India Bogged Down in Ganges River Cleanup

Times Staff Writer

The Ganges is the world’s holiest river and the lifeblood for 350 million people from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Hindu mythology says it was created when the water goddess Ganga flowed from the heavens through the long hair of Siva, a member of the supreme Hindu trinity, to free the souls of men and women. For millions of Indians, the Ganges-- Ma Ganga-- literally is God.

When they drink or bathe at the famous bathing steps of this ancient city, usually known in the West by its anglicized name, Banaras, they consider themselves to be drinking of God and swimming in the womb of God.

Debris Includes Bones

But Mother Ganges has become a terribly dirty river, polluted by upstream industries, urban sewage and the leavings of pilgrims who come to the river to die and be released from the cycle of rebirths; the river’s debris includes the ashes and bones of cremated bodies.

The thousands of devout Hindus who visit Varanasi’s bathing steps thus risk their lives each time they go into their beloved river.


“Typhoid has been rampant in my family,” said Rama Kant Mishra, 57, chief executive of Vishvanatha Temple here, one of Hinduism’s most sacred sites. “Varanasi people suffer from all kinds of water-borne ailments.”

Yet Mishra and the other practicing Hindus of Varanasi--the spiritual epicenter of the faith, where Siva is believed to maintain his earthly home--continue to bathe daily in the river and drink its water. They must. Not to do so is to renounce their faith. The Ganges is no place to post a “No Swimming” sign or a surgeon general’s warning.

Quagmire of Conflict

Thus India’s government, which launched a costly campaign to clean the Ganges a year ago, finds itself today in a quagmire of conflicting forces, representing environmental science and the tenets of faith. It is the kind of situation that could cause coronaries at the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, perhaps even force the leaders of the Sierra Club to throw up their hands.

How do you institute health standards without directly confronting the traditions of a 4,000-year-old religion? How do you introduce radically new funeral rites without disrupting the complicated cultural phenomenon of the caste system? In short, how do you clean up a river that is also a god?

“Ganga is a mighty river measuring 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) that has considerable impact on the health of people and vegetation,” said Devendra Singh Bagga, the Indian government official in charge of the Varanasi district. “It is absolutely necessary to keep it clean.”

Bagga, 43, is a member of India’s elite bureaucratic cadre, the Indian Administrative Service. He paused to gaze down at one of the few objects on his large desk, a detailed map showing the 300 miles of river that are his direct responsibility. He chose his words carefully as he spoke to a reporter about the Ganges.


No ‘Secular River’

“There is also a theosophical aspect with a lot of religious sentiment attached,” he said. “It would be wrong to say the Ganges is a secular river.”

Since Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced his $250-million Ganges cleanup campaign a year ago, Bagga and other senior bureaucrats have come up with an impressive plan, at least on paper.

At the heart of the creative plan is the government’s intention to build sewers and treatment facilities to process the huge flow of waste water that pours into the river from the major river cities of Hardwar, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna and Calcutta.

Theoretically, the sewage would then be shunted from the cities to downriver plants where it would be converted into bio-gas and used to generate electricity. An estimated 75% of Ganges pollution comes from untreated waste water.

Innovative Methods

Meanwhile, some of the more innovative and controversial cleanup methods devised by the government include:

- Building large electric crematories on the river banks to replace wood pyres used in traditional rites. At the two main cremation sites in Varanasi, more than 42,000 bodies are cremated each year using traditional rites. This produces an estimated 5,000 tons of ash and unburned body parts that are dumped into the river. An estimated 100 uncremated bodies are dropped annually into the river by families that cannot afford the cost of traditional cremation. Moreover, tons of milk, clarified butter, fruit and flowers, used in the rites, spill into the river.


- Releasing thousands of carnivorous turtles into the river to consume animal carcasses and uncremated remains. Hundreds of years ago, such turtles flourished in the Ganges until they were killed by hunters for meat. Now, the government has begun breeding them on a farm near Lucknow.

- Creating a special river police force to patrol the ghats, the steep stone stairsteps that descend from the river bluffs to water level.

- Building municipal laundry areas where dhobies, the traditional caste of clothes washers, could launder their customers’ garments in municipal water that would then be treated, keeping the deadly detergents out of the river. Varanasi, a city with a population of more than half a million and a transient population of more than 100,000, has an estimated 4,000 dhobies.

After only a year, government officials say they have already made significant progress in cleaning the holy river. Administrative service officer Bagga said that almost 30% of the sewage flow in Varanasi has been “intercepted and diverted.”

Pictures of Progress?

He produced a photo album showing before-and-after pictures of ghats that had been rebuilt, pumping stations under construction and sewer lines that have been installed as part of the effort.

However, critics of the program say the results have been inflated to please Gandhi and other leaders for whom the Ganges campaign has become a critical political issue, particularly here in Uttar Pradesh state, one of the last bastions of the prime minister’s ruling Congress-I party.


Among other things, critics assert that the “intercepted and diverted” sewage has simply been transported downstream by canal and dumped back into the river below Varanasi.

An Early Activist

One such critic is Veer Bhadra Mishra, a professor of hydraulic engineering at Banaras Hindu University. Mishra was one of the early activists pressing for the Ganges cleanup and an initial supporter of the government’s program. Now he says:

“On June 14, 1986, Rajiv Gandhi inaugurated the Ganges action plan here in Varanasi. Exactly one year later, on June 14, 1987, Mr. Bagga gives a statement that 30% of the pollution has been removed. But no sewage plant has been constructed, no electric crematorium has been finished.”

Collision of Values

In many ways, Mishra, 47, represents the collision of faith and science that is central to the Ganges cleanup dilemma.

On one plane, he is a respected engineering professor. In the other part of his life, he is an important religious leader in Varanasi, the mahant, or hereditary caretaker, of the Sankat Mochan Temple at a beautiful site on the river. His home sits on a palisade above Tulsi Das Ghat, named for a 16th-Century poet.

Magnificent View

From his home, the view of the Ganges is magnificent. The river bends and widens as it prepares to flow along the curving front of the city, past the stone steps, the temples like giant sand castles, the maharajah palaces and the hives of humanity that make up what some scholars believe is the oldest continually occupied city on Earth, a place they say is at least as old as Beijing and Jerusalem.


Enraged at Pollution

Some years ago, Mishra was bathing in the Ganges near his home when he came to a place where raw sewage pours into the river. He became enraged. The engineer side of him vowed to clean the river. He began his public campaign to “purify the river.” He was the first to advocate construction of an electric crematorium to prevent the dumping of ash and bones into the water.

Yet, despite his awareness of the health hazards, which have caused periodic stomach ailments for members of his own family, the religious side of him caused him to continue to bathe daily in the river and drink its water.

“This created a turmoil inside of me,” he said in a recent interview at his university laboratory. “I cannot sever my relationship with the Ganga. I cannot stop taking a dip in my Ganga. At the same time I cannot accept what is happening. It has created a pain in my heart.”

Would Prefer Traditional

This internal conflict between faith and practice is also reflected in his attitudes about cremation. Although he has been a consistent advocate of the electric crematorium--which now stands less than half finished at one of the busier cremation ghats--he admits that he would prefer to be cremated in the traditional fashion, on a sandalwood pyre, soaked in clarified butter with the flame ignited at his mouth with special river grass by his eldest son.

It is this kind of faith and feeling for tradition that has convinced leaders of the doms, the powerful Indian sub-caste that handles bodies and cremations and sifts through the ashes for valuables, that they will never lose their trade to the electric crematories.

Feared by Other Castes

The doms are one of the strangest and most feared peoples in India. Because they touch the flesh of dead people and animals, they are considered “untouchable” by other castes. Yet their essential role at cremations has made them important and wealthy, particularly here in Varanasi. They are the main group that would lose if all cremations were converted from wood to electricity.


A traditional cremation costs $75 or more, depending on the quality of the wood used. An electric cremation is projected to cost only about $2.

Describes Job as ‘Fire’

When asked about his job, Sanjit Chaudhury, a young dom “prince,” a son of “the king of the doms,” answered with one word: “Fire.” Then, through lips stained red by betel-nut juice, he laughed long and hard, his thin body shaking with mirth.

As a drunken dom friend wobbled nearby, interrupting occasionally to insult a visiting journalist, the prince expressed his views on the flaws in the electric crematorium plan.

For one thing, he asked, what would people do with the bodies of lepers and people who died of snakebite? Such bodies cannot be burned but must be placed in the river whole, he said. That is the tradition, he said. A dom would never burn a man or woman bitten by a snake. Nor should they ever be burned in an electric oven, he said.

Then he demanded money from the journalist to pay for the wisdom he had imparted. The journalist refused to pay, but the prince added one free morsel of knowledge:

“All those people who are traditional Hindus will continue with the traditional final rites of cremation. We will never lose our jobs.”