Kumbh: time to come clean

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Kumbh: time to come cleanMaha Kumbh in Allahabad has perhaps no parallel in terms of the sheer size of the congregation. In less than two months over 100 million people are expected to come to this city, which sees the confluence of two rivers of India—the Ganga and the Yamuna. People come to worship on the banks of the Ganga. Even as they celebrate the river it seems they don’t see the river, but only the ritual.

The fact is that this “mela” is about how the Hindu religion—and I believe all religions—is based on a deep understanding of and respect for nature’s strength. But we now worship without reason. So, people can take a dip in the polluted river but still believe that the dirt, the filth and the plastic that swims around them, will not defile the river’s properties. Our strength has become our weakness.

It is a fact today that the Ganga and the Yamuna are polluted beyond acceptable levels. But why should we be surprised. We mercilessly take clean water from our rivers and return sewage and industrial waste. In the upper reaches, the Ganga does not even flow in many stretches because we take water for generating hydropower. The tunnels for run-of-the-river projects divert the rivers and as soon as they are released, they are diverted again. The engineer-designers have no concept of ecological flow to ensure they take water for power only after the river has enough to fulfil its environmental, social and livelihood needs. Then as the Ganga and the Yamuna reach the plains, we take every drop of water for irrigation and drinking needs. We suck our rivers dry. Then as worshippers, we put plastic into the river and everything else that should not be there. We do all this and then still believe we have rivers to worship. Or we pray to a dead and dying river but pretend otherwise.

It is clear that for the occasion of Maha Kumbh the government has made huge efforts to clean the two rivers, with a little success. These steps tell us that it is possible to reduce pollution in the Ganga and all other rivers of the country. We just have to learn the art of innovative pollution management.

This is what the government has done to contain pollution, albeit temporarily. First, more water is allowed to flow in the river. This is critical because without dilution there will be no assimilative capacity in the river. Rivers without water are drains. We should remember this. It is also a fact that this “release” of additional water deprives farmers upstream of irrigation; cities and industries of water. But it is also a fact that we cannot continue to plan for rivers without water. All users must be forced to plan for water needs based on what the river can spare, not what they can snatch.

Secondly, Allahabad has built sewage treatment plants. But then it is not as if it was desperate to clean the river. Let me explain.

In all cities of India, without exception, there is a mad rush to build sewage treatment plants. But we forget that cities do not have underground sewerage systems to intercept the sewage and transport it to plants for treatment. In this way, the built plants are white elephants—call them temples of modern India—which are built but not used. In all cities built sewage treatment capacity is underutilised. But engineers and planners have the uncanny ability to make us forget these details and be happy. They assure governments that the underground network will be built and pollution will vanish.

But the network is not built. Some sewage is treated and the bulk flows into drains and into the Ganga and the Yamuna. Worse, the little sewage that is treated (at considerable expense) is then released into the same drains that carry untreated effluents. The end result is pollution. It was in mid-1980s that the government of India launched an ambitious programme to clean the Ganga. Under this programme, sewage treatment plants were built. City engineers are still catching up with building the sewerage network for the plants to work. For the Kumbh, the government has done something smart. It intercepts the untreated sewage from the open drain and conveys it to the treatment plant. Simple.

Thirdly, the city is trying to experiment with “affordable” ways of treating sewage—by using bio-remediation techniques. The preliminary reports suggest that this system is working. The key is to measure its effectiveness carefully and deliberately.

Fourthly, the government has come down hard on the polluting industries—mainly tanneries and distilleries—on the banks of the river. The question is why enforcement against pollution happens only when there is a crisis; it should be happening in ordinary times.

The end result is that there is a temporary relief against pollution. Now the challenge is to keep the river clean. This will need more than government’s will. This will need a collective wish. This will not happen till Indians join the dots—faith is connected to the river not by accident or by ritual but by reason and rationale.

Environmental flows for Kumbh 2013 at triveni sangam, Allahabad 

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • So rightly put by Sunita

    So rightly put by Sunita Narain: "our strength has become our weakness". This is a case of the ritual swallowing the river and religion

    Ritual is an act practiced to purify the soul! But pressures of trade and commerce have made us outsource purifcation to God while we pollute in mindless splendour!

    Common sense, faith and future are on a long sabatical. Fortunately, we have few passionate sentinels, even in this day and age, crying hoarse, urging us to read the writing on the wall. Will we?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Sunita jee, Your views are

    Sunita jee, Your views are highly appreciated. I agree that steps should be taken and implemented by Govt. on a war footing to arrest the contamination of our holy rivers which are dying an unnatural death. But more important than this is the awareness level to be created at micro level, among the individuals, in order to educate them that their rivers are falling a prey to their needs of daily life. E.g I want my clothes to look the most bright and soft, among my fellow beings, by usage of high quality washing powers and softening agents. By entering into this competition though i am winning but on the other hand i am releasing this high toxic chemical water from my drain system to my holy river. So, i think we as individuals need to keep a tab on our unworthy desires which indirectly are taking a toll on our nature and environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Absolute spot on Ms. Narain.

    Absolute spot on Ms. Narain. Thank you

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Glad to note that govt. has

    Glad to note that govt. has made smart moves (at least now) to contain the increasing pollution, esp when the state is subjected to enormous visitor explosion in the name of offering prayers.

    The question is, as a common citizen what can I do to contribute towards awakening the govt. or public? Just by reading this informative article and posting a reply, am I doing my duty completely?

    I would like to invite suggestions from people on practical approaches that we must adopt in order to make a difference for every environmental issue, wherever possible

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • I completely agree with Ms

    I completely agree with Ms Narain. With experience and expertise in understanding the environment, everybody could expect such article from her. I got a chance to visit most of the sewage treatment plants in Ganga and Yamuna basin. Most of them are under-utilized, some of them are not utilized at all, while civic agencies are in a mad rush to construct new ones. Only God knows, from where they will bring the sewage to these plants.........Basically, we have to focus on the proper management of these plants and O&M by third party is a worst idea. We need competent agencies/companies to run these plants and above all, involvement of the local people in monitoring could help in better O&M.
    I also found the worst condition of storm water drains in most of the cities. These drains were carrying everything viz. sewage, solid waste,plastics, polythene, float materials, dead animals.....EXCEPT storm water. Most toxic hazardous wastes were also being dumped into these drains by various tankers.
    I really don't know whether the regulating agencies have no control on it or they don't wish to control it. I hope sometime DTE will focus on it and will make people aware about these storm water drains. Previously DTE has highlighted the case of Mitthi river in Mumbai and now we wish, more stories should be covered on drains in and around Delhi.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for this perceptive

    Thanks for this perceptive and constructive editorial. Perhaps we are expecting too much of religion when we criticize it (as I also do!) for not applying the precepts to environmental policies. Religion is a powerful force, but one of the reasons it is still with us after several millennia is that its policy implications are vague enough to survive through the cultural fashions of history. After failing to attract much religious support for "rights of the river" positions in my own geographic area (the arid Southwestern United States), I have turned to "ethics" as my own focus for influencing greedy or thoughtless humans to become kinder and gentler to Nature. Within the water sector, there is already a small literature on water ethics (to which I am contributing a book, to be published by Earthscan this August), and "ethics" is not tied to any specific religion. By encouraging water policy makers, and other water stakeholders, to assess for themselves what ethical values they are advancing through their water-related decisions, we can help them to make use of ethical principles they have already internalized (e.g., through their religion and culture more generally). In other words, it might be easier to train the water managers to apply their own imperfect ethics than to train the priests to become interested in water! This is the basic idea behind the Water Ethics Network (http://waterethics.org). By promoting interest in the ethical dimensions of water, perhaps we can provide a bridge between the great ideas of religion and the nitty gritty world of water and river management!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This is all very contextual

    This is all very contextual and relevant to many study disciplines like architecture and planning. It may prove very fruitful towards training and orienting young minds if CSE PROFESSIONALS organize regular presentations on such topics in architecture colleges.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Well said!! and well thought

    Well said!! and well thought out article. Why can't we simply see and understand what India was known for in ancient times? we mess up our river and water systems by `engineering' rivers!! and digging our own graves.

    Geologists tells me that messing up with river systems is messing up with fragile ecological balance. Can we, so called engineers, planners, police makers, elected representatives , apathetic citizens/users, religious gurus, and other onlookers... have any capacity to restore and maintain the ecological balance- since we do not have even common sense, why mess up with ecological sense, nature gifts like rivers?


    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • This is also contextual &

    This is also contextual & valid to transform ideas/belief/ethical management systems of young generation which strongly believes in consummerism & enjoyment not to say the old traditionalist ways of our community to contaminate existing water bodies.
    Faith was married to religious ways to maintain, protect and preserve the natural beneficial entities. with the modern developmental policies where ecological services are not taken care of for long are we following the religious traditions fully; at individual & societal level. NO. We can also learn from historical evidences that communities who neglected this aspect were wiped out.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • To best of my

    To best of my knowledge,sewage pouring into rivers has always been in fashion. It is the sheer levels now that makes the situation outrageous--increase in population,the toxic effluents used in many industries,disappearance of scavenger birds, amount of chemicals used in washing clothes and utensils absence of soak pits for sewage disposal and so on. What needs to be done is known. How to do it in this corruption-laden system and with most tolerant public is a big challenge . Arun B.Agarwal

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Thanks for underlining an

    Thanks for underlining an important issue.
    The problem is that different organizations in the country work in isolation. They are not concerned with what others do. As a result large numbers of good projects suffer.
    Another issue is that in each organization there are large number of people who want to make fast money through percentage, commission, bribery etc. All these are same, only the names vary from one place/organization to another. As a result, the main aim is to get some work done and push the bills to be paid to collect the commission. In the process if not much useful is done and the public money goes waste, it is never bothered. Till the time this situation is changed, we should not expect any appreciable improvement in the condition.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sir, This is to bring to

    Dear Sir,
    This is to bring to your kind notice that we are a Regd. N.G.O. (Youth Fraternity Foundation) working towards cleaning of major rivers of India. We do not get financial assistance from Govt. or non-Governmental bodies. Members of this organization have been raising funds at their own level.
    We are dedicated to clean up the sacred rivers and other water bodies and restore their original glory. We have noticed that the use of plastic bags for throwing flowers and other articles of worship into the rivers is also one of the most important source of pollution in the rivers.The findings of various studies suggest that the flowers in itself do not pollute the rivers but the poly bags in which these flowers are put and thrown into the river do choke and restrict the flow of water. Efforts by erecting barricades around the bridges have failed to achieve the desired result.
    As things stand today, it is very unlikely that we will be able to restore the pristine glory and sacredness of these holy rivers in any foreseeable future. Notwithstanding, plethora of ÔÇÿThe Ganga Action PlansÔÇÖ and the involvement of various NGOs, these rivers remain ever polluted. In fact, more polluted, now than before. This is partly, due to lackadaisical approach of the successive governments, and party,due to public apathy. Now the time has come to say ÔÇÿNOW OR NEVERÔÇÖ. Make no mistake; the time is running out for us. Therefore, let us put our heads together and find a solution to this vexing problem.
    Fortunately, our NGO (Youth Fraternity Foundation) (YFF) has come up with a unique, yet practical, workable and doable solution. We have already had trial runs in many parts of Delhi and the results have been quite encouraging.
    In order to achieve our goal, we have started educating the people not to throw polythene carry bags in the sacred rivers as it contributes to increase the pollution level of already dying rivers. Our volunteers are approaching the places of worship and devotees requesting them to give the used flowers and other articles of worship to us so that we can place it somewhere respectfully which will neither hurt their religious sentiments nor pollute our rivers and environment. We are also organising seminars, plays and distributing leaflets/posters to spread mass awareness
    So far, we have been able to meet our financial requirements at our own level without any external assistance. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain it, due to lack of funds. As a result, our project is likely to be in limbo, unless we raise massive funds through generous contributions from religious, business and spiritual organisations.
    We firmly believe ÔÇÿEACH INDIVIDUAL CAN MAKE A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE IN ITS OWN UNIQUE WAYÔÇØ. If one is diligently committed to a cause, however, noble or trivial, it may be.
    Youth Fraternity Foundation ┬« [ YFFÔÇÖs ] APPEAL: Since we do not receive any government aids or grants, it has become imperative for us to reach out to you directly through this letter, seeking your whole-hearted support, (financial, moral, social, spiritual and religious) and we are absolutely sure that you will be supporting us in our endeavour to this NOBLE CAUSE. As we all know ÔÇ£TO SERVE GOD, IS TO SERVE MANKINDÔÇØ, and we, Indians are known for serving the God, by serving His creatures.
    Dear friends, join us in our mission (cleaning up Ganga, Yamuna and myriad water-bodies) for the greater cause of HUMANITY.
    Youth Fraternity Foundation ®
    No.12, (Second Floor), Calypso Bistro, Hauz Khas Village, New Delhi 110 016
    Looking for a lasting relationship with you.
    Kind regards,
    Yours faithfully,
    (Gopi Dutt Aakash)
    Please refer your correspondence to
    Mr. Ajay Khattri (Joint Secretary)
    Mob.: 981000 -2465

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The clean river will be a

    The clean river will be a pipe dream unless the experts implement projects by which the the waste water is treated and recycled at its source.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Pilgrims should be taxed or

    Pilgrims should be taxed or limited number of pilgrims should be allowed to take holy dip (obviously millions taking a dip matters)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Kumbh Parva is an important festival of Hindu religion, where hundreds of devotees bathe in the Kumbh festival site Haridwar, Allahabad, Ujjain, and Nashik. Each of these places is organized every 12th year. In Haridwar and Allahabad, there is a semi-Kumbha in the interval of six years between two Kumbh festivals. The meaning of the word ‘half’ means half and for this reason, in the interval of twelve years, in the middle of the full moon, ie six years after the completion of Aquarius Aquarius is held. The last Kumbha in Haridwar was held in 1998. The history of Kumbh Mela is at least 850 years old. As it travels in twelve zones, it takes 12 years. Therefore, after every twelve years, Kumbha is organized at the same place. But for Kumbh, there is a plan for Kumbh in every third year at different places in different places. One year of the earth is the day of the Gods, therefore every 12 years Kumbha is organized in one place. Twelve years of the gods come 144 years after the people of the earth. It is believed that Kumbh is held in heaven after 144 years, so that year Mahakumbha is organized on earth.

    For more information visit http://www.chardhamyatradeals.com/kumbhmela/

    Posted by: Manoj Singh | 2 years ago | Reply