In my home country of Sweden we don’t have any rivers worth mentioning. And certainly nothing like the Ganga, one of the world’s seven great rivers: the only waterway regarded as holy by nearly one billion believers the world over.
Now, Ganga Ma is severely polluted, sometimes lethally. I think many of you know that. Fish catches such as
carp are dropping and crops become poisoned because of contaminated ground water. The toxic cocktails in Ganga – and throughout the entire Indian river system – are ghastly. Heavy metals include chromium. Then there are toxic acids and arsenic and even plutonium! And of course human and animal excrement. In many places the river is hardly more than a sewer.
The fecal-coliform readings in the holy city of Varanasi can be 47,000 times the accepted Indian level for human bathing along the great ghats. Fecal coliform is a measurement of human and animal waste in water. And yet millions bathe in Varanasi and elsewhere along the 2,525 kilometer waterway. They usually know nothing about the potential dangers they face from pollution. Because nobody has told them.
This might be reason enough to persuade anybody to do volunteer work in this movement called Swatcha Ganga Abiyaan. River pollution in one country inevitably affects other countries in one way or other in this new century in which fresh water is the No. 1 global environmental issue.
Some 80% of the population depends on 14 major rivers. The Ganga alone supports nearly half the Indian population, directly or indirectly. Everything from drinking water to agriculture and river rafting. Even so, these facts do not fully explain why Amit and I have joined you here today.
Millions are dying
No. Our compelling interest in Ganga emerges from some horrifying statistics. Every year millions of Indians are affected by waterborne diseases like diarrhea, viral hepatitis, dysentery, typhoid, cholera and gastroenteritis. People are blinded by trachcoma because they can’t bathe in clean water. This is a human disaster for India and the world.
The Worldwatch Institute in Washington says that, one person in the Ganga Basin dies every 60 seconds of diarrhea and eight out of every 10 Indians suffer from amoebic dysentery each year. The American writer Alexander Stille, reporting for the New Yorker, says water related illnesses account for the death of more than two million Indian children each year!
More cautiously, the World Health Organisation in Geneva places the estimate at 1.5 million. It should be noted that 80 per cent of all health problems in India and one-third of all deaths are said to be attributed to Ganga . River contamination leaches into the ground water system, affecting water supplies and agriculture.
But what’s to account for this callous disregard for human life? Why, in fact, isn’t the Ganga clean – a river celebrated by Hindus for its purity. It was said in olden times that a single drop of Ganga water brushing your cheek could cleanse you of all sins. Now, it may also cause a rash.
Back in 1985 the Government did launch the so-called Ganges Action Plan in 29 cities in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It has failed in many instances because of engineering blunders, over- reliance on electrical power, problems of flooding and indifferent maintenance. Since many official statistics are kept under wraps, we can’t always be sure how extensive the failures have been. We do know that when governments hide something, they usually have a good reason for that.
But nobody can hide the deaths of millions from waterborne diseases. This tells us more than something about river pollution, doesn’t it? And in the northern cities of Kanpur and Varanasi non-governmental laboratory measurements have in fact been made, with shocking results.
In Varanasi the Campaign has its own laboratory measuring river pollution. We do this every day. And the results usually indicate that drinking the water directly could conceivably send you into your next life sooner. Pollution levels do drop considerably during the monsoon season.
The media doesn’t publish our figures, so we’ve set up the website cleanganga.com which has a running ticker about Ganga pollution in the holy city. It’s normally updated every morning. The website also provides Ganga-related articles and photographs that media are free to use without charge. We’ve even got a film clip up and running at the moment, called The Battle of the Ganges produced in England. The website is run as a public service by Savita, an NGO working in environmental dissemination.
Stop the polluters!
The campaign conducts daily cleanups of rubbish and litter along the historic riverfront in Varanasi. Animal carcasses and dead bodies are removed, too, while in Kanpur the Eco-Friends group has done the same. As a result of the Public Interest Litigation filed by Eco-Friends in 1997, several landmark orders have been passed to address critical issues of Ganga pollution, including closure of 200 odd polluting industries and initiation of action to address the limitations of the Ganga Action Plan. Eco-Friends has worked in the Jajmau region of Kanpur where toxic chemicals have entered acquifers and the food chain, causing a host of skin diseases for the people in the region.
In Varanasi, meantime, deep water wells have been drilled to provide fresh water for villages where Ganga contamination had entered the groundwater system, causing skin diseases and other ailments.
Public awareness drives are underway both in Varanasi and Kanpur dealing with the root causes of pollution and the lack of fresh drinking water. In Varanasi the Campaign and the Sankat Mochan Foundation have presented a feasibility study for a non-electrical wastewater system that is meant to deal with the crucial 7 km stretch of river along the ghats. This study was devised in cooperation with the University of California in Berkeley. Water would be treated biologically in ponds through a process of photosynthesis.
We’re presently conducting workshops in Ganga Basin cities dialoging with local council people and other groups about their rights under the 74th Amendment to the Indian Constitution. This enables local councils to themselves decide what sort of environmental actions they want to take – a right that is frequently usurped in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar by their state governments. Our civil governance program is funded by the Asia Foundation in San Francisco.
Lack of political will
Meantime the central government, despite tragic blunders, does know how to clean the Ganga. It knows which town and industrial area generate exactly how much sewage and effluent. It knows which technologies are available to treat this waste. It knows which industries are the culprits.
This government also knows that more than 200 million lost workdays annually costing 8.3 billion dollars are due to waterborne diseases. And it knows that India’s fresh water resources are likely be exhausted by 2025 if present population trends persist. As things stand, nearly half of all Indians have to make do with palmfuls of muddied water while the other half guzzle aerated beverages.
But nothing happens. Official silence about the Ganga is deafening. The fact is, no Indian river has been cleaned in the 54 years since independence. And if history teaches us anything, we learn that no great river in the world – be it the Thames, Rhine or Hudson – has ever been cleaned without public pressure smashing through the firewall of political apathy.
Cleaning the Ganga is not on the political agenda of any party in India. Only public pressure can put it there. Only you can do that. And then something will happen.
When the dying must stop
But long before then, the deaths of children from waterborne disease must stop. We must stop that, now. The people of India have the means to provide medicine for each and every child and adult suffering from diarrhoea and gastrointestinal diseases.
So our Swatcha Ganga campaign has two main objectives. We’re going to set up health and info camps along the Ganga where people sickened from waterborne diseases will get the appropriate medicines. These medicines have been promised to the Campaign free of charge, with doctors also on hand as volunteers.
The second objective is to get the government serious about river pollution, starting with the Ganga. With
103 cities dumping raw sewage into India’s lifeline, the first step is to stop it. Yes, stop it. There are laws about this. The laws must now be upheld. Swatcha Ganga plans to instigate appropriate legal actions to speed things along.
To do this, we need your support. We need Ganga Ambassador chapters in every city. We urgently need volunteers in Kanpur and Varanasi. And we definitely need generous donations from every concerned person in India. Even with the most dedicated volunteers, campaigns do cost money.
We have other aims, too. We want to persuade the President of India to seek a vision for Ganga. You’ll find a petition you can sign that thousands of students have already signed, to be sent to President Kalam.
On World Water Day in March every year we visibly hold hands in a human chain, fighting for the right of the Ganga to be pure. And for the right of every child and adult of Ganga to be healthy. More than 20,000 people formed a human chain along the ghats last in Varanasi. Now we want chains in other cities.
But above all we want the message to get through loud and clear. Most water-sickened children and adults in India are victims of river pollution. Ganda Lal. (dirty water) That’s despite the fact that the financial and technical resources are all there, to clean the Ganga and every river in India. The Government knows this. Foreign governments know this. And you and I now know it, too.
Please, do join hands with us.
By – Roger Choate
(Ganga organizer Roger Choate from Sweden recently addressed a CleanGanga seminar for students and faculty at IIT Kharagpur- India’s premiere IT institute. Here’s a summary of his thoughts.)