River sutra | Part one

Saving the Ganga is not an election issue in UP

A man is deep in his 40-minute morning prayer ritual at the Assi Ghat in Varanasi. For millions of Indians, mostly upper-caste, the Ganga is an article of faith, a mother who is worshipped at least twice a day. (Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times)

Sumit Kumar has spent all his life by the Ganga but unlike millions of other Indians, the “jeevan-dayini” river isn’t an article of faith for him.

The 40-year-old is forced to bathe and wash clothes in the slushy, smelly river water because his village –- on the outskirts of Varanasi -- has just one hand pump.

About 100 km away, Imtiaz Anwar mines sand from the riverbed near Allahabad. His small village by the river comprises mostly Muslims and Dalits who earn Rs 500 per family for every truck filled.

He is forced to abandon his home and take refuge by the “bandha road” for a month every year because of ever-advancing floods – a consequence, experts say, of indiscriminate sand mining. “We have no time to worship Gangaji,” he says.

They aren’t the only ones. The 2,500-km long river worshipped as mother and goddess for millennia now increasingly resembles a polluted stagnant stream that hurts the marginalised communities who live on its banks.

More than 1,000 km of the river flows through Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls early next year -- a virtual semi-final for the 2019 general elections. But cleaning the river is rarely an election issue, despite the Ganga's symbolic importance.

Many agree that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has initiated steps to clean the river but are unhappy with the BJP, especially in regions dominated by weaker and backward castes.

“We have three ministers from here, including Anupriya Patel. But no one comes here. We are forced to use dirty water,” says Mukesh Yadav in Mirzapur.

Politicians have actively fanned the faith-based attachment to the Ganga. In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Modi declared in Varanasi that Maa Ganga had called him. A decade earlier, Congress president Sonia Gandhi took a dip in the river, generating waves of interest.

But the Ganga’s symbolic place far outweighs its substantive impact.

A mesh of open drains, uncovered sewer lines and channels of waste water from tanneries – all discharge effluent-laden water into the Ganga. Uttar Pradesh contributes more than half of all waste into the river.

“Ganga cleaning could be as big as the Ram Janambhoomi issue. But some parties don’t talk about it because they feel it is religious and they want to be seen as secular,” says professor DN Shukla of the University of Allahabad.

But away from the media glare, parties are locked in a fierce fight to win over the weakest castes, seen largely as backing the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).

News travels fast in election season and even far-off villages have heard of the Samajwadi Party feud. Most of them say they will make up their mind closer to the polls.

But amid the politicking, the Ganga is getting filthier.

Take Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh’s biggest city. Its 400-plus tanneries release more than 100 million litres of waste every day into the Ganga and its tributary, the Pandu – the effluents carving a graceful waterfall-like arc as they mix with the river right before residential neighbourhoods inhabited mostly by Dalit and Muslim tannery workers.

“No one settled on the river bank is healthy here. Tanneries release toxic wastes despite having treatment plants,” says Rajendra Nishad of Wazirpur village. None of the 20-odd villages in the vicinity have sewers.

The problem of tannery pollution has festered for at least two decades now, with successive governments backing away from reforms because of a powerful lobby. The result – just 23 of the areas 400-plus units have functional effluent treatment systems.

Untreated water from a tannery unit flows through an open drain in Wazidpur village near kanpur. Hundreds of similar drains empty out into the Ganga, often near ghats, affecting the health of the mostly Muslim and Dalit tannery workers. (Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times)

On Monday, India’s national green tribunal attacked the state government for not shifting the tanneries out of the city – a proposal that has been in the works for 10 years. “Should political will take precedence over the fundamental right to environment and health,” the court said. But it is still unclear if anything will move on the proposal.

A 2013 report by India’s pollution watchdog admitted that non-functional plants were releasing untreated sewage that contaminated the river and groundwater. There is no definitive government data on the amount of effluent released but experts say it is at least 80% more than the official treatment capacity.

“No one grows any crops on Ganga water anymore,” says Shakeel Khan of Majhwan village in Mirzapur district.

In Varanasi, Ganga tributaries Varuna and Assi that give the holy city its name resemble slushy drains. The people who live alongside one of them – now known locally as Assi nullah – are mostly weaker castes who say they have dull stomach aches all year.

“Modiji said he will change the river in five years, now it feels like not even a brick will move in 25 years,” says Bablu Lal, standing in the shadow of a giant sewage treatment plant, work on which started six years ago but never completed.

Such plants dot the Ganga’s banks along Varanasi – giant pink structures that sometimes leak effluents right onto ghats and the river. Many of them have murals of gods painted on them.

Experts say most of them don’t work because of a chronic power shortage and that between 60 and 80% of Uttar Pradesh’s cities don’t have underground sewerage connections.

“There are at least 80 spots in the city where drains directly merge into the river. You can often see pilgrims and villagers bathing nearby,” says Pradeep Kumar Mishra, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (BHU) Varanasi.

Though tanneries are numerous, chemical plants and paper factories are Ganga’s worst polluters

As of 2013, there were 764 factories and plants dumping more than 5 lakh cubic meters of waste water into the Ganga and its tributaries, Kali East and Ramganga, every day. Though more than half of the factories were tanneries, they accounted for just four percent of the total waste water. The worst polluters were the pulp & paper (39%), chemical (19%), and sugar (19%) industries.

River / Tributary
Chart Key
Each circle represents a factory or plant along the Ganga or its tributaries.
Color shows industry
Size shows waste water produced (m3/day)
SOURCE: Pollution Assessment: River Ganga, Central Pollution Control Board, July 2013

Faith and economy

India’s holiest river supports more than 500 million people as it flows through almost 100 cities – some of these relationships dating back centuries and cutting across religions.

“India’s culture revolves around the Gangajaal. Even Mughal rulers such as Shahjahan and Aurangzeb used it for drinking and cooking,” said Shukla. “Without the Ganga, north India would be a desert.”

In Varanasi, the ghats are centres of economic activity. The panwallahs, hotel operators, flower-sellers and local seva samities have been here for generations.

On the famous Dashashwamedh Ghat, a well-choreographed ceremony unfolds every evening with loudspeakers extolling the virtues of the prime minister and Swachh Bharat – the seven main priests officiating the ceremony are all Brahmins.

A woman washes clothes in her village of Sarai Julena on the outskirts of varanasi. Despite the proximity, the dalit-dominated village complains of lack of access to the holy town and dwindling incomes because of pollution killing fishes. (Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times)

Boatmen and fishermen are the other river-dependants who say their livelihoods have been hit by the mounting pollution choking aquatic life. But for many, faith is unshaken.

“Ganga is our mother. How can she need cleaning?” asks Dharm Puri Baba, an ash-smeared sadhu on the ghat. The holy man, who has his own website, email ID, business card and akhada, says he leans towards Modi but hasn’t heard of Mayawati.

Ganga has also triggered competitive ghat politics. In response to the rockstar evening aarti, a counter morning aarti-cum-yoga session has come up at Assi Ghat, a few kilometres away, supported by the state government.

But mostly, the river is left selling everything from water to appliances on giant billboards, while aarti organisers rope in banks and corporates as sponsors.

A caste burden

Hindu mythology says life begins and ends at the Ganga. In Varanasi, the distance between the two is less than 2 km –- connected by a centuries-old stone path that leads to Manikarnika ghat.

The fire burns here 24 hours as the doms – who are Dalits – help hundreds of bodies achieve “moksha” by cremating them near the Ganga.

“We sometimes give money to those who come to cremate their loved ones but are penniless. We have been here since the times of King Harishchandra,” says Dom Raja Jagdish Chaudhury, the head of the 5,000-member clan. He says he is trying to push the next generation out of the profession.

The burden of caste bias flows down the Ganga -- villages of fishermen, doms and other low castes often don’t have access to the ghats, bridges or clean water.

Caste is central to the river’s impact on people’s lives. At Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi, hundreds of bodies are burnt and cremated every day by the Doms, a 5,000-strong group of Dalits, who often face bias and discrimination. (Burhaan Kinu / Hindustan Times)

“Doms are the king of Manikarnika but hardly any other caste will marry them,” says MP Ahirwar at Banaras Hindu University.

For many communities, such as kewats (boatmen), the Ganga is more livelihood than mother. At Assi Ghat, Dinesh Manjhi says 100 boatmen make Rs 200-600 a day, after loan payments and owners’ cut.

Experts say it is notoriously difficult to predict which way these communities will vote on polling day. In Allahabad, advocate Rambrij Gautam says 60% of them are with the BSP, but the BJP is trying hard to win this vote. “Already, the army and surgical strikes are being invoked in its campaigns.”

He says he complained to police about three anti-Dalit atrocity cases just last month.

“It doesn’t matter if the Ganga is considered holy, caste is in our DNA so discrimination occurs, If the Ganga is cleaned, Dalits will be helped the most,” says Ahirwar.

At other places, there is a fierce reclamation of culture and history. In Allahabad, boatman Mohan Nishad proudly proclaims himself as a descendant of the Nishad Raj. “This ganga is our home. She is our mother. They have pushed us out of history and culture. But we will not give up.”

Graphics by Harry Stevens and Anand Katakam. Web production by Gurman Bhatia.