Cleanup efforts and the Dilemma

In 1985 the Indian government under Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi developed the Ganga Action Plan, a program designed to combat pollution of the Ganga. An ambitious five-year, $300 million dollar project, GAP attempted to solve the problem by installing dozens of sewage treatment facilities along the Ganga as well as forcing corporations to police themselves with the threat of fines and litigation. For the first time research teams were assigned the task of monitoring coliform counts and BOD levels.

After the first phase of GAP was complete, however, there was little evidence of its efficacy in cleaning up the river. Recent evidence suggests that, while slowed, the amount of sewage and pollutants has doubled since the institution of GAP policies. Various explanations abound as does regional speculation and apportionment of the blame for this failure. During the course of its existence leadership and staff of GAP have come and gone, often unfamiliar with the work done by previous groups. In many cases there was never follow-up funding given to maintain the treatment plants. As a result small problems often led to total inoperation of the plants. The bulk of the treatment facilities run on electricity, a dangerous dependency on a fickle power source; in many Indian cities it is not unusual for the power to go out several times a day. During monsoon seasons many of the plants become overwhelmed and municipalities are forced to shut them down.

Citizens of northern India are quick to offer their opinion of why GAP has been doomed to failure. Mismanagement, corruption, and incompetence all rank high on the lists of editorials issued by the many communities that live along the river. Kelly Alley, an Anthropologist writing for Ethnology who conducted her field work in Banaras, found a popular exclamation of the confusion and frustration felt by the people of the city over Ganga issues. ëSab kha gayeí, or it was all eaten, meaning government officials pocketed most of the funding, was how many explained the dismal failure (Alley 1994: 136).

Tensions have continued to mount as municipalities blame the individual for their use of soap, the disposal of dead animals, and unlawful defecation in and around the river. Challenges of hypocrisy fly, though, as scientists understand that it is the factories and government institutions that are responsible for the greater portion. In Varanasi, like many other cities along the Ganges, the absurdity of these government accusations can be seen as bathers spill detergents and soaps into the river, leaving a thin covering that masks the sewage main underneath discharging 250 million liters of raw sewage daily (Alley 1994: 135).

In many circles a consensus has been reached. Any attempts to install waste removal systems or conservation programs throughout the last 200 years, locals agree, have failed to involve the immediate community they would effect. It is this critical lack of dialogue and education that has left the majority with a feeling of disempowerment and a resentment, even an opposition to these cleanup programs. Those with a true investment in the river, those who are intimately connected to the Ganga were never included in the planning. Government groups have adopted independent agency to do with the Ganga as they see fit, ignoring the population to whom the Ganga belongs, to whom the Ganga takes on greater significance than as just a water source and carrier of pollutants. Alley explains, "there is a conflict of cultural logic between the scientific view of pollution and the traditional belief in the Gangaís purity." (Alley 1994: 127).

The idea of pollution itself challenges the traditional understanding of the Ganga. Pollution has been the secular term used by government agencies when describing the state of the Ganga. Pollution is problematic in that it suggests to many a state of inherent impurity rather than the result of human action. A more popular term has been gandagi, which encompasses only the waste products themselves. Indians are loath to use the words of scientists and policy-makers which suggest that gandagi can exert its influence over Ganga. Many observe that "the Ganga can never be impure" and that the power of Ganga is that it can overcome gandagi, "carrying it away into the ocean" (Alley 1994: 130).

Pollution suggests an abstraction that removes the human element of this process (Peavey 1995: 48). But blaming the river, or employing rhetoric that could suggest blaming the river is not culturally viable in the quest to clean up Ganga. Ganga is so much more than simply a river. Diana Eck, a religious scholar, cites the Ganga as the archetype of sacred waters. She writes, "The River Ganga is not confined to the course she takes across the plains of North India but participates in that spatial transposition which is so typical of Hindu sacred topography, pervading the sacred waters of all Indiaís great rivers." (Eck 1982: 167). The ritual and traditional understanding and usage of the Ganga is always differentiated in modern discussion from the potable needs of a cityís water system. Gangaís foremost function, it must be remembered, is to provide absolution, not to quench thirst. Gangaís purpose, in the traditional discourse, cannot be altered by humankind.

Pollution control in India in the modern age is frequently seen as an imposition against Hinduism. Germ theory, fecal matter counts, the notion of ecological disaster, all these ideas are patently western. The first attempts by the British to bring sewage systems to India in the late 19th century were admittedly executed with the intention of ushering in scientific rationalism for the betterment of native life and their "savage conditions" (Alley 1994: 132). Ever since then sanitation programs have been divorced from the majority body, importing European and American specialists to diagnose and address the problem without educating or organizing the public to stand with these programs. In the eyes of many the Indian government has turned to secular solutions to what they perceive to be religious deficiency, the inability to recognize waste and deal with it in the context of the all-purifying Ganga. As a result opposition among the laity has fomented.

Through all of the activity of the last fifteen years surrounding government policy and the Ganga the public has remained divorced from the proceedings. Individuals, while excluded from a democratic process, or an educational scheme, have been scapegoated by various programs. In 1987 the Environment Minister created a police force in Varanasi to prohibit defecation along the banks of the river, the spreading of debris and garbage, the dumping of animal carcasses in the river, and blocking the flow of river. In this way the local authorities were pitted against those who ideally would be integrated into these programs. This antipathy persists today. Only a year ago outraged residents cornered a city water engineer and forced him to stand for several hours in a pool of sewage to impress upon him the exigency of the situation (Stille 1998: 63).

Veer Bhadra Mishra illustrates the modern dilemma for Hindus and their practices. "There is a struggle and turmoil inside my heart. I want to take a holy dip. I need it to live. The day does not begin for me without the holy dip. But, at the same time, I know what is BOD and I know what is fecal coliform." (Stille 1998: 58). A recognized mahant, or high priest, as well as a professor of hydraulic engineering at Banaras Hindu University, Mishra, along with two colleagues, founded the Sankat Mochan foundation in 1982, a private organization dedicated to cleaning the Ganga. Their Clean Ganga Campaign is professed to be a grassroots environmental movement, seeking members and financial support from the local community. The Clean Ganga Campaign has managed to involve the Hindu tradition and its adherents while still considering external solutions.

"With a clear understanding that their strategies would be contentious among residents and government officials, the Clean Ganga Campaign directors aimed to educate Benaras residents about the problems of river pollution in the idiom of sacred purity. They framed their instruction by emphasizing a concern for Ganga's eternal power and purity. But when proposing remedies for cleaning Ganga, they turned to secular solutions. For example, when initially developing programs to convey problems of sewage drainage and public waste to the public, the directors sought assistance from American colleagues who eventually established the "Friends of the Ganges" in the USA." (Alley 1994: 134)

Mishra knows of the mistakes of the past, of telling the people, devotees of the Goddess, that their loved one is polluted and no longer sacred. He knows that any policy and action involving the Ganga must utilize and recognize the religious idiom that constitutes the Ganga for the rest of India. Western science and Hinduism must cooperate. Specialized research conducted by outsiders must be balanced by localized action.

"The mahant is also convinced that science and religion have to mesh if the Ganges is to be saved. The Western approach, based on fear of a possible ecological disaster, will not work, he said. ëIf you go to people who have a living relationship with Ganga and you say, ëGanga is polluted, the water is dirty,í they will say ëStop saying that. Ganga is not polluted. You are abusing the river.í But if you say ëGanga is our mother. Come and see what is being thrown on the body of your motherósewage and filth. Should we tolerate sewage being smeared on the body of our mother?í and you will get a very different reaction, and you can harness that energy." (Saville 1998: 67)

This energy, the product of acknowledging Ganga as both Goddess and long-standing waste-removal system, is the last opportunity for effecting change on the river. Indiaís rapid growth rate indicates that it will soon be the most populous country in the world. Efforts to clean up the Ganga could, if successful, serve as a model of cultural and religious preservation as India strains under the weight of rapid development. Ganga Ma will continue to purify all. In return, hope many residents of Hardwar, Rishikesh, Allabad, and Varinasi, she can be accorded the dignity and respect due a living goddess. Surely a goddess that serves Indians without rest can expect such reciprocity.




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