Bathers join daily at the ghats that flank the western bank of the Ganges in Varanasi
Today, in popular practice, the Gangaís powers of purification and absolution are honored by all those who trek to her riverbanks to receive her compassionate cleansing. The most devout pilgrims walk the entire length of her flow braving the rugged conditions of the high Himals for a glimpse of her splendor. As an avatarana the Ganga has a place of ascent/descent known as a tirtha, located at the mouth of the river. "She as triloka-patha-gamini, ëflowing from the three worlds,í has crossed over from heaven to earth to the netherworlds and has thus became a place of crossing for human beings, both the living and the dead" (Eck 1982: 176). The Ganga is considered the supreme tirtha in the Kali Yuga, the current age of degradation (Klostermaier 1989: 312).
Although valued for her absolute purity the river itself as the source of all life in northern India has become a site for environmental catastrophe in the last hundred years. Development, trade, and commerce are responsible for building new factories along the river, environmentally unsound installations that use the Ganga for waste disposal of industrial effluents. As the area grows and Indiaís population increases many of the cities that the Ganges flows through have exploded in size. Some five hundred million people, accounting for approximately 8% of the world population, now occupy the Gangetic basin (Stille 1998: 58). In tandem with the discharge of chemical materials municipal sewage is piped directly into the river only to become someone elseís problem downstream.
Dhobis, or washermen, spread their clothes across the ghats in Banaras after washing them in the river
Organic waste, consisting mainly of municipal sewage but also containing trash, food, and human and animal remains, comprises 80% of total waste dumped into the Ganges (Sampat 1996: 24). In Indian memory the Ganga has always served this purpose. Early sewage systems were instituted by the British, many of which were simply flow tables that allowed for waste to be carried out of each city. Sadly these systems which were designed in the late 1800ís and early 1900ís are usually found to still be in operation, poorly accommodating for many more people than they were originally designed for. Kelly Alley cites the example of Varanasiís Orderly Bazaar sewer, which was built in 1917 and, with minimal additions and repair, continues to serve the municipality today due to "lack of sufficient funds". On such smaller scales these sewers effectively diverted human waste into the Ganga, which could, 100 years ago, sustain that level of pollution. The Ganges has long been known to decompose organic waste at an accelerated rate. This is attributed to the rapid rate at which aquatic micro-organisms are able to find DO (dissolved oxygen) and together break down organic waste. The measure of this is designated as BOD (biological oxygen demand). D.S. Bhargava, an environmental engineer at the University of Roorkee, has found that "the Ganges decomposes organic waste 15 to 25 times faster than other rivers (Khalshiyan 1994: 1). Today, however, no feat of organic decomposition can match the tons of organic waste that pour from 114 cities along the Ganga into her waters.
Industrial pollutants, although only currently blamed for 15% of the total waste found in the Ganges, are fouling the river and poisoning its natural wildlife. High levels of industrial effluents can be detected as far north as Rishikesh, the seemingly innocent pilgrimage city. Payal Sampat writes:
It is at Rishikesh that the defilement begins, as raw sewage is dumped into the river along with hydrochloric acid, acetone, and other effluents from large pharmaceutical companies, and heavy metals and chlorinated solvents from electronics plants. The electronics industry, like any other that uses heavy machinery, consumes large amounts of hydraulic fluid and heat transfer fluids that contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). (Sampat 1996: 27)
As the Ganga continues to wind its way down towards Calcutta she experiences dozens of similar assaults that leave her waters fetid and filled with toxins and disease. 132 factories, including tap and die manufacturers, textile industries, and tanneries pollute the Ganga with industrial waste as she flows past. Ironically many of the largest offending corporations, including the Diesel Locomotive Works in Varanasi, The Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd. In Hardwar, and the Ordinance Equipment plant in Kanpur are owned by the government, which claims to be taking steps to protect the Ganga and its people (Weaver 1986: 142).
The World Health Organization standards for drinking water require coliform levels that do not exceed 10 per 100 milliliters of water. In Varanasi fecal coliform levels have been recorded as high as 100,000 per 100 ml. Elsewhere on the river the count ranges from 4,500 in the north to as high as 120,000 at its estuary before it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It comes as no surprise then that waterborne illnesses, such as viral hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid, cholera, gastro-enteritis plague communities up and down the Ganga. Sampat, writing for the Worldwatch Institute, lists these statistics: "One person in the [Gangetic] region dies of diarrhea every minute, and eight of every 10 people suffer from amoebic dysentery each year." (Sampat 1996: 26, 29). Alexander Stille, reporting for The New Yorker, claims these water-related illnesses "account for the death of more than two million Indian children each year" (Stille 1998: 60). 80% of all health problems in India and one-third of all deaths are attributed to the groundwater problem. A mere 7% of Indiaís 3,000 cities have existing sewage treatment facilities (Sampat 1996: 33).
Indigenous marine life in the Ganga today is threatened with extinction. The catch of hilsa, a species of Indian salmon, has been dramatically reduced in the last twenty years as has many other species. Those few that remain for local fishermen are of questionable value as many contain toxic levels of zinc and lead. As the sewage and bacteria encounter the hot sun of northern India algae proliferates. The natural need for algae is exceeded and rather than this decomposition resulting in increased oxygen it consumes oxygen. As a result marine life is threatened by the demands of the pollution on oxygen levels in the water.
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