Poisoning the Elixir of Ganga

How we are killing our 'Maa' a little each day.


It is believed that Mother Ganga offered to descend to Earth, to purify the burning coals of
the ancestors of the Hindu sage – Bhagiratha. However, she was concerned that her fall from
the cosmic realm would destroy the Earth, so Lord Shiva offered to catch her in his hair to
prevent any unintentional destruction on her behalf. Her waters ran in rivulets through his
hair onto our Dharti, where she purified the remains.

River Ganges is therefore not only a waterway, but a goddess from heaven.
Today, if this goddess was to fall from heaven in her current state, she would do serious
damage to our beloved Lord Shiva’s beautiful hair. That is because we have failed to
maintain and appreciate the beauty and holiness of our Maa. We have polluted her to a
dangerous extent.

The Problem:

We’ve been having discussions about the harm caused to Ganga since time immemorial.
Unfortunately, this important topic does not go beyond any discussions, and the rampant
destruction of the holy river continues and increases day by day. There seems to be no
acknowledgement of this problem in the first place by people who put too much faith in
religion and do not believe in science. This ignorance is exploited by politicians who then get
to avoid their obligations of maintaining, protecting, and nurturing the river.
The only people
who seem to be really concerned about the problem are common people like us, and out of
those, only a negligible seem to act whose actions are not enough to produce a noticeable and
desirable effect.


The largest river in the country is exposed to millions of people and is hence, vulnerable to
thousands of problems. It is ironic that religious practises are one of the biggest concerns for
the holy river. Even after the waters of the Ganga look visibly murky, people still consider it
to be a source of purity. There are several beliefs that revolve around bathing in the Ganga –
some say that it washes our sins away, some believe that it a way to achieve moksha while
others feel that taking a dip in the Ganga is like being in heaven itself.

After the rituals of worship are over, people immerse idols made up of Plaster of Paris in the
river, throw away plastic which carried all the items required for the rituals along with the
flowers that are sprayed with chemicals to preserve them.

Another religious belief associated with the Ganga is that dying in the holy city of Varanasi
on the banks of the river frees people up from the cycle of birth and death and hence, from
the cycle of endless suffering. The ashes of the dead are thrown in the river and the bodies of
those that cannot afford a funeral are simply wrapped and thrown in the Ganges. It is
estimated that 32,000 corpses are cremated each year in Varanasi.
All of these superstitions
are practised regardless of the damage done to the river due to another belief – “the Ganga
has the ability to cleanse herself”.

Religious practises aren’t the only problems worth our concern. Exploding population and
industrialization along the banks of the Ganges
are one of the biggest contributors to the
river’s pollution. Over 450 million people live in the Ganges River basin, and human waste is
the cause of most of the pollution. Sewage, waste from tanneries, chemical plants, textile
mills, slaughter houses and even hospitals is dumped, untreated, into it. Indian industries
dump nearly a billion liters of waste into the river daily. Almost five billion liters of sewage
flow into the river every day, only a quarter of which is treated.

Dams block and alter the river flow throughout its higher reaches. Agriculture sucks out vast
quantities of water and uses it to irrigate tens of thousands of fields. Even climate change is
out to get the Ganges. The monsoon rains are becoming less predictable and shorter in
duration, droughts are increasing and the Himalayan glaciers that nurture the highest points
are shrinking rapidly.


The fate of the Ganga is not the fate of the Ganga alone. It is also the fate of 40% Indians
(and 10% of the world’s population) who are dependent on its water for their survival.
while understanding the effects of pollution on the Ganga, we must also try to keep in mind
the gravity of the situation and the stakes that we are dealing with.

As populations have grown and the number of temples has increased, an estimated 8 million
tonnes of waste from about 600,000 places of worship are now dumped in the river every

This consists of mass grown roses, lilies and marigolds, covered with pesticides that leach
into the river. Toxic arsenic, lead, and cadmium were also found to be contributing to turning
these bodies of water into a potentially deadly carcinogenic soup. Despite being completely
biodegradable and natural, even the nutrients that come from these decaying flowers can be a
problem. Upsetting a careful balance, they cause algae to grow out of control and reduce the
amount of oxygen present in the water making life hard for all kinds of marine life.

For a river like the Ganges, which provides a water source for 400 million people, toxicity
like this is also highly lethal for humans. Changes in pH from dissolved chemicals help
cholera, hepatitis and severe diarrhoea to run rampant. Together, these illnesses are
responsible for 87.6% of child mortality throughout India and Bangladesh.

In addition to those who rely on rivers and lakes daily, millions travel to sacred water sources
like the Ganges to worship, bathing and even drinking its waters. In cities like Varanasi,
Kanpur, Allahabad, and Patna, the “Human Health Risk Through Bathing In River Ganga”
has been dangerously high for the last 4 decades. By Varanasi, the Ganges is an open sewer.
Faecal bacteria at this point is 150 times higher than the safe level for bathing, let alone
drinking. Over 300,000 Indian children die annually from drinking contaminated water.

Efforts taken by Government:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 had pledged $3 billion dollars over five years for the
river’s clean-up and promised to use Hindu holy men as project advisors.
However, most
analysts agree that the funds are not nearly enough to fix the problems faced by The Ganga.

In the budget tabled in the Parliament on July 10, 2014, the then Union Finance
Minister Arun Jaitley announced an integrated Ganges development project titled ‘Namami
Gange’ (“Obeisance to the Ganges river”) and allocated ₹2,037 crore for this purpose.
objectives were – effective abatement of pollution, conservation, and rejuvenation of the
Ganges. 8 states were covered under the project.

The Ministry of Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation proposes to make 1,674 gram
panchayats by the Ganges open defecation-free, at a cost of Rs 1,700 crores. An estimated Rs
2,958 Crores (US$460 million) have been spent till July 2016 in various efforts for the
cleaning up of the river.

As a part of the program, the Government of India ordered the shutdown of 48 industrial
units around the Ganges.

The main pillars of Namami Gange Project are:
 Sewerage Treatment Infrastructure
 River-Front Development
 River-Surface Cleaning
 Bio-Diversity
 Afforestation
 Public Awareness
 Industrial Effluent Monitoring

Faith, Science, and Politics:

The Namami Gange consists of the Ganga River Basin Management Plan (GRBMP) whose
motto is to “apply modern science and technology in conjunction with traditional wisdom”.

Human activities have adversely impacted the ecological dynamics of the basin. Hence,
efforts are being made to understand these impacts and to intervene with scientific measures,
methods, and solutions. Using science to understand and solve the problems related to the
Ganges lies at the heart of the plan.

Not just science, but faith and our ancient culture and knowledge has also been considered
and included in the Ganga River Basin Management Plan. Our scriptures talk about the
qualities that the Ganga possessed and also had a set of ‘rules’ for people on how to treat the

“The qualities of the river are: coolness, sweetness, transparency, high tonic property,
wholesomeness, potability, ability to remove evils, ability to resuscitate from swoon caused
by dehydration, digestive properties and ability to retain wisdom” –
this is from a scripture
that dates back to almost 300 AD.

Another ancient edict prohibits thirteen types of human actions, combining physical restraints
and moral injunctions to ensure the preservation of the Ganga as well as the safety of

1) Defecation
2) Gargling
3) Throwing of used floral offerings
4) Rubbing of filth
5) Flowing bodies (human or animal)
6) Frolicking
7) Acceptance of donations
8) Obscenity
9) Considering other shrines to be superior
10) Praising other shrines
11) Discarding garments
12) Bathing
13) Making noise

How many of these activities do we see happening rampantly today?

Solutions and Efforts taken by NGOs/people:

One of the alternatives to immersing idols made up of Plaster of Paris, is to use small idols of
copper or silver.
They do not do any (or much) harm to the river and the organisms living in
it. However, copper and silver idols, even if small, could be comparatively expensive and
people probably won’t make that much of an expense, even if they want to go on with their
rituals and maintain the ‘purity’ of their ‘Maa Ganga’.

In recent years, electric crematoria have also been constructed next to the ghats in Varanasi,
and in other holy riverside towns. Electric crematoria are better environmental options as
compared to burning the bodies of the deceased on traditional wooden pyres. They do not
cost as much as traditional funerals, hence, families who can’t afford traditional funerals
don’t have to throw away bodies of their deceased in the Ganges while also getting a funeral
on its holy banks. This helps to reduce river pollution and simultaneously reduces the number
of trees that need to be chopped down for the funeral pyres. There are no gas emissions from
the burning pyres, hence, air pollution is prevented too.

As mentioned before, flowers thrown in the Ganga release harmful chemicals that were
sprayed on them earlier as preservatives. Companies are recycling these flowers used in
rituals to make flavoured incense sticks that can be used again in rituals.
Reuse, Reduce, and
Recycle is always effective and never goes out of style!

Though the large-scale destruction of the Ganga primarily requires rigorous government
intervention, the efforts and power of the public to bring about change must not be

Efforts taken/being taken by Tarumitra:

Recently, student interns of Tarumitra started a new campaign with an attempt to remove chemical and plastic waste from the Ganga. Tarumitra has taken the initiative to
make people aware about the urgent need for cleaning and not polluting our holy river.
Interns from Tarumitra in collaboration with the Mishra Social Club, together cleaned the
nearby areas of Janardhan Ghat.
Recyclable waste and puja waste was segregated in jute
bags. Not only that, but posters about do’s and don’ts and pledges were also made to spread
awareness among the masses and give them practical methods by which they can reduce their
share of pollution towards the river.

A request to the DM has also been made in the form of a letter for disallowing the immersion
of Saraswati Maa’s statue in the Ganges on the occasion of Saraswati Puja.

Currently, volunteers at Tarumitra are having conversations with Pandits to understand their
point of view regarding the issue.
As mentioned before, the pollution of Maa Ganga is a
multi-layered issue spanning across science, environment, religion, politics, etc.

Though our cultural practises are doing a lot of harm to the Ganges, we cannot simply ignore
and walk over people’s faith. If a rejuvenation of Ganga is going to take place, religious
heads will play an instrumental role in it. Of course, everyone will have to make certain
sacrifices if Maa Ganga has to be saved, but the solution has to be formed in such a way that
the religious feelings of our fellow Indians are not hurt. Instead of writing off our traditional
customs as ‘superstitions’, we need to take science and faith hand in hand. And that is exactly
what Tarumitra is trying to do. By getting a perspective of the ‘other’ side, a conversation can
be started out of which, hopefully, a collective solution can be agreed upon.

Such times call forth the need for unity. Our culture, survival, and reputation is embedded in
the Ganga. She isn’t referred to as ‘Maa’ without any reason. She was considerate enough to
flow through Lord Shiva’s hair to prevent the destruction of Bharat Bhoomi. Look what we
have done to her today.

Tejas Sawant
Author: Tejas Sawant

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