Gangai Namaha – Battling the Pollution of Ganga

The iconography of the river Ganga, the mother goddess to the bountiful Indian soil and its children sprawled across its topography is common knowledge among Indians and the world. She is the ever fertile, ever bountiful river mother nourishing life and providing a source of livelihood. However the recent trends hardly paint a pretty picture of the fifth most polluted river in the world.

The National Mission for Clean Ganga is the executive wing of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) which was constituted under the provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act (EPA), 1986. The NGRBA now stands dissolved but the NMCG continues to flourish as a central government initiative to free the chokehold pollution on this great river. Another undertaking under the NMCG is the Namami Gange project, a flagship project by the Union Government since 2014 for taking appropriate measures to abate pollution.

The Ganga is the primary source of water to around 40% of the Indian population residing along its banks. The biggest threat to the cleanliness of the river appears to be the country’s constantly growing population that constantly releases sewage and faecal remains and other organic waste in the river waters. The Indo Gangetic Plain is the most densely populated region of the country with billions of people populating cities like Delhi, Allahabad, Kanpur, etc. and are flourishing as industrial centres. The flip side of the industries is the fact that the unprocessed Industrial waste continues to be dumped in the river even as various legal ramifications for flouting green laws are already in place. Kanpur has been declared by the Central Pollution Control Board as the most polluted city along the river banks. The Narora barrage diverts a huge water load for irrigation purposes so the river lacks the expected force of the stream and is extremely sluggish in these areas. Tanneries are a major source of pollution in the river, but for Kanpur the gross waste produced from the tanneries in Jajmau comes to 50 million litres per day. Grossly Polluting Industries in India have risen in numbers at an alarming rate to the point of doubling over the past few years. A majority of these GPIs that do not comply with the set safe standards are based in Uttar Pradesh while the government vehemently refutes claims in fatal denial. The sugar industries contribute the maximum pollutants in the river- the molasses, beet mud, fly ash and other organic and inorganic remnants flow into the river. The industrial sectors in the pockets of the Ramganga and Kali are considered massive contributors of pollutants. The river in fact is now rendered unfit for even bathing purposes, let alone drinking although people continue to consume Ganga water everyday.

Patna with its population of 19 lakhs continues to release untreated sewage coming to a staggering statistic of 286 million litres of sewage per day, of which the Bihar Rajya Jal Parishad is able to treat only 109 million while the rest goes untreated into river waters. The state has a very poor mechanism of dealing with the industrial waste generated (87 per cent of the 39 industries pumping untreated waste into the rivers).

The same religion idolising the river renders it harmful in myriad ways. The river is deified and millions carry water cans to access some of the healing powers for themselves and their loved ones but the river itself needs a miraculous healing touch. One of the largest congregations of human entities happens along the banks of the river for the Kumbh Mela (a whooping 24 crores of pilgrims partook in the holiness in 2019). The implications of gatherings this massive taking a dip in the river to wash away sins poses extremely unsanitary connotations. Dead bodies and offering for the living and the dead alike are offered along its ghats, contributing to unimaginable biological waste.

The Prime Minister has from the very beginning of his election campaign pledged the cleanup of Ganga as one of his primary political agendas and pledged $3 billion dollars over five years for river clean-up and also pledged to involve Hindu godmen and spirituality leaders as project advisors. However, most analysts agree the funds are not nearly enough to fix the problems on the 2,500-km long river.

The Ganga Utsav is one such unique endeavour launched by the NMCG as an annual 3 day event held on 4th November for generating awareness and conceptualising methods of protecting the river from further damage and restoring ecological balance in the waters. The Utsav in fact appeals to the mystified, mythical interpretation of the great river and evokes the Goddess Ganga image to appeal to the larger body of Indian citizens to generate awareness for the cause. Various speakers of eminence are specially invited- from the fields of culture, literature. Politics and spirituality to deliver their respective messages on why the country can no longer push its head through the sand. The culture of the river and edification of the status of the Ganga as the living river is also worth mentioning. This cultural purpose is served with the various cultural activities such as storytelling, retelling of mythologies and so on. Prime Minister Modi took upon this opportunity to propagate the ‘Nadi Utsav’- to spread the initiative to the other river basins of the country. Continuous Activity and Learning Portal (CLAP) is a unique online enterprise of Ganga Utsav 2021 by the Namami Gange project in association with TREE foundation and is a learning portal that will be active all the year round with various quizzes, activities discussion forums to keep young school going children informed about the various initiatives of cleanup of Ganga. The interactive portal will generate discussion and debate over betterment of the sorry plight our rivers currently face. The Ganga Task force also came up with the concept of a Ganga Mashal – an expedition that will travel the route spanning 23 stations along the river Ganga which will help sensitization of the local people and Voluntary groups such as Ganga Mitras, Ganga Praharis, Ganga Doots,etc. These voluntary groups are in turn to mobilise public awareness and support in tackling the herculean feat of cleaning the river.

Ecological imbalances all across the globe threaten to impoverish non-human life forms too. Flora and fauna native to the rivers are disappearing- the stark reductions on the number of the Indo Gangetic Dolphin, native to Ganga waters is a sad testament of the fact. While the Ganga houses the largest inland fisheries for the Ganga river the journal Science of The Total Environment found out in this survey that the stretch closest to the mouth of the river is densely polluted with fishing nets – most of which are plastic- that have led to the dwindling numbers of endemic species such as the three-striped roofed turtle and the endangered Ganges river dolphin. The threat is simply not limited to ingesting plastic but also plastic cutting off their airways and leading to suffocation. There is still some hope in the form of reusing the plastic material used for the nets to forge carpets out of them aka “circular economy” that will also provide an alternate source of income.

As the world continues to head into constant deterioration from an environmental standpoint it becomes all the more crucial to preserve our vast reserves of water sources. Its high time Indians start treating Ganga as the river deified in our slokas. Om Sri Gangai Namaha!

– Bipasha Bhowmick

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