Beware of the Ganga

A dip in the Ganga was meant to purify both body and soul. But devotees in Bihar have had a bad experience

Published: Monday 15 December 1997

It was not the spending of hundreds of crores of rupees in cleaning the Ganga that made the average Indian who takes a dip in the river, sit up and acknowledge something that the world had known for long. The Ganga was polluted. And highly polluted at that.

At Patna, a few days after celebrating the venerated Chhath festival on the banks of the Ganga, several devotees had eruptions, red spots and other skin irritations all over their bodies. Apparently, it was the 'holy dip' which had led to this impious problem. Something in the water, undoubtedly a result of indiscriminate waste disposal into the river, had triggered off this reaction.

With another religious festival, Kartik Purnima , just around the corner, the lakhs of devotees who take a dip in the river at Patna, would probably think twice before they do so. And more importantly it may lead to a situation where the average person on the street demands from his local or state government that something more is needed to be done for tackling pollution in the river.

Cynical though it may sound, it must be mentioned that such an incident was just waiting to happen. For far too long have rivers in India been treated as glorified sewers. On the one hand they are considered sacred, and on the other, they are abused day in and day out by the very populace that reveres them. Religious ceremonies and practices, that have been followed in the land for centuries are also in dire need of an updation of sorts. This task had been attempted once at Benares, where the cooperation of priests and other holy men had been sought. Sadly though, nothing could come from the attempt, as the Hindu clergy stood to lose more, if any alteration was attempted in these age-old practices, which have been acknowledged to be harmful for the health of the river.

Along its 2,525 km long course, the Ganga receives mostly untreated sewage from 27 major towns. The Ganga Action Plan (gap) Phase one, still paraded as the show-piece of river cleaning in India, has taken in more than 450 crore rupees with hardly any results to show anyone at the end of the day. At the first meeting of the National River Conservation Authority, held in New Delhi in July, the Prime Minister's only worthwhile comments regarding the gap were that the delays in implementation needed to be done away with. At the same meeting, the minister of environment and forests chose to pile all failures of the plan to less than minimum flows: lack of fresh water in the river.

The ground reality is that in all the main towns situated on the banks, untreated and partially treated sewage still flows into the river. The sewage treatment plants lie idle for most of the day for want of power to run them. Many pumps remain clogged with plastic bags while the unconcerned public throws them all over the towns. Public toilets have been converted into offices at Patna, and sewage ponds serve as cricket grounds in that same town.

The waters of Ganga always had the quality of longevity, where its waters did not putrefy even after long periods of storage. Scientific studies carried out by Roorkee University in the early 1980s, confirmed an age-old belief that its waters were special. The Ganga had a unique quality in that it had a remarkable self cleansing ability, certainly better than any river in the world. It had a very high oxygen-retaining capacity, which explains why its waters remained fresh over long periods of storage.

Conducted between 1982-84, the studies indicated that more than two thirds of the initial biological oxygen demand (bod) loads present in the form of a suspension, settled down in the river bed within 30 to 60 minutes at the rate of three metres per hour. This was, their studies indicated, 15 to 25 times faster than values reported in other rivers. Further, Roorkee University scientists realised that concentrations of disease causing bacteria, which shot up at waste dumping points along the river, reduced by almost 90 per cent 7-10 km downstream.

As far back as 1896, E. Hanbury Hankin, a British physician had reported in the Annales de l'Institut Pasteur that cholera microbes died within three hours in Ganga waters while they continued to thrive in distilled water even 48 hours later.

Thus, when such a unique and remarkable river becomes the source of skin problems, it is reflective of the river's degradation. It is also reflective of the failure of the gap to improve water quality. Essentially a 'pipes and pumps' scheme, the plan is being replicated in 14 polluted rivers in the country with not a thought spared on the failures of the gap. While sewer drains and sewage treatment most certainly are a necessity in any town or city, mindlessly replicating an expensive plan is certainly not the best way to tackle the situation.

And, perhaps most important, the public are as unconcerned and disinterested as ever. It cannot be the task, nor the duty of any government, state or central, to instil civic sense into the country's populace. While plans such as the gap give to a town a facility, the average man on the streets isn't at all concerned, primarily as he hasn't paid for the facility. And none of the municipalities have had the courage to get the user public to pay for the facilities thus set up. Ironically, it would be instances such as these that would virtually pry open the public's eyes to the reality that rivers, however holy, are bound to hit back.

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