India's new government has launched an ambitious mission to clean up the mighty Ganges River, worshipped by Hindus for centuries, ironically, for its mythical ability to cleanse the sins of humans.
One of South Asia's longest rivers, the holy Ganges - or Mother Ganga as revered by Indians - is also counted today among the world's most polluted, sullied by the reckless discharge of effluents into it over the decades.
Billions of rupees have been washed away since the 1980s as governments and non-governmental groups have struggled, and failed, to restore the purity of the Ganges' waters.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi has listed the task as a pet project and hopes to showcase a clean and pristine Ganges as one of the achievements of his Bharatiya Janata Party government.
Last week, an inter-ministerial panel formed to oversee the task held its first meeting with government and private bodies linked to the effort and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley gave it 20 billion rupees (S$411 million) for the financial year ending March 31. Experts say that while the goal is not impossible, there has never been a shortage of money or ideas.
"Nothing is impossible if the will is there and the plan is well-conceived and fool-proof," says Dr S.N. Upadhyay, a founder member and director of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, formed in the northern city of Varanasi in 1982 to campaign for a clean Ganges.
"If we can reach the moon, why can't we manage waste water in the Ganges and make it clean like it was several decades ago? The problem is there has not been convergence of effort," he told The Straits Times.
Dr Upadhyay may not be too far off the mark in comparing the challenge to reaching the moon, considering the magnitude of the Ganges' problems. The Ganges originates in the Himalayas and passes through the states of Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal before ending its 2,525km journey in the Bay of Bengal.
There are 50 cities along its banks and they account for more than three quarters of the pollutants entering the river. Together, they generate 2,723 million litres a day (MLD) of sewage. Of that, only 1,209 MLD is treated before entering the Ganges, according to a 2013 estimate by India's pollution watchdog.
Much of the remaining toxic pollutants are generated by industries - pulp and paper, chemical, sugar, distillery, tannery and food and beverage.
Images and reports of the impact of this pollution, however, make for more shocking reading.
Witnesses and experts have for years highlighted the muck entering the Ganges in different colours at different places - from the dark brown filth of domestic sewage from the cities and towns to the toxic black, blue, green and yellow liquids, some of them carcinogenic, discharged by industries.
The stark images also include those of Hindus cremating the dead on the banks of the river, particularly in the holy city of Varanasi - Mr Modi's parliamentary constituency - and dispersing the ashes in the water.
Worse still, it is not uncommon to find human bodies and animal carcasses bobbing in the water or people defecating in the open beside the river.
Although these activities account for only a small portion of the overall pollution, experts say they indicate how Indians have taken the Ganges for granted.
The impact of such large-scale pollution is equally horrifying. The 2013 report by the Central Pollution Control Board said that levels of fecal coliform - a disease-causing bacteria - in the Ganges are above acceptable limits except in the mountains where it originates. Some prized varieties of fish are said to be rarely found in stretches in West Bengal and fishermen have been reported to claim that they catch more plastic bags than fish these days.
With studies finding a high rate of water-borne diseases among residents of Varanasi who regularly bathe in the Ganges, people have become reluctant to use the water for bathing, let alone for drinking or cooking.
Experts say efforts to clean the Ganges have failed as a result of poor planning and execution.
A paper this year by New Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) says there are three problem areas that need to be addressed to find a comprehensive solution to the Ganges' pollution: the inadequate flow of water in the river needed to dilute and assimilate waste; the growing quantum of untreated sewage discharged from cities; and the lack of enforcement against pollution from industries.
"The Indian approach has been very focused on sewage treatment plants and the conveyance way of cleaning rivers," Ms Sunita Narain, director general of CSE, told The Straits Times, referring to drain network systems that transport waste. "This approach will not work in India because our cities do not have underground storage systems or even good sanitation systems.
"We need a system that can take sewage from the drains and treat it. We should not try to convert our cities into Singapore first and then clean the river."
Although Mr Modi's plans to clean the Ganges are yet to take shape, announcements made after last week's meeting of the inter-ministerial panel to build barrages and make the river navigable have alarmed some experts.
"The government is indeed wholly committed to the task of restoring the lost glory of the Ganges, but there are too many contradictory signals from government sources," Mr Ramaswamy R. Iyer, a former federal government water resources secretary, wrote in The Hindu newspaper.
"The Prime Minister needs to intervene and ensure that the objective of reviving the dying river is not compromised by various sectoral plans, programmes and projects," he wrote.
"We have already done enormous harm to the river by constructing dams and barrages. It is high time we declared a moratorium on the building of any more projects until their impacts have been properly studied. The Ganges simply cannot take any more interventions, and some of the existing interventions may need to be undone."
This article was first published on July 21, 2014.
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