The Broader Picture: The river of no return

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The Independent Culture
THE SIGN near the Ganges river was written in typical Indian bureaucratese: 'Turtle Breeding Centre for Rehabilitation of Fresh- Water Scavenger Turtles for Control of Pollution Due to Corpses'. Corpses? Every year, Hindus dump more than 45,000 bodies in the Ganges, first inserting a red-hot coal into the mouth of each cadaver before it is cast adrift in the river currents. No sane ecologist would ever dare to prevent this.

Cleaning up the Ganges - one of the earth's longest and most polluted rivers, which descends from the Himalayas some 1,600 miles across India before it fans into the Bay of Bengal - poses a unique dilemma for environmentalists. Hindus believe that the Ganges has the power to free the dying from the cycle of rebirth, so in many river cities, such as Varanasi, Calcutta and Allahabad, ashes from the Burning Ghat cremation pyres are sprinkled into the river.

These ashes are easily swirled away by the water, but many Indians are too poor to afford the 800 rupees ( pounds 16) for a wood pyre, so a symbolic coal is placed in their mouths and they are dumped in the river. Dead babies, lepers, suicides, people killed by snakebites, and sages are also given a river burial. Sometimes, too, in Varanasi the body-burners scrimp on wood for the pyre and simply toss the half-charred remains into the river, just upstream from where thousands of Hindus every day treat themselves to a holy dip.

Turtles, like those pictured above, seem to be the only answer. They are hatched near the holy city of Varanasi, where thousands of cadavers are released into the Ganges. Dr Virendra Vatz, a Ganga Action Plan director, said: 'We've let out around 18,000 turtles, and now they're migrating up and down the river.' There are no reports - yet - of a near-sighted Scavenger turtle taking a chomp out of a bathing Hindu.

The main pollutants, however, are not dead bodies but the waste spewed into the Ganges from hundreds of factories, tanneries, petrochemical plants, paper mills and sugar refineries along its banks. The Ganges provides water for more than 250 million people living in the flat, hot Gangetic plains. It irrigates their crops and quenches their spiritual thirst. At its source, in the Himalayan glaciers above Gangotri, it is a fast, shining-white stream. By the time it reaches Patna, it has widened to six miles before it begins to unbraid itself into a delta before reaching the ocean. At one time, there were freshwater dolphins, giant, 18ft crocodiles, turtles and more than 265 species of fish living in the Ganges. Six years ago, environmentalists calculated that 1,000 million litres of waste a day was pouring into the Ganges. If left unchecked, the sacred river would die. 'The entire ecosystem was in bad shape,' Dr Vatz said. The Ganga Action Plan, funded with pounds 66m, is probably the most ambitious river clean-up project of its kind. Twenty seven sewage treatment plants were built in the most polluted areas of Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Calcutta. Turtles were brought in to the rescue.

But has it worked? Freshwater dolphins still die at the rate of 100 a day, according to ecologists, but the Ganges is cleaner. Tough anti- pollution laws have forced many factories to set up their own treatment plants. But some environmentalists blame the government for allowing too much water to be siphoned off the Ganges for irrigation. A Hindu priest, Professor Veer Bhadra Mishra, who took a bottle of Ganges water - known for its curative properties - to the Rio summit, said: 'Before the monsoon rains come, there is so little moving water that the Ganga is stagnant in Varanasi and many other places.' He also claims that the government has set its water-quality standards too low.

'Our goal, for now,' Dr Vatz said, 'is to get the river clean enough so people can bathe in it without falling ill.' Nearly every year some three million Hindus gather to immerse themselves in their holy river. No matter how filthy the Ganges gets, or how ill they may become imbibing its waters, to them the river will never lose its spiritual purity.-

Photographs by Peter MacDiarmid

(Photographs omitted)