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  Time for a pledge to Ganga

In India, things need to get worse before they get better. So the good news about the Ganga is that it can’t get worse. For some decades, it has been treated as a sewer and it is now beginning to look like one. Sewage of 27 cities along Ganga’s banks discharge into her. Kanpur’s 350 leather businesses alone, dump 400 tonnes of solid waste everyday. Then there are other towns and brass, textile and other manufacturers for whom the Ganga is a convenience. Oddly, the least offending -save for the indignity of it all- are the corpses set adrift, those darlings of the TV camera-men—they are at least biodegradable and edible to fish.

Misplaced attempts to clean up have been made through legislation and grandiose schemes like the Ganga Action Plan [GAP]. Promoted by Indira Gandhi and launched by her son in 1985,GAP identified Ganga’s offenders quite correctly but chose sophisticated technological fixes to counter them. “We are launching these schemes not for Public Works Dept., but for the people of India”, said Rajiv Gandhi, memorably.

It turned out, it was for neither, but for foreign companies in environmental engineering, many of them trying out their hasty concepts. According to EcoFriends, a Kanpur based group, “As of today, GAP has totally come to a stand still and almost all the assets are either lying dysfunctional or were never executed due to lack of funds or mismanagement. The pumping stations and treatment plants do treat some waste, but are often overloaded, and when power is out in Kanpur (on an average up to 8 hours a day, sometimes 14 hours a day), the sewage is directly bypassed into the Ganga”. Electric crematoria too are bathed in power outages: bodies continue to slip into the Ganga. Hundreds of crores of rupees have been flushed into the river after them.

What is probably required is an attitudinal change in people’s outlook and a vast grassroots movement. Professor Veer Bhadra Mishra of Varanasi is almost the unofficial brand ambassador for such a clean-Ganga movement. He has the appropriate bio.: born into a family of priests, Mishra at 14, inherited the Mahant-hood of Sankat Mochan Temple in Varanasi. He also went on to score scholastic honours that led to teaching positions in hydraulic engineering at the Banaras Hindu University. Throughout his long career as teacher-priest it was Dr. Mishra’s habit to take a ritual bath in the river, finish his priestly duties in the temple and then proceed to the University. By around 1982, he realised he needed to rinse himself elsewhere after a dip in the Ganga. And that was when he started the Sankat Mochan Foundation [SMF].

Two decades down the line, Dr Mishra has retired from his teaching job. His science background has equipped him to investigate GAP’s 1995 claim that there had been a 70% improvement in Ganga’s health. SMF set up a simple riverside laboratory to analyse the waters, and called the bluff. [A nice profile of Dr Mishra by Brook and Gaurav Bhagat has appeared in EcoWorld and Time magazine called him a ‘Hero of the Planet’ in 1999. By the way, while at the Time page, do browse the invaluable links under “Fresh-water web resources"]. Faulty civil engineering design of treatment plants have in fact caused backflows of sewage into bathing areas. Ten years after GAP ate itself into its present comatose state, fecal matter in Varanasi’s Ghats are 3000 times the levels permissible for humans.

Dr Mishra’s credibility worldwide has enabled him to find funds and support for a people-driven action plan, called Swatcha Ganga [Clean Ganga]. Schools, community groups and villagers have joined in scientific testing and spreading awareness of Ganga’s sickness.

Ever the hydraulic engineer, Dr Mishra has joined hands with Dr William Oswald of the University of California to propose an environmentally friendly waste water treatment plan to clean a 7 km stretch of the river by Varanasi. It is based on Oswald’s work on ‘oxidation ponds’. Simply put, the idea is to settle sewage for 45 days in these ponds and using algae and bacteria, rid it of heavy metals and coliform. The treated water is then rendered fit for agriculture and pisciculture.  The system is gravity driven and uses no power. The ponds are to be located outside city limits.

The Bhagat article says,"more than 6,500 local people have signed a petition demanding the interceptor be built. Over 100,000 people have agreed to help build the dam walls for the oxidation ponds, as an act of religious devotion dedicated to cleaning the river”. There are political glitches to overcome but there seems for the first time, a people supported programme.

Close by SMF’s office, is the triple-storied house where rustic-poet Tulsi Das sat and wrote the Shri Ram Charit Manas. Mirroring the rhythmically flowing Ganga, the lilting verses of the book took the story of Ramayana to millions of unlettered folk. It is they who can put pride and dignity back into the Ganga.


It is worth our while, wherever we are, to see how we can do our bit for it. Contact details of the Swatcha Ganga movement are available at the foot of the EcoWeekly article

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