I have just returned from one of our most popular pilgrimages in India. I am told that an estimated 60,000 pilgrims take a bath in the Ganga everyday. Last week, i accompanied my husband to Varanasi. We had heard of the efforts of Veer Bhadra Mishra, who is not only the mahant of the Sankat Mochan temple, but also a former professor at the Benares Hindu University and head of the department of hydraulic engineering. He has worked since 1982 to clean up the Ganga, and was behind the ‘Ganga Action Plan’.
But unfortunately, as the mahant himself told us, all his 25 years of efforts to cleanse the wastewater of the city at the 60 points from where it flows into the Ganga seem to have been in vain. According to Mishra, 95 per cent of the pollution is caused by effluents. But the three installed water treatment plants along the river don’t have the capacity to deal with the sewage of a city of four million, and a substantial part finds its way directly into the river.
According to the mahant, only 5 per cent of the pollution comes from the bathers and from the other ritual activities along the river. We took an early morning walk and were happy to see sweepers clean the steps, but horrified to find that they swept the dirt straight into the river. Thus tonnes of garbage go into the very water that is supposed to act as a purifier. It will be easy for us to point a finger at the sweeper who is given no equipment besides a broom. He has no gloves, no tools or containers to collect the garbage and to carry it up the steps.
Disturbed and troubled, I took some photographs and showed them to Mishraji. He seemed troubled and helpless. He told me that he had tried to run a boat along the river which could load garbage at various collection points. But soon the funds ran out and the service got stalled. We think we are clean people because we bathe every day. But in terms of our social responsibility, we are dirty. Until we individually take responsibility to stop polluting our own environment, all our prayers for purification will remain unanswered.