means come April the 35 storm water drains will once again begin to discharge untreated sewage into the Ganga and the Yamuna. “The state government has sanctioned Rs 2.2 crore for the bio-remedial project just for the Mela period,” says Gupta.
Ahead of the Maha Kumbh, the Prime Minister’s Office also issued a directive to the Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board, asking it to ensure that industrial unit “comply with prescribed norms”. But making erring industrial units shut down is easier than getting them to comply with norms, say pollution control board officials.
The government decided to shut down all tanning units in the upstream city of Kanpur. On record there were 417 tanneries in Kanpur. Over the past two years, the administration has shut down about 100 tanneries as they were not meeting effluent discharge standards. Many, however, continued to function as the pollution control board turned a blind eye to the discharge. Earlier this month the regional officer of the state pollution control board in Kanpur was suspended for not carrying out his duties. The government is playing hard ball, for the moment.
“Since January 10, people come at odd hours to inspect as if we are in the drugs business,” says Imran Siddiqui, director of Super Tannery Limited, one of the oldest units in Kanpur. The units will begin functioning on February 14 until 22, remain closed for three days, resume functioning again on February 25 until March 5 and finally resume without restrictions only after March 10, when the Mela ends. Siddiqui says the closure will result in damages up to Rs 1,000 crore and affect nearly 100,000 people. “We are being made the scapegoat, while other industries continue to function,” he adds.
“The four drains in Kanpur that carry the wastewater of tanneries do not have flow, at least in the day time,” affirms Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of Ecofriends, a Kanpur-based nonprofit that often monitors drains in the city for clandestine discharge. Gogia says the real time monitoring station shows the closure has had a noticeable impact downstream of Kanpur where BOD levels have reduced from 22-25 mg/l to about 6 mg/l in the past month.
The fallacy in such system of curbing pollution is that one cannot shut down a city. Kanpur generates over 400 mld of sewage, of which only 171 mld is treated. The remaining continues to be discharged untreated into the Ganga. The authorities only hope that it gets flushed out or diluted by the extra water released from upstream reservoirs.
Ganga filled half-heartedly
The high court had asked the state government to make sufficient water available at ghats on the days of Shahi Snan, which receive the largest throngs of pilgrims and sadhus. Officials at the irrigation department claim they have been releasing 71 cumec of water from Narora barrage in Bulandshahr since January 1 and will continue to release the amount till February 28. “We will release an additional 11 cumec of water around the six important bathing days,” says A K Srivastava, superintending engineer of the state’s irrigation department. The flow will be reduced to 43 cumec from March 1 until March 10.
A report by WWF-India in December last year says given the presence of such a large number of people, water must be released during the Kumbh period to maintain the environmental flows at the confluence. To achieve and maintain the desired depth of 0.9-1.2 metres for bathing, environmental flow at the confluence should be in the range of 225 to 310 cumec. The report has been submitted to the Uttar Pradesh government.
This is an ambitious target for planners. In January during non-Kumbh years, water flow of the Ganga is 142 cumec at Allahabad, which is much less than that of the Yamuna when it joins the confluence. “If the Ganga is allowed to flow the way it is flowing during the Maha Kumbh, it will have serious impacts on drinking water and irrigation needs in the upstream catchment,” says R K Srivastava, professor at the civil engineering department of Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology in Allahabad, who has a team studying the environmental impacts of the Kumbh gathering. But the irrigation department did not do any studies to understand how the diversion of water from the Narora barrage for nearly two months would affect the rabi crop in the upstream catchments.
When the festival gets over, the barrage gates will close to hold back the waters, the pollution control boards will turn a blind eye to the discharge, clandestine or otherwise, from tanneries and other industrial units, and cities along the banks will continue to discharge untreated sewage into the Ganga. And the holy river will return to its usual way, sluggish, polluted and neglected.
| The Ganga will remain dirty
According to the Central Pollution Control Board, of the 12,690 km length of the river (including tributaries, the main stem of the Ganga is a little over 2,500 km in length), 42 per cent is moderately polluted or worse off. Half of the river is not fit for bathing or drinking.
Sadhus take up the torch
“Pollution in the Ganga is an aesthetic issue for us. However, it is not for those who are dependent on her for irrigation and drinking water,” says Sadhvi Bhagwati Saraswati, an American who is associated with Parmarth Niketan Ashram, the largest ashram in Rishikesh, since 1996.
This is the first time the Kumbh gathering is being termed “green” and environment has become the talking point at several religious discourses and among seers and sadhus. “People listen to religious leaders, which is why faith-based environmentalism will work,” says Saraswati. “Besides, one cannot talk to the common man in a scholastic way about pollution loads in a river.” To keep the Ganga clean during the Mela period, Parmarth Niketan Ashram has launched an initiative, the Ganga Action Parivar. Every day sadhus and devotees associated with this Parivar clear out polythene and other rubbish thrown on the riverbank. They are also organising meetings on the riverbank to make people aware of the pollution load in the Ganga and ways to improve its health.
Swami Chidanand Saraswati, head of Paramarth Niketan Ashram, plans to call a meeting, which will be attended by chief ministers of five states through which the Ganga crisscrosses. The meeting will discuss how to maintain the purity of the Ganga.
Several non-profits have also joined the nascent movement of faith-based environmentalism. “It was during the Kumbh of 2007 that I got the idea of spreading awareness of cleanliness, hygiene and pollution among a vast gathering,” says Kusum Vyas, president of Living Planet Foundation, a non-profit based in the US.
Some, however, are not as convinced of this approach. “Green political thought is good but we cannot expect much improvement given the population increase and model of growth we have adopted,” says M P Dube, dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at Allahabad University.
The Sangam City itself is a classic example of this contemporary society, where a pop-up mega city is constructed and deconstructed within a matter of weeks. Maha Kumbh is no Olympics, which leaves behind a legacy of infrastructure. Come March 10, the tents, stalls, offices, ghats and pontoon bridges will be dismantled. The 100 million people will leave behind a mountain of waste, excreta and plastics for the residents of the host city and downstream villages to deal with, for long.