Along the ghats in Banaras, there are two mortuaries, Harishchandra and Manikarnika. Every year, they burn approximately 32,000 bodies using around 16,000 tonnes of logwood. It produces 700- 800 tonnes of ash which flows to the Ganga. Also, parts of the bodies remain un-burnt. Year after year, such parts are also thrown into the river. This amounts to approximately 300 tonnes a year!

This fact has been highlighted by Professor B.D. Tripathi of Banaras Hindu University’s Department of Botany in a documentary on the Ganga titled Ganga, A Life Line. The 48-minute film in Hindi, made by writer/researcher Dr. Rajeev Shrivastava, is part of the Ministry of Environment and Forests’ initiative to clean the Ganga and other rivers under the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA).

An international conference on environment was held in Rishikesh two years ago. Noted environmental scientists, ecologists activists like R.K. Pachouri of TERI and Sunderlal Bahuguna among others had participated in it. It resulted in the creation of the NGRBA project; it discussed cleaning up of all rivers in every State, especially the Ganga. It reflected unanimously that the participation of civil and corporate bodies as well as common people is required for the purpose. A film to reach out to the all and sundry, hence, was thought out to be the best way.

The film documents the sorry state of affairs of Indian rivers comparing them with Thames in London, the Nile in Egypt and the Zara in Dubai. All these flow through densely populated cities, yet are crystal clean.

Back home, the film reveals, all the Ganga water treatment plants that were set up during the regime of Rajiv Gandhi in Allahabad, Kanpur, Banaras, Patna, Bihar and West Bengal have been non-functional for years.

Juxtaposing stunning visuals against Hindi film songs on the Ganga, the film reveals various unknown and unpleasant truths about the pollution that plagues the river’s waters and warns that it is high time the subject is taken seriously.

The film tells that 90 per cent of the Ganga water is contaminated. In Banaras, it gets 250 MLD (mega litre per day) of untreated sewage from municipality and chemicals from 1,400 factories. Between Gangotri and Rishikesh, there are lakhs of houses and ashrams; all human waste from there is diverted to the Ganga. “The religious gurus who speak about worshipping the Ganges are equally responsible for its pollution,” said NGRBA member Rama Raut.

Ecologists, environmentalists and scientists unanimously agree that various barrages/dams that the government started building from 1950 on the rivers, especially on the Ganga, like the dams in Maneri, Tehri and Cheela, lower Ganga dam in Narora and a recent one built in Kanpur have resulted in restricted flow of water. Ravinder Sinha, Professor in Patna University’s Botany Department and NGRBA member, observed that the Farakka Barrage constructed in 1975, between the rich biodiversity area of the Sunderbans and the upper Ganga, “was the most unfortunate one as it has resulted in the rapid declining of various species of fishes which would go from the sweet waters of the Ganga to the sea to breed and come back, as also fresh water prawns. Similarly the dams made on the Gandak, Gomti, etc have further affected the lives of water animals and plants”.

The film quotes Mr. Bahuguna remembering how 80-year-old women in Patna recall their parents asking them to bathe at home and wear clean clothes while going to take a dip at the Ganges but now, people go to take bath there and wash their dirty clothes and animals.

The film, however, offers pragmatic and inexpensive solutions. U.K. Chowdhury, retired from the Department of Civil Engineering, BHU’S IIT wing, suggested separation of pollutants in the rivers through sand beds. He said, “The Kumb Mela gets four to five crore visitors.All the human waste during that time is deposited in the Ganga’s sand bed. It has the potential to merge pollutants. Just about 12 km downstream from the ghats are large, empty sand beds. When the river dries up, the temperature of the sand bed becomes as high as 55 degree Celsius; here all the pollutants can be deposited without extra electric expenses (hydraulic process).”

There were also suggestions to break down some of the dams to increase the water flow which would halt siltation. It was suggested that the income of State governments from organising Kumbh Melas should be spent on cleaning up the rivers.

Though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is also NGRBA Chairman, had released the documentary film formally at the Maha Kumb Mela, it will be screened soon at the next NGRBA meeting in the Capital. CDs of the film will be distributed to schools andcolleges for free and put on sale at nominal rates.