The Mighty Ganga: an environmental dilemma

Shama Shah
Shama Shah

Article by, Shama Shah

The crack of dawn paints a beautiful picture by the Bank of the River Ganges in Varanasi of brightly coloured patchwork of saris drying in the morning sun on the steps that rise out of the water. Dhobis (washermen) wash clothes by rhythmically hitting on them on a granite slab and holy persons can be seen taking a dip and offering their prayers to the Sun God.

The mighty River Ganges has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization. Interestingly, Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of India was born in Allahabad on the Ganges. The river is popularly known by its Hindu name, Ganga. The 2,525 km (1,569 mi) river rises in the western Himalayas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, and flows south and east through the Gangetic Plain of North India into Bangladesh, where it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Hindus regard the Ganges as the holiest of rivers. It was named after the goddess Ganga, the daughter of the mountain god Himalaya. Pilgrimage sites are particularly significant along the river and include Haridwar, Varanasi and Allahabad. These places draw millions of devotees annually seeking spiritual purification in the waters and, in doing so, promote tourism. It is believed that bathing in Ganga washes away one’s sins and the water cleanses you of all the evil. The Ganges water is considered to be holy and Hindus cast the ashes of their dead in the river in the belief that this will guide the souls of the deceased straight to paradise.

Picture Source: Janak Rogers
Picture Source: Janak Rogers

The Ganges drainage area with its productive land is helpful for the Agrarian economies of Bangladesh and India. The Ganga and its tributaries function as a perpetual source of water supply to a huge agricultural region in India. Major crops grown in the region include sugarcane, rice, oilseeds, lentils, wheat, and potatoes. Beside the riverbanks, the existence of water bodies and marshlands offer a fertile cultivation region for harvests like chilies, legumes, sesame, mustard, jute, and sugarcane. In addition, there are various fishing areas by the side of the river.

But today the river is among the world’s most polluted, struggling under the pressures of modern India. In secular terms it’s in fact gravely polluted. There are three major contributors to the Ganges pollution problems: domestic waste, untreated industrial effluent including toxic and heavy metals, and cremation grounds. The river runs with more than two dozen major urban centres located on its banks. With many factories and business dumping toxic chemicals into the river, human sewage compounds the situation. An estimated 3 billion litters (800,000 gallons) of sewage is released into the Ganges each day, of which only a third – according official figures – is processed by treatment plants. Agricultural businesses are also draining the river basin and adding toxic pesticides and fertilizers into the river system.

Picture Source: Janak Rogers
Picture Source: Janak Rogers

More than 400 million people depend on the Ganges River for their livelihoods. Local environmental authorities are trying to shut down small businesses for polluting the river whereby locals rely on these very small scale businesses to feed their families. This sort of challenge to balance economic interests and environmental protection is one being played out the world over. 

The pollution has an impact on humans, marine life and wildlife. The results of mercury analysis in various specimens collected along the basin indicated that some fish muscles tended to accumulate high levels of mercury. Of it, approximately 50-84% was organic mercury. The Ganges River dolphin is one of few species of fresh water dolphins in the world. Listed as an endangered species, their population is believed to be less than 2,000. Hydroelectric and irrigation dams along the Ganges that prevents the dolphins from travelling up and down river is the main reason for their reducing population. Some of the dams being constructed along the Ganges basin will submerge substantial areas of nearby forest. Wildlife biologists in India have been warning that the wild animals will find it difficult to cope with the changed situation. Human beings are at risk of contracting water-borne/enteric diseases such as dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and severe diarrhoea.

The Ganga Action Plan or GAP was a program launched in April 1986 in order to reduce the pollution load on the river. But despite the efforts to decrease the pollution level in the river, it became even more. After spending Rs 9,017 million, this plan was withdrawn on 31 March 2000.

The cleaning of Ganga is a priority item on the agenda of PM Narendra Modi,who declared his commitment to the issue during his Ganga aarti on May 17 after winning the Lok Sabha elections. “When I see the pitiable condition of the Ganga, I feel pained, but I feel it is Maa Ganga who has decided I have to do something for her. The need of the hour is to restore the glory of the Ganga. Today Maa Ganga is calling us, her children to make the river clean once again,” Modi had said. The PM’s commitment to cleaning the holy river is reflected by the appointment of Uma Bharti as Minister for Water Resources and renaming the ministry as Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation. By no means will the task of the clean up of the Ganges be an easy one. It will require substantial planning, financial contribution and long term commitment of those that have taken on this challenge.

Picture Source: Janak Rogers

Picture Source: Janak Rogers

 

References

Wikipedia, Mapsofindia.com, www.dw.de, dailymail/in