The first public gestures that Prime Minister Narendra Modi made on his election were to thank two mothers -- his own and Mother Ganga, the most famous waterway in India.
The new leader visited his mom, then went on to Varanasi along the Ganges, India’s most threatened river, where under a canopy brightened with marigold flowers and cheered by his constituents as millions watched on television, Modi promised the sacred river would be clean in five years.
“Mother Ganga,” Modi solemnly declared on the banks of the river where Hindu pilgrims believe a dip washes away sins, “needs someone to take her out of this dirt and she’s chosen me to do the work.”
The Ganges is no ordinary river. It originates pristine from a Himalayan glacier 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) high, worshiped as a goddess, reverently called mother. Yet raw sewage from 29 cities blights its 2,525-kilometer (1,570-mile) route as bloated bodies of dead animals, funeral pyre ashes, reduced flow from dams and factory waste fouls its waters.
In his speech, Modi vowed to clean India’s most revered river by the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, a daunting task that echoes a promise uttered almost three decades earlier by the late Indian leader Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet it’s not insignificant that Modi made his first policy announcement about water. Nor on the day he assumed power over Asia’s third-biggest economy, he named a minister just to clean the river. Uma Bharti’s title: Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.
The government will explain its plans to clean the Ganges and “other important rivers in the country,” Bharti said today on taking charge of the ministry, according to the government. The Yamuna River that starts in the Himalayas and flows through New Delhi and Agra remains heavily polluted by industrial waste and sewage even after $1.1 billion was spent on the waterway, a parliamentary report said this year.
Unlike his efforts to cleanse the smaller Sabarmati River in western Gujarat state, where he was chief minister, the Ganges is far more challenging to Modi’s government: improve water for 400 million Indians across five of the nation’s most populous states, address groundwater risks, aquifers depleted by farmers and boreholes, and rising arsenic contamination.
“If we don’t clean this river now, we’re risking a huge public health crisis,” said Somnath Bandyopadhyay, former consultant to the Indian environment ministry’s National Ganga River Basin Authority.
“From pathogens to endocrine disruptors, the water is deteriorating faster than we can understand,” Bandyopadhyay said. “At places like Varanasi, we are taking a holy dip in the sewage of various upstream cities.”
In a seven-kilometer stretch at Varanasi alone, untreated sewage dumps from 33 outlets into the Ganges, according to Pandit Vishwambharnath Mishra, head priest and chairman of the city’s Sankat Mochan Foundation.
Water samples tested in a lab by the “Clean Ganga Campaign” showed fecal coliform as high as 1.5 million counts per 100 milliliters at the confluence of the Ganges and Varuna River, named after the god of water.
The tolerable limit for bathing is less than 500 of the bacteria that can cause such diseases as typhoid, dysentery and cholera, said Mishra, a Banaras Hindu University professor and among those Modi met before he announced his Ganga plan.
Pesticides in India’s groundwater are causing cancers, dirty water is inhibiting growth in children and lack of the resource for irrigation has caused farmers to take their lives.
Arsenic poisoning has risen as too much groundwater is withdrawn by pumps and wells in the plains of the Ganges, polluting crops and generating lesions, gangrene and cancer-related illness, the Central Groundwater Board said.
In India, 53 percent of the people have no access to a basic toilet and defecation along water bodies is common. At least 37.7 million a year are affected by water-borne diseases that costs up to $600 million to treat, according to WaterAid.
Varanasi, like most Indian cities, lacks much Western-style infrastructure to treat sewage. Indian cities treat 29 percent of the 38 billion liters (10 billion gallons) of municipal wastewater generated a day, according to the Central Pollution Control Board. By 2050, this is expected to rise to 100 billion liters as the population expands.
Of the 8.3 billion liters of wastewater generated every day from 222 towns in the Ganges basin, 7 billion liters are directly discharged into the river and its tributaries.
According to a 2013 report in the International Journal of Scientific Research and Publications, apart from sewage, the Ganges is riddled with 260 million liters a day of industrial wastewater, runoff from 6 million tons of fertilizers and thousands of animal carcasses and human corpses.
Sewage treatment capacities set up under the Ganga Action Plan started in 1986 can treat only one-third of what’s dumped into the river, according to B.D. Tripathi. He’s a member of the government’s National Ganga River Basin Authority that the World Bank is loaning $1 billion for water works.
“We need to change the way we look at our rivers,” said Bandyopadhyay. “Look at any city on the Ganga’s banks -- Patna, Kolkata or Varanasi. The city looks back at the river as something flowing in our backyard only to carry our muck, not something that needs to flow for our spiritual well-being.”
India has spent 111 billion rupees ($1.9 billion) to clean the Ganga since the first Ganga Action Plan began yet has little to show for it, Tripathi said.
“Another big part of the problem is that the Ganga doesn’t flow anymore,” he said as upstream dams used to improve power generation and reduce outages have impeded flows, made water stagnant.
The Ganges, when it descends from the Himalayas, is known as Bhagirathi. It becomes the Ganga at Devprayag at the confluence of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.
Dams on the rivers and other tributaries of the Ganges for producing electricity are being studied on orders of the Supreme Court after floods and landslides in Uttarakhand last year killed at least 500 people. More than 4,000 remain missing, presumed dead.
The river enters the plains at Haridwar where dams divert water to irrigate farms in the state of Uttar Pradesh through a series of canal systems, further diverting freshwater, even endangering river dolphins.
“There’s a need to maintain a minimum flow of water in the Ganga so aquatic life can survive,” Mishra said.
With only four percent of the world’s freshwater available, the World Resources Institute ranks India as the 41st most water-stressed nation. It also lists the Ganges Brahmaputra basin as facing extremely high risk from changes in available surface water.
According to the government, availability of renewable freshwater that fell to 1,845 cubic meters in 2007 from 6,042 cubic meters per person in 1947 may decline to water-scarce levels below 1,000 cubic meters by the end of this century.
Back in Varanasi, 55-year-old boatman Gorakh Sahani looked skeptical as he watched a man wash dirt off concrete steps in preparation for Modi’s arrival. He stopped rowing his boat near where the dead were being cremated and pointed to the water.
“They wash the garbage into the river and then pray to the river,” Sahani said. “Many governments have promised to clean Mother Ganga but nothing has happened. The river is truly our mother, and till the Ganga exists, we will exist. The day mother Ganga dies, so will we.”