India's holiest river is becoming one of its greatest health hazards. But though thousands of people have already been affected, argument is still raging over the best way to clean up the Ganges
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The Independent Culture
GREAT CITIES have their defining activities. In Venice you boat. In London you go to the theatre. In Paris you eat. And in the holy city of Benares, now officially renamed Varanasi, you bathe. Or maybe you don't bathe, you yourself personally; but people bathe - pilgrims, ascetics, devout residents, 60,000 of them a day, one is told. Perhaps that figure is an exaggeration. But even if it is only one-tenth that number, it is still 6,000 more than you would find voluntarily immersing themselves in the Thames at London.

But to compare bathing in Benares to boating in Venice, eating in Paris, etc, is already to trivialise it. Benares is the Ganga, that long curve south from the River Varana to the River Asi (hence the city's ancient and recently revived name), and the fantastic agglomeration of temples, ashrams, palaces, shrines, hermit's retreats, guest houses and sewage-collection towers that crowd together on the bluff above it. Each building is linked to the water by the flights of steps they call ghats, on which bodies are cremated, washing is spread out to dry and prayers are chanted. And all the city's attention is focused on the broad, slow-moving, unruffled body of Ganga Ma, "Mother Ganges", into which the ghats merge. The goal of every pilgrim who comes here is to wash away sin by bathing in it.

But Ganga Ma, brought down from heaven to earth, Hindus believe, by Lord Shiva, is a dirty river. One and a half million people live in Benares in great congestion. One hundred thousand are crammed into the square mile that borders the river. Times and mores have changed here. My driver and guide, Hori Lal, remembers mornings when the upper levels of some of the ghats were lined with blissful defecators, enjoying the view of the unblemished sand bank on the far shore. Public lavatories have since been built, back from the river. But wherever they do it, one hundred thousand people close to the river are doing it every day. In addition, every year thousands of dead cows, buffaloes, goats, dogs and other animals are tossed into the river, and quite a number of dead humans, too, when their relatives cannot afford the 200 rupees (pounds 3) charged by the new-fangled electric crematorium on the shore. (A pukka cremation under piles of wood costs at least 2,000 rupees.)

As the population and congestion of Benares, like that of many other Indian cities, rises with nightmarish speed, it is easy to envisage a time not far off when bathing in the Ganges will not merely be a ticket to heaven but a booking on the first available flight; when hepatitis, jaundice and typhoid will make a dip here suicidally hazardous. A few years hence, one can imagine the pious gazing wanly at the river they no longer dare enter, while old- timers reminisce about the days when you used to be able to brush your teeth in it.

Resignation to the inevitable is said to be a notable Hindu trait, but one of the most eminent Brahmins in Benares is leading a vigorous campaign to prevent this happening. Veer Bhadra Mishra is the mahant or chief priest of Sankat Mochan temple, close to the southern limit of the city, at the top of a particularly high and steep ghat. Dusk finds him receiving devout visitors here. The precincts echo with drums and chanting from a prayer hall, while worshippers dump marigolds in the lap of the image of the elephant god, Ganesh, or drench Shiva's linga (phallus) in Ganges water in the small shrines in the courtyard. His visitors bow and touch the priest's feet in a gesture of self-abasement. He has a beaky face, expressive eyebrows, penetrating eyes, greying hair, a luminous smile. He is 58 years old.

What makes this priest unusual is that he is also a scientist. In his other manifestation he is Professor Mishra, professor of hydraulic engineering at Benares Hindu University (Asia's largest campus), a little way south of the temple. As a priest, the mahant's faith in the mystic purity of Ganga Ma goes without saying. As a scientist, taking samples and examining them for levels of fecal colliform, he knows it is seriously polluted.

The government knows this, too, and in 1986, during the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi, a "Ganges Action Plan" was launched to save the river. It was a dramatic and expensive intervention, costing the central government more than pounds 100 million. It involved building the five huge cylindrical sewage-pumping stations that now punctuate the river's shoreline so incongruously, their machine rooms raised high above the river on tall concrete shafts. These collect the city's sewage (or some of it) and send it to a treatment plant north of the city where it is broken down. The treated effluent is then piped to villages on the outskirts of the city for use in farming. A celebrated aspect of the plan involved putting thousands of flesh-eating turtles into the river to dispose of the human and animal cadavers.

The turtles, it appears, have all died off or been poached. And much else has gone awry with the government's plan, too. A second phase is due to be implemented soon, but the water authority for Benares has yet to make the details public. Professor Mishra is scathing, both of the authorities' past actions and their future plans. And working closely with scientists from the University of California, he has devised an alternative scheme which he believes has a far better prospect of success.

Some of the problems with the government's plan are obvious. The gigantism of the five towers is a clumsily brutal intrusion on the shoreline, a crassly heavy-handed assertion of functionalism into what is otherwise, though variable in architectural quality, an almost entirely spiritual cityscape - imagine electricity pylons striding across St Peter's Square and you have an idea of the effect.

But in a sense the looks are the least of it. The Action Plan also makes some crucially wrong assumptions. One is that to break down the sewage to the same extent that it is broken down in a Western city before being discharged into rivers is sufficient. Certainly it is an improvement on the raw sewage that Benares had been pouring into the Ganges. But as Professor Mishra points out, "People don't bathe in the Thames." London's river probably won't kill you these days, but to conclude that Benares should be satisfied with water quality the same as that of the Thames, into which few people in their right mind would venture, is unimaginative, to say the least.

The other wrong assumption is a constant electricity supply. Power cuts are a daily affair in Benares. I arrived in the middle of one, and experienced two every day throughout my stay. One occurred while I was walking along the ghats towards Professor Mishra's temple. I was looking up at the immense grey concrete bulk of one of the pumping stations, taking in the bright lights of the machine room at the top, and the roaring of the pumps, when all the lights cut out and the riverside was plunged into darkness. Slightly muted, the roaring of the engines continued, but according to Professor Mishra, these frequent cuts are disastrous for the scheme's efficiency.

"Whenever power fails," he told me, "sewage is diverted into the river. Some of the plants have stand-by diesel generators, but they are not capable of handling the situation when there is a big shutdown in the main pump. During power cuts there is consequently a backflow of raw sewage into the town, a huge quantity." Townspeople have found sewage surging through their domestic pipes and forming putrid puddles in the street. According to one report, a group of residents was so incensed by what they had to put up with that they made the local water engineer stand up to his knees in a puddle of the stuff for several hours.

The Action Plan's implementation has also been dogged by technical incompetence, which has brought misery and sickness to tens of thousands of peasants on the city's outskirts. I went to see this for myself in the company of one of Professor Mishra's assistants, a muscular, betel-chewing young man called Arana Tiwari. Along with his four brothers, Arana had been employed at the sewage plant until five years ago; angry and upset by what they saw going on there, they began feeding Professor Mishra with inside reports. When their boss learned about it, all five of them resigned.

Next morning, Arana, my guide Hori Lal and I set off in Lal's 36-year- old Hindustan Ambassador (top speed 20mph). Just north of the city, above the narrow, fast-flowing River Varana, is one of the pumping stations finished in 1994 as part of the Action Plan. Now we saw a dense flow of brown sewage cascading from the station through a wide outflow pipe and into the Varana, heading straight for the Ganges. The Varana enters the river downstream - that is to say, to the north, for the flow of the Ganges in Benares is from south to north - of the city, so the bathing ghats and all the other Ganges-based activity of the city proper is unaffected. But five villages immediately downstream have been drastically harmed by the filthy flow.

We drove to the affected villages. The landscape here looks much as the city itself did 200 years ago, when William Hodges drew it for his Select Views in India, the bluff high above the river still densely wooded. But the riverside activities of the villagers gathered here were a gruesome parody of what goes on a mile or so upstream. They flogged their clothes just like the dobi-wallahs on the washing ghats to the south. But the water was black and stinking, and the clothes emerged from the soaking a sullen shade of grey. "This problem has existed ever since the pumping station was completed in 1993," one villager told me. "We can't drink or bathe in it, and our village is infested by mosquitoes." Forty-five thousand villagers have had their portion of the Ganges poisoned.

We struck out inland, following for a while the Great Trunk Road - barely two lanes wide here - which links Delhi with Calcutta and which, along with the Ganges, makes Benares the crossroads of the country. We joined the narrower Panchakroshi Road, the pilgrims' route that encircles the city, then turned into yet narrower and bumpier tracks between fields of wheat and barley, and orchards of papaya trees, until we came to a fork in the road, where an enormous peepal tree, grey and leafless, seemed still to be stuck in a different season from the flourishing countryside all around.

Arana Tiwari jumped out of the car and started pumping away at a galvanised- iron hand pump under the tree, and it was quickly apparent what had gone wrong: after a few seconds, evil-smelling thick black sludge came slurping out of the pump. Nearby, an equally ugly flow of blackened water rushing along an open canal - supposedly destined to irrigate the fields and water the cattle - told the same story. Due to mistakes in the implementation of the Ganga Action Plan, the countryside around Benares is being polluted. Rambula Prasad, a farmer living in the nearby village of Kamoli, told me that hundreds of cattle have died after drinking the water, and crops watered with it have failed. "Vegetables taste all right when they are hot," he said, "but when cold they smell of shit. The dirty water has caused skin diseases and diarrhoea and worms in children. It's becoming a big problem because people in other villages have started to shun us, refusing to marry us. We've demanded that the plant be closed down, but nothing's happened." As many as 100,000 people living in seven villages are said to have been affected.

Veer Bhadra Mishra is an angry man: as he sees it, the plan to save Benares has brought disaster to tens of thousands of small people so far out of the frame that they never get noticed. But he is also as patient as anyone who takes on the Indian bureaucracy must be, and instead of merely scolding he has, with foreign experts, devised a radically different way of tackling the city's sewage problem.

As I had learned, the problems with the existing system were numerous: it was visually intrusive; dependent on an erratic electricity supply; it treated the water to a standard inadequate to guarantee safe bathing. During the monsoon, flood water getting into the sump wells of the collection towers can bring the system to a halt. Most damningly, in important respects it simply wasn't working. Besides the poisoning of the villages which I had observed, there were still sewers opening directly into the Ganges in the heart of Benares. "You have to intercept the sewage at what's called the 'point source of pollution'," Professor Mishra told me. "And there are so many of these points that if we carried on as before the pumping stations would have to multiply. In a few years' time, only these ugly towers would be standing along the ghats."

For the past 16 years, Professor Mishra has been studying alternative ways to address the probem. In 1982 he founded a small think-tank with an office next to the temple, and his investigations have taken him to water and environmental conferences around the world. Along the way he learned of an environmentally sound, non-mechanical approach to sewage treatment which seemed to offer a radically better way of cleaning the Ganges.

Developed by scientists at UCLA Berkeley in California, it is a refinement of the most traditional approach to sewage treatment. It uses ponds and paddle wheels, and harnesses the forces of sunlight, of gravity, and of bacteria and algae.

Although the absence from such a system of whopping concrete towers and large whirring machines makes it appear primitive, a sequence of ponds can be as effective as more elaborate arrangements. Many such systems are in use in the West; their main drawback compared to mechanical systems is that they take up more land, so they tend to be used for smaller communities.

Raw sewage is piped first into a deep pond, where, away from sunlight and oxygen, bacteria decompose the solids. From here it moves to a shallow pond where sunlight enables the algae the pond contains to grow and kill off the bacteria. By the time the treated sewage emerges from the fourth pond, it is pure enough to be used for irrigation or piped harmlessly back into the river.

Ensconced in his priestly robes in the reception room of his temple, Professor Mishra explained to me how the plan he and the Americans had devised would work. "The ghats are the last line of development before the river," he said. "To intercept all the sewage that flows into it, the system must be as close to the ghats as possible. There is a pathway immediately behind the ghats that runs from one end of Benares to the other. We want to put an interceptor sewer three feet below this pathway, running the length of the ghats. As it slopes downwards from south to north, following the flow of the river, gravity will carry the sewage out of the city to the north." The sewer would thus be out of sight, and being under an existing path it would be relatively painless to install.

But the cunning of the plan is in what happens next. A few kilometres north of the city, beyond the bridge that carries the railway and the Great Trunk Road across the Ganges towards Bihar and Bengal, there is a 14km-long island called Dhab. At least, it becomes an island during the monsoon, when the river's level rises and the 25,000 inhabitants depend on ferry boats to take them off. The rest of the year it is separated from the mainland by a couple of hundred metres of soft white sand.

Dhab, which I visited with Professor Mishra's assistant, is in many ways a lucky place: intensely peaceful and, thanks to the alluvial soil which the swollen Ganges dumps on it every year, fabulously fertile. Feasting in the village of Ramchandipur on fresh buffalo-milk yoghurt washed down with salty tea, we seemed to have stumbled on a true Indian arcadia. But as the village headman Badri Narayan Yadhav explained, the island has some basic problems, too: there is no electricity, no proper road off the island, no public transport.

Professor Mishra's plan would at a stroke answer the needs both of Benares and of Dhab. The slightly Nevada Desert-like expanse of sand would be isolated from the Ganges by dams, and four ponds would be dug in it for the treatment of sewage piped in from Benares. In exchange for their cooperation, the islanders would get electricity and an access road. Professor Mishra and his team have consulted with them closely, and they are enthusiastic. The water emerging at the end of the process, much cleaner than that produced by the present system even when it is working properly, would be used to irrigate Dhab or put back in the river.

Professor Mishra says that his plan would be unobtrusive, cheap and relatively easy to implement. It would also be immune to the vagaries of machines and men. Yet for all its merit, there is no indication that the authorities have even begun to think about implementing it. The second phase of the official plan involves building a second conventional sewage-treatment plant, at a cost of around pounds 18m. Professor Mishra's entire scheme is budgeted at pounds 10m. Yet he is being completely ignored.

"Environmentalists fight to preserve the biodiversity of animals and plants," he says. "But the 60,000 people who bathe in the Ganga every day are also an endangered species, and the culture that has been transmitted here for centuries is endangered. We need to reach a situation in which no sewage is being discharged into the religious bathing area. It is India's shame if we say this cannot be done." !