DELHI: Fisherman Rambabu Sahani remembers his childhood days when the Ganga River used to be clear and fit for drinking.
“The Ganga was so clean that the coins offered were visible at the bottom. But now there’s so much mud that visibility is zero,” says the 35-year-old. “We could drink the water … but now it’s not fit for drinking.”
In fact, the Ganga, or Ganges, has become so polluted that fishermen like him, in Varanasi city, “aren’t allowed to fish”. Even the fish there constitute a health risk.
“This contamination isn’t visible with the naked eye, but found when fishes were tested,” says B D Tripathi, chairman of the Mahamana Malaviya Ganga Research Centre.
“It was imperative that consumption of these fishes had to be stopped. Hence the only solution was to ban fishing.”
Sahani, however, has known no other life than fishing. He still goes out to fish, but the police “harass” the fishermen community all the time. “It has become challenging for us,” he says.
The Ganga is not only a holy river to the Hindus but also one of the bedrocks of Indian civilisation.
And it faces a grave threat due to the numerous cremation rituals on its banks over the years, unplanned urban and industrial growth, and sewage and chemical effluents.
Reports since 2017 state that about 4.8 billion litres of sewage from 118 towns and cities flows into the Ganga daily, in addition to garbage and organic waste. But the functioning capacity of sewage treatment plants is only a billion litres.
The programme Insight examines whether the Ganga can ever return to a pristine state.
IN HARM’S WAY
According to India’s Central Pollution Control Board, pollution levels at 80 monitored sites on the Ganga have risen since 2013.
The biochemical oxygen demand was more than 3 milligrammes per litre at 36 sites — not even fit for bathing — and 2 to 3 mg per litre at another 30 sites in 2017.
As a reference, unpolluted rivers typically have levels below 1 mg per litre, whereas the pollution in Ganga reaches levels that are harmful to the river’s species and people who use the water.
“Heavy pollution is a leading cause of bio-accumulation of any toxicant,” notes B D Joshi, professor emeritus of zoology and environmental science at Gurukula Kangri University.
“Through fishes, it reaches human beings and … has been found causing a number of diseases like paralysis, like cancer, like skin diseases and hepatitis or, say, dysentery.”
A significant factor in the pollution is the tanneries in Kanpur, the city in Uttar Pradesh state famed for processing animal hides into finished leather. “The process generated wastewater with high concentrations of chromium,” notes unemployed tannery worker Amit Kumar.
Then in 2018, the Uttar Pradesh government shut down around 260 tanneries to keep the river clean. Many of them have since been allowed to reopen if they operate at 50 per cent of installed capacity and meet environmental norms.
But Kumar believes that many tannery owners are hoodwinking the government.
“All the tanneries are being issued notices. Once the notice comes, the owners shut down the operations but start operating in the night and drain the polluted water,” says the 38-year-old.
Asad Iraqi, general secretary of the Leather Industries Welfare Association, says the fault lies mainly with the sewage treatment plants.
“Either (the tanneries) are sending their effluent for the final discharge to the common treatment plants … (or) doing all their treatments on their own premises. And the tanneries that are running are all achieving the parameters imposed,” he says.
“But the common treatment plants have not been upgraded. Most of the civil sewage is going untreated into the holy river.”
Amid these claims and counter-claims, Kanpur has become a “symbol of pollution”, says Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director general of the National Mission for Clean Ganga.
“Kanpur is the largest city (in the state). Something like 35 lakhs — 3.5 million-plus (people) — are there, water becomes less and … sewage and industrial pollution both have been a major cause of concern.”
LIVELIHOODS AND LIFE LOST
After the crackdown on tanneries, Kumar lost his job and has had to turn to manual labour and other means, including going without food, to survive and feed his family.
Downstream in Varanasi, Sahani’s livelihood is also affected. “I used to earn 2,000 rupees (S$36) per day. And these days, I make around 200 to 300 rupees a day. We go fishing, but the fish aren’t there,” he says.
"After (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi came to power, we had high expectations that our lives would change for the better, but our income's been reduced."
To save the river they worship, some holy men have put their lives on the line.
G D Agarwal, an environmental scientist at the Indian Institute of Technology who became a swami, began a hunger strike in 2018 to check the river’s abuse. He died after fasting for 111 days.
Swami Shivanand Saraswati, the founder of the Matri Sadan ashram in Haridwar — in the foothills of the Himalayas — says he is also willing to give his life for the cause.
“We’ve renounced the world, no doubt (about it). But renouncing the world doesn’t mean that we can’t see the plight of the people, of the society, of the environment and we can’t do anything,” says the 73-year-old.
“Renunciation doesn’t mean that one will become passive. We’re not passive saints.”
A member of his ashram, Swami Atmabodhanand, a former computer science student, fasted for 194 days. He ended his fast after the Indian government gave a written assurance that it would act to save the river.
But the 28-year-old says the government has not kept its promise, so the monks are set to keep fighting until four main demands are met.
Swami Shivanand says: “Firstly, the (work on) four dams that’s going on … should be (halted). At the same time, (pebble) mining should be stopped in Haridwar.
“Thirdly, there should be a Ganga parishad (council), which would take care of the Ganga, and (fourthly) a Ganga Act.”
GOVERNMENT SPENDING BILLIONS
Despite the criticism and doubts, the government affirms that it is on course for its Clean Ganga mission and is also committed to maintaining the river’s uninterrupted flow — but more time and discussion are needed.
“We’re trying to work (it) out and convince other stakeholders also,” says Mishra. “We’ve met (the swamis) … and they’ve also been reassured enough to agree with us and then give (us) some more time.
“It’s good that all stakeholders have the interest of the Ganga in their mind, but there would be some limitations (and) time frame in which these things will happen.”
Modi launched his flagship Namami Gange programme a month after he took office in 2014. The 200-billion-rupee programme aims to set up several sewage treatment plants, develop riverfronts, clean up the river and restore biodiversity along the way.
And over the years, there have been some changes.
Before 2014, tour guide Vimal Kumar Pathak often found it “embarrassing” when he showed tourists round the river and Varanasi because of the filth.
“The boatman and I would have to work together and divert tourists’ attention to the other side, away from scenes of people defecating on the riverbank,” cites the 55-year-old.
But in recent years, he has noticed that the riverbanks, long filled with trash and human excrement, appear to be cleaner.
“People have become aware and stop others defecating on the ghat,” he says. “There’s no question that more tourists, both domestic and foreign, are coming to Benares (Varanasi).”
His earnings have increased, he adds, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(When) the effects of the cleaning began to show, I noticed that the tourists … would change their preconceived notions. Instead of staying only one or two nights, they’d stay for four nights,” he cites.
“There’s no doubt that the cleanliness of the Ganga and its ghats has been a significant factor in this.”
The government is also confident that the clean-up project will not suffer because of the pandemic.
“COVID-19 … has been a big challenge globally. But I’m very happy to tell you that not even for a day (did) the sewage treatment plants that were constructed and the Namami Gange stop working,” says Mishra.
“As far as finances are concerned, I can tell you the programme is structured in such a way that we haven’t felt any (financial) crunch … Nowhere in the field has any release (of money) been stopped.”
IT’LL NEED MORE THAN MODI
After the pandemic began last year, India’s nationwide lockdown also led to a cleaner Ganga.
“There were certain activities not taking place, and there was less demand for water,” notes Suresh Kumar Rohilla, senior director at the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi.
“So there was more water flowing into the river, and the pollutants were diluted.”
As India’s pre-eminent river system, however, it soon showed why it has borne the brunt of the country’s growing population, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.
“The moment the lockdown was lifted and industries started working and cities continued to flow sewage into the river, you can see the difference now. We’re back to square one,” says Rohilla.
For some, like Kumar, better days have yet to dawn. “I can only ask the government to find a solution without shutting down the tannery industry or closing businesses,” he says.
WATCH: Can India save the ‘dying' Ganga River? (49:13)
Modi has made the Ganga clean-up a primary mission of his government, but Joshi the professor emeritus thinks the river is “dying”.
“The Ganga will be cleaned only partially,” he says. “We can never attain the … purity of the river Ganga, which we enjoyed 50 or 60 years back.”
Mishra stresses the need for buy-in from everyone. “No one person can save the Ganga … It has to be a collaborative work. And whatever we’ve seen, I can tell you in the last three years I’ve seen change,” he says.
“We have to believe in it. And ‘we’ is the answer. Only when everyone joins this effort will it be possible, and it’s certainly possible.”
Watch this episode of Insight here. The programme airs on Thursdays at 9pm.