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Polluted flows the Ganga

Devotees take a dip in River Ganga in Garhmukteswar. File photo  

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, wrote, “The Ganges, above all, is the river of India which has held India's heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganges, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India's civilisation and culture…”

Indeed, the Ganga has remained a symbol of religious and spiritual faith for the country, with millions of Hindus visiting its banks to cleanse themselves of their sins and offer prayers.

On November 4, 2008, the Ganga was officially declared India's ‘national river'. But there is a flip side to the story.

Our national river is also one of the most polluted rivers in the country, and one of the 10 most threatened river basins in the world. The quality of the Ganga's water is steadily worsening. Now, not only is the water unfit for drinking, but it would also be harmful to use for agricultural purposes. The level of Coliform bacteria, a type of bacteria that indicates the purity of water, should be below 50 for drinking and below 5000 for agricultural use. The present level of coliform in the Ganga at Haridwar is 5500. A study conducted by the Uttaranchal Environment Protection and Pollution Control Board (UEPPCB) slotted river water into four categories, A being fit for drinking, B for bathing, C for agriculture and D is for excessive pollution level. The Ganga's water was given a definite D.

The population explosion has led to industrialisation, urbanisation and poverty and put great pressure on the river. Most of the river's pollution is due to the careless disposal of human faeces, urine and sewage directly into the river, all the way from its mouth at Gaumukh till Haridwar.

Almost 1.4 billion litres of untreated sewage is disposed off into the Ganga, with each of the 27 cities located along its banks contributing to this number. During the pilgrimage season, the amount is even higher, as almost 15 lakh pilgrims visit the state and pay a visit to the holy river. The state of Uttar Pradesh alone is responsible for over 50 per cent of the pollutants in the river.

It isn't just sewage that is polluting the river. Haridwar being holy Hindu ground, the river is used for post cremation rituals. Medical waste, which is toxic and harmful, from the base hospital in Srinagar is also dumped into the river.

The tannery industry of North India uses the river as a dumping ground, contributing heavily to the water's pollution. A stretch of the Yamuna, the Ganga's main tributary, has been empty of aquatic life for at least a decade because the pollution does not allow any life forms to thrive in the water.

Over the years, people have become more aware of the dangers this level of pollution in the Ganga poses for both human life as well as the eco system. The very river that is the life source of many is fast turning poisonous. Various steps have been taken to protect and restore the Ganga.

The Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986 by the Government of India. Despite heavy expenditure, the plan was not a success. Now, the Centre has promised that by 2020, the Ganga will be free of pollutants. On November 1, 2010, the 135 km long stretch between Gaumukh (the river's source) and Uttarkashi was declared an eco-sensitive zone. Three hydro projects proposed on the river were also discontinued.

Finally, on June 28, 2011, an agreement with the World Bank was signed for a $1 billion loan that would finance the first major effort after 20 years to clean the river. This loan is part of the project started in 2009 that replaced the 1986 Ganga Action Plan.

Some popular legends:

The Hindu king Sagara's 60,000 sons were burnt to ashes as punishment for disturbing the meditation of the sage Kapila. After the punishment, Ganga was called down to earth to redeem their souls by Bhagiratha, son of Sagara, a pure and austere king. This is why sometimes the river is also called Bhagirathi. As the force of her fall to earth would have been too great for the world to endure, Shiva, the God of Destruction had to act as a landing pad. He caught Ganga in his matted locks and tamed her flow.

That is how the river came to represent a gateway to purity and absolution.

Another story goes that once Vishnu in his Trivikrama form, raised his foot towards the heavens to blacken out the universe. Brahma, to supplicate and calm Vishnu, poured the water from his kamandalu (vessel) on Vishnu's feet. This holy water is believed to be Ganga, flowing downwards off Vishnu's feet. Canonised in the epics of Hindu literature, the Ganga finds a place in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranic texts, with stories and legends about her origin and powers.

A dip in the river is believed to wash off sin, his diseases and impurities, and a sip of the water is believed to cleanse your soul.

Historical Importance

Throughout the history of the Indian subcontinent, the Ganga has held an extremely important place, finding mention in the earliest Hindu scripture, the Rig Veda.

The Ganga is also mentioned in Megasthenes's work about his travels in India, Indica.

The Harappan civilisation also settled along the banks of the Gangetic plain, though none crossed the river. The disintegration of this civilisation marks the point where the centre of Indian civilisation shifted from the Indus basin to the Ganges basin. From that point onwards, the Gangetic plain became the cradle of civilisation, from the Mauryan to the Mughal empire. In recent times, the Ganga has also been the centre of a water sharing dispute between India and Bangladesh (east Pakistan at that time). In 1996, a 30 year treaty was signed between the two countries to end the dispute.

Kumbh Mela, that sees thousands of pilgrims, devotees and sadhus is held on the banks of the river.

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Printable version | Jan 14, 2021 12:11:42 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/kids/polluted-flows-the-ganga/article2292290.ece

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