Ganges: Saving the Saviour

When my grandma was on the death bed and breathing last at home, the kulpurohit (family priest) was summoned in the wee hours under whose supervision rituals like some donation in charity and recitation of Vedic mantras were performed. Finally,  the grandma was made to inhale Gangajal (holy water) for the peaceful departure of her soul. Such was the divine sanctity of Ganges (i.e. Ganga) water since time immemorial that almost every Hindu household will keep a sacred pot of Gangajal for sprinkling it to purify things on auspicious occasions and for nirvana of the dying family member.

Years later when my mother died of a heart attack in old age on the hospital bed, the departure of her soul lacked these rituals. I still recollect from my long years in civil service at Allahabad (Prayag) famous for the Sangam (confluence) of Ganga, Yamuna and mythical (invisible) Saraswati, it was a mandatory requirement to take visiting friends or relatives to Sangam for a holy bath. I used to religiously accompany them but was always hesitant to take a dip in the Ganges myself because I could never accept the dirty and polluted water there. Perhaps the sanctity of these rituals was also lost by the time for these very reasons.

Descent of the Ganges and Redemption of Dead

Ganges has traditionally been considered a sacred river and worshipped by devout Hindus as goddess Ganga. From the ancient times, the Ganges was considered a holy river and there are several mythical events or stories attached with its descent (avatarana) or origin on earth. As the popular story goes in Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas, in ancient times the saga Kapila was on intense meditation which was interrupted and spoiled by sixty thousand sons of the king Sagara. Enraged at this, Kapila burnt them to ashes with his angry gaze dumped to the netherworld. It transpired that only the holy waters of the Ganga, then in heaven, could bring the dead sons their salvation.

King Bhagiratha, a descendant of this dynasty, resolved to bring salvation to his ancestors. So he undertook rigorous penance and was eventually granted by Gods his wish of Ganga's descent from the heaven. As Ganga originally had a very turbulent force and her descent would have turmoil on the earth, Bhagiratha persuaded Lord Shiva at Mount Kailash to receive Ganga in the coils of his tangled hair with a view to moderating her fall. Consequently, Ganga descended duly tamed in Shiva's locks to arrive in the high Himalayas. Bhagiratha then led Ganga down the plains through Haridwar, Prayag, Varanasi and eventually to Ganga Sagar sinking to netherworld to salvage king Bhagiratha’s ancestors. In honour of Bhagiratha’s key role in Ganga avatarana, the source stream of the Ganges in the Himalayas was named Bhagirathi.

Because Ganga is widely believed to have descended from the heaven to earth, she is also considered the vehicle of ascent, from the earth to heaven. Accordingly, many Hindus prefer to cremate their dead on the banks of the Ganges with the belief of instant salvation. If the death has occurred elsewhere, close relatives take ashes of the dead for immersion in the Ganges to holy places like Haridwar, Prayag and Varanasi to ensure salvation. Hindus consider the waters of the Ganges to be both pure and purifying.

Some Facts about the Ganges

Let’s talk about certain facts relating to the Ganges. The river originates at the Gomukh, Gangotri glacier at the approximate height of about 4000 metres in the state of Uttarakhand in Himalayas and terminates at the Ganga Sagar in the Bay of Bengal on the eastern coast. Actually, the Ganges begins at the confluence of two mountain rivers namely Bhagirathi and Alaknanda at a place called Devprayag in Uttarakhand. Bhagirathi is considered to be true source of Ganges in Hindu culture and mythology. 

In its total length of approximately 2550 km, it traverses through the states of Uttarakhand (about 450 Km), Uttar Pradesh (about 1000 Km), Bihar (about 405 Km), Jharkhand (about 40 Km) and West Bengal (about 520 Km). During its course, in another stretch of about 110 Km the river serves as the boundary between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The river has a total catchment area of about 8,61,404 square Km which works out to more than 26% of the total geographical area of India.

Some topological facts about the river include that estimated about 43% of the Indian population resides in and around the Ganges’ basin and is directly or indirectly dependent on it for the livelihood. Main tributaries and sub-tributaries of the Ganges include Yamuna, Ghaghra, Gomti, Ramganga, Gandak, Kosi, Damodar, Chambal, Kali, Betwa, Kens, Tons, Sone and Kasia-haldi. The river has an estimated annual discharge of about 4,93,400 million cubic meter and major cities located on the banks of Ganges are Rishikesh, Haridwar and Roorkee in Uttarakhand, Bijnor, Narora, GarhMukteswara, Kannauj, Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Ghazipur and Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh,  Patna and  Bhagalpur in Bihar and Bahrampur, Srirampur and Kolkata in West Bengal.

The hydrologic cycle in the Ganges basin is governed by the Southwest Monsoon. About 84% of the total rainfall occurs in the monsoon from June to September. Consequently, the flow of stream in the Ganges is highly seasonal.

Religious, Social and Economical Significance

Apart from the traditional Hindu beliefs attached with the Gangajal, another religious significance of the Ganges is periodical Kumbh Mela, the place for a mass pilgrimage in which Hindus gather at the banks of Ganges river to take holy dip on auspicious occasions. The Kumbh Mela is celebrated every third year, the Ardh (half) Kumbh is celebrated every six years at Prayag and Haridwar, and the Purna (complete) Kumbh takes place every twelve years at four places namely Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. These events need long preparation and massive arrangements with millions of pilgrims taking holy bath at opportune time.

The Ganges and its tributaries have been used for irrigation since old times.Several dams, barrages and canals have been built along the Gangetic course. A major dam at Tehri was opened in the year 2005 which is a multi-purpose project for the hydroelectric power, irrigation and drinking water for several northern states. Besides, several smaller dams have been built in Uttarakhand to tap the water mainly for hydroelectric power. Another major barrage at Farakka was opened in 1975 close to a point where the Ganges enters Bangladesh.The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin also has a huge potential for the hydro power but little has been done to tap potential of this basin so far.

The Gangetic plain with its fertile soil is the main source of the agricultural economics of India as the Ganges and its tributaries provide a perennial source of irrigation and drinking water to a large area. Chief crops cultivated in the area include wheat, rice, sugarcane, lentils, potatoes and oil seeds. Despite high pollution, the river supports aquatic life and provides opportunities for fisheries too.

Tourism is another related activity though not much developed despite a large scope. Many tourists and pilgrims regularly visit holy towns namely Haridwar, Prayag and Varanasi for religious reasons including taking a dip in Ganges. Besides, cities like Kolkata and Patna have developed riverfront walkways along the banks of Ganges to attract tourists.

Pollution Level is Atrocious

So what has gone wrong with this mighty river in a country where people have such a reverential belief that they address rivers as mother or Goddesses and so frequently offer coins, flowers and sweets as offerings and homage? What has happened to the water which was once a source to purify things and assure nirvana but now a scare among many to even for taking a dip in the water?

Apart from the usual bathing and washing activities, the Ganges suffer from heavy pollution levels due to indiscriminate dumping of pollutants into the river. The chief source of pollution include direct sewage disposal from cities and towns along the river, industrial waste from factories and religious offerings mostly wrapped in non-degradable polythene bags. On many places, after cremation of the deceased, ashes and body remains like hair and bones are thrown into the water of Ganges. Even un-cremated bodies are a source of pollution as many sages, pregnant woman, children below a certain age, people bitten by snakes, people with leprosy and the poor dead bodies are disposed of without rites to decompose in the river.
Sugar mills in the Western Uttar Pradesh and Tanneries at Jajmau, Kanpur are a major source of pollution of Ganges on account of their poisonous chemical wastes rendering water unusable for drinking and bathing. Washing of dirty clothes by washermen, immersion of idols on festive occasions and cattle wallowing goes on unabated. In the absence of latrines in every household in rural India, the open defecation of lakhs of people along the riverside also adds up to the growing pollution. Over the years, pollution has reached to an alarming level in the river.

Along with ever-increasing pollution, silt and water shortages are getting increasingly worse. Some sections of the river are already completely dry during the most part of the year other than the rainy season. Around Varanasi the river once had an average depth of about 60 metres but in many places it is now drastically reduced to only 10 metres.

Steps Taken in the Past to Rescue the Ganges
It’s not that nothing has been done at the government and institutional level to rescue the Ganges in the past. However, there is no comprehensive and reliable data available for the measures taken by the Centre and various state governments in the past. As per the estimates of one standing committee of the parliament, so far about Rs 9,000 crores have been spent by various governments for cleaning of the Ganges. Most of the amount has been spent on sewage plants but there has been no perceptible change or improvement.

At the Central government level, an action plan in two phases was undertaken during the last thirty years besides constituting the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) for revamping the river conservation programme with appropriate financing, planning, implementing, monitoring and coordinating activities. In the first phase, the Ganga Action Plan-1was initiated in June, 1985 by the then Congress government focusing on 25 major cities and towns at the bank of Ganges. An amount of about Rs 452 crores was spent, major beneficiary states being Uttar Pradesh (6 cities), Bihar (4 cities) and West Bengal (15 cities) and the scheme was finally closed in March, 2000.

In the second phase, the Ganga Action Plan-2 was started in 1993 and continued up to the year 2009; this time the plan included main tributaries of Ganges too. This programme was focused on 95 cities and towns of the same beneficiary states with a total expenditure of about Rs 838 crores.
The NGRBA constituted in February, 2009 under the chairmanship of the prime minister of the UPA government too has so far tentatively spent about Rs 835 crores for making Ganges uninterrupted and clean. In addition, state governments, several cooperative, social groups, non-government organization and individuals have been working for the cause over the years.

These environment initiatives taken to clean Ganga under the Ganga Action Plan have largely been unsuccessful due to lack of requisite technical expertise and foresight, environmental planning without proper understanding of the human–environment interactions, rampant corruption, and lack of support from religious heads and organizations. According to one study, through these action plans disproportionate expenditure was incurred on political propaganda, release of urban and industrial waste remained unchecked, drains and sewers flowed in river as in the past as also other polluting activities hitherto fore.

Recent Initiatives for Clean and Continuous Ganges

The Prime Minister of the new NDA government had vowed to work for the clean and uninterrupted Ganga during his campaign in Varanasi, and now the government is planning a policy initiative to check pollution in the mighty river. Seriousness of his commitment can’t be doubted with the creation of ministerial portfolio for Ganga Rejuvenation.

“The government will work out a policy initiative for the rejuvenation of Ganga as well as the cleaning up of other important rivers in the country. Efforts will be made to make it clean and pious as it was in the past,” Union Minister of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharti made a statement after taking charge of the ministry.

It is understood, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) is in the process of drafting a new law to ensure clean Ganga. The new ‘Ganga Act’is likely to make provision of heavy penalty for those polluting the river, ensuring continuous river flow, financial model to stop polluted water entering the river, regulating hydroelectric projects and floodplain management. The committee under the MoEF for the said purpose include members from the Ministry of Water Resources, Ministry of Urban Development, Central Water Commission and a consortium of IITs.

Seriousness of the Central Government on ambitious clean Ganga mission could be gauzed by recent initiatives where under the Centre has sanctioned six new sewage treatment plants (STPs) for various cities and towns along the river in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. These STPs have been cleared under the national mission for clean Ganga (NMCG) and they will come up at Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Beur, Karmalichak and Saidpur (Patna) in Bihar and Budge Budge and Barrackpore in West Bengal at an estimated cost of Rs 10580 million. These six plants together are likely to treat over 113 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage. It is believed that the feasibility reports for a number of other plans are already under examination and more projects are likely to be announced in the near future.

This, however, at best can be considered as a good beginning but a lot of sustained efforts and investment would be required over a period of time. Magnitude of the problem can be imagined from the very fact that as against the estimated 38,000 MLD of sewage generated in cities, the centrally funded STPs have a total capacity of about 4,716 MLD with a capacity utilization of approximately 66% only.

Dams and barrages have their own relative advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, they are useful for tapping hydroelectric potential, irrigation and drinking water but at the same time they deprive the river of its natural and normal flow and adversally affect ecology and aquatic life. Hence utmost attention and care must be taken by the governments while planning any dam or barrage, and to the extent feasible, it should be avoided.

Today, such technology is available that polluted sewage water can be cleaned and recycled for use. What is really needed is to work in this direction with firm commitment and resolve by all concerned. While giving clearances to new industries, a mandatory condition should be made for them for in situ disposal of industrial waste. Existing industries must be asked to take remedial measures in a time bound manner to make arrangement for waste disposal in a harmless manner at the site itself instead of dumping it in the river. People must stop washing activities, disposal of waste and plastics in the river through individual acts. Obviously, such efforts should not be left to the government alone, this commitment and resolve is needed at every citizen, group and community level too to save the holy river. Let our tradioinal belief not die. 

The Ganges has been our saviour for the centuries ever since ancient times. A holy dip in the river washed off all previous sins; a few drops of holy water in the throat of the dying person ensured peace and rest to the departing soul. And today there is a grave threat to the very survival of the Ganges. Will our collective efforts be enough to save our saviour since ages?

Image (c) gettyimages.com


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

Top | Environment

Views: 3629      Comments: 4

Comment Thank you, Kulbirji.
I'm glad you find this article informative.

06-Aug-2014 08:35 AM

Comment Dear Mr Ashby,

Your observation and what you have heard about the Ganges is correct as millions of devotees continue to congregate to take holy dip at places and on occasions. Religious following is a subject of faith beyond the realm of reasoning or debate which people, with scientific temper, often tend to be engaged in. Devotees have their own belief and perceptions and instances of miracles and healing touch are reported in all religions since ancient times. I recall years back I had seen a Hollywood classic Ben-Hur wherein the chief protagonist witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and his leprosy stricken mother and sister are miraculously healed during the rainstorm that follows the crucifixion. If you care to look at the title 'Saving the Saviour', you will perhaps agree the writer did had in mind 'mortals trying to heal the immortal'.

06-Aug-2014 08:34 AM

Comment Jai Sahib,

My gratitude - a very informative article!

04-Aug-2014 13:21 PM

Comment I seem to have heard that Ganges water has self-healing properties in that it doesn't put off bathers, who still congregate in their thousands at traditional centres along its course, from taking a dip. Well, perhaps the sustaining of the ritual that brings an undiminished traditional sense of spiritual healing is proof. The dimension of self-healing is experienced in one's own body, so how much so in a sacred body like the Ganges? Devotees need no convincing. It is interesting that science has consistently grasped the nettle of pollution of the Ganges. But in the traditional Hindu psyche, to try to heal the Ganges is like mortality trying to heal the immortal.

04-Aug-2014 13:19 PM

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