A serene calm descended upon me as I sat looking out of the same window that Saint Tulsidas is believed to have sat beside during the last few days of his life. Looking at the River Ganga below, glowing as she flowed under the crimson sky during evening hours is a feeling close to heaven. Perched atop the Tulsi ghat in the pilgrim city of Varanasi, this 17th century house is where the Saint, is known to have authored the Hindu epic poem ‘Ramacharitamanasa’, died.
This house is now the abode of the professor of Banaras Hindu University Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, whose late father Veer Bhadra Mishra, was a famous environmentalist associated with the Swacch Ganga Abhiyan (Clean Ganga Campaign). As the chief high priest of the Sankat Mochan temple, founded by Saint Tulsidas, Mishra’s greatest concern now is to seek protection for the ‘holy’ river, which is highly polluted now. The Sankat Mochan Foundation, set up by his father, regularly monitors pollution levels in the river. It has found unacceptably high levels of faecal coliform bacteria in the water, thanks to all the sewage channeled into the river, making it unfit to even bathe in, forget drinking it.
In Tulsi Ghat, where Mishra performs his morning ablutions every day, the faecal coliform count stands at 71000/100 ml of water, while the acceptable level for it in a water body deemed fit for bathing is 500/100 ml. But ask him why he doesn’t discontinue his morning bath in the river, he responds with religious fervour, “Anyone who is born and brought up in Varanasi considers these five things from the river to be a birthright — daras (view), paras (medicine), majjal (bathing), anupana (drinking) and sparsh (touching) of the Ganga river. We cannot live without doing these,” he says.
In the sacred city of Varanasi, where pilgrims come in search of redemption for their loved ones, offering their ashes to the river after they die, devotees struggle to admit that the river they worship as their mother is polluted indeed. “Ye pavitra Ganga maiyya hai. Iske jal se aatma ko mukti milti hai” (She is the holy Mother Ganga. Her waters bring you salvation) is the steady line uttered by believers who come here for a ‘divine’ dip.
A strange dichotomy exists between their respect for the river and their willingness to pollute it all the same. During an early morning boat ride on the Ganga, I came across people lathering themselves with soap for a ritual bath right where half-burnt carcasses could be seen floating! Two ghats — Manikarnika and Harishchandra — are into the business of burning and disposing off bodies round-the-clock. Hindu religious beliefs and rituals surrounding death and other ceremonies are central to the legitimisation of practices that encourage such pollution. At Harishchandra Ghat, which receives up to 200 bodies every day for cremation, an electrical crematorium set up by the local municipal body lies mostly unused. A helper at the crematorium from the Dom community, which traditionally tends to the pyres, says that people prefer using the electrical service only during the rain when the wood used for burning the dead gets damp.
Varanasi Mayor Ram Gopal Mohale says that even during the rain there are people who insist on burning their dead as per Hindu customs as they feel their loved ones would miss an opportunity to go to heaven otherwise. Despite little space because of siltation on the ghats during the rainy season, burning of the dead continues, sometimes on the steps of the ghats, even on the road sides, Mohale says. In the end, all the waste generated from this is dumped into the river. Official figures estimate that at least 1.5 lakh bodies are disposed into the river this way every year in Varanasi.
There was a point in time when people justified disposing the dead into the river saying it served as food for the aquatic animals in it. In Varanasi, turtles were bred and released into the river to help break down the wastes.
However, B.D. Tripathy, head of the Centre for Environmental Sciences and Technology at the Benares Hindu University, says that this has not served the purpose, with the river’s self-purifying capacity dwindling over the years. Construction of big dams for hydroelectric projects, diversion of river water to supply water to various cities, including Delhi, water-intensive irrigation practices for agriculture by the river banks, and encroachments on the banks in cities like Patna and Allahabad have all constricted the free flow of the river, vital for flushing all the waste dumped into it.
In order to break down all the organic waste dumped into the river, the water needs high levels of oxygen. But the release of raw untreated sewage into the river has further reduced its capacity for self-purification, Tripathy says.
Various studies have shown that the river’s capacity to break down organic matter, measured by Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) has reduced considerably. While in a water body fit for bathing BOD must not exceed 3 mg/litre of water; in the nine major religious bathing ghats of Varanasi, BOD ranges from 4.8 mg to 62 mg/lt.
Given these concerns, the central government is now contemplating a strict law to penalise those throwing any form of waste into the river. Mohale says ‘Jal Police’ and CCTV cameras would be placed on the ghats to monitor polluting practices, and heavy fines would be imposed on violators, including those who use soap for bathing. But for a holy city that thrives on the prospect of sending the deceased to heaven, will penalising the polluters for such practices be feasible? That is the question.
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