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Above: Devotees performing achamana in the river/Photo: UNI

The NGT has pointed out that if cigarette packs can carry health warnings, people can also be informed about adverse effects of the polluted river water                             

~By Darryl D’Monte

Quite some years ago, the World Health Organisation had a startling poster which displayed a bare female breast with the caption: “Milk in these containers is unfit for human consumption.” The message was clear: humans are consuming so many toxic substances—pesticides in particular—that these are entering their bodies and mothers can transmit these toxins to their newborn infants.

This comes to mind after a recent query by the National Green Tribunal (NGT) over whether the 441-km-long stretch of the Ganga between Haridwar and Unnao could carry warning signs every 100 km to the effect that drinking or bathing in these waters posed a health risk to worshippers. It added that the signs could be installed at shorter distances where populations are greater along the holy river.

In the current political climate where religious beliefs are given precedence over scientific ones, the Court struck a blow in favour of rationalism. “People are drinking and bathing in the Ganga out of reverence and respect,” it said. “They do not know that it may be dangerous to their health. If cigarette packets can contain a warning saying it is ‘injurious to health’, why not the people be informed of the adverse effects (of the river water)?”

As the Court pointed out, people perform achamana—ritual purification—thinking they will go to heaven; they might unwittingly be hastening that process by exposing themselves to the filthy levels of the river, said to be the  most polluted in the world.

Last September, the NGT ordered a committee, set up to supervise its earlier orders on cleaning this stretch of the river, to submit a report on its rejuvenation. It comprised the secretary of the Union Water Resources Ministry, IIT academics and UP government officials. It also asked all stakeholders to report on the second phase of the clean-up, from Unnao to the UP/Bihar border.

Last July, it banned construction within 100 metres of the water’s edge and dumping of waste within 500 metres. Failure to abide by the second would attract a fine of Rs 50,000. However, it observed that despite having spent Rs 7,000 crore to revive the river, its state remained a “serious environmental issue”.

It directed the authorities to start setting up sewage treatment plants and anti-pollution equipment in four months and complete this in two years. Tanneries near Kanpur had to submit an action plan within six months, failing which the UP government would have to relocate them. All the projects cited in its order would be finalised by the National Mission for Clean Ganga, which was set up in 2011, and is now associated with the Namami Ganga project which PM Narendra Modi initiated in 2014, soon after he was elected. It has a budget of Rs 20,000 crore over the government’s five-year span, four times more than the expenditure in the previous 30 years. Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi launched the Ganga Action Plan in 1986.

It is clear from the concern expressed by the NGT that despite being ascribed a national priority by successive governments at the centre and the expenditure of a few thousand crores of rupees, the condition of the river remains filthy.

Is the very scale of the problem part of the reason why all such efforts have proved unsuccessful? The country’s largest river flows through 11 states, providing water to 500 million people, which is 40 percent of the population. It also passes through some of the country’s poorest districts, with towns and cities releasing their untreated sewage. To compound the problem, traditional tanneries along the banks, together with slaughterhouses, chemical plants, textile mills and distilleries are also highly polluting, with poor monitoring. As much as 600 km of the river is considered biologically dead zones.

There is no question that till poverty levels along this Indo-Gangetic belt are improved, initiatives to clean the Ganga may resemble the task of Sisyphus, the mythical Greek king who was condemned to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as it neared the top.

While the problems look intractable, they have been compounded by irrational religious beliefs in the cleansing power of the river. Over 70 million are said to bathe in the river during various religious festivals every year, in the erroneous conviction that their souls will also be cleansed and their sins absolved in the process. Every 12 years for aeons, tens of millions of pilgrims congregate in Allahabad and Haridwar, to bathe together during the Kumbh Mela, said to be the biggest congregation of humans in the world.

During all such rituals, pilgrims discard excreta, food, waste, leaves and flowers in the river, unmindful of the ecological damage this does on such a humongous scale. The relatives of those who are cremated along its banks believe that their souls will traverse the river and achieve salvation. Adding insult to injury, 40,000 bodies are estimated to be burnt yearly in Varanasi alone; with the rising price of wood, these bodies are often half-burnt and disposed of in that state.

Science has, from time to time, given such beliefs a supposedly rational explanation. The Institute of Microbial Technology in Chandigarh, affiliated to the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, last year was reported to have discovered that new viruses or bacteriophages in the Ganga mimic the dirty bacteria and consume them. If this is correct, it is surprising that this finding has not received more attention. In any case, it is doubtful whether this new virus could cope with the sheer quantities of waste being indiscriminately emptied into the river.

In 1984, this writer travelled to a remote jungle in eastern Maharashtra where activist Baba Amte was leading a campaign against two dams. Chipko leader Sunderlal Bahuguna travelled all the way and presented a bottle of Ganga jal to Amte. After Bahuguna left the room, Amte gave me the bottle to empty, declaring that he wouldn’t ever contemplate drinking such polluted water.

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