Course Length: 2,510 km
Basin Size: 1,086,000 km²
Catchment Area: 1.09 million km²
Countries covered by the Basin: India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Tibet
Basin-wide States in India:
- Uttarakhand & Uttar Pradesh (294,364 km²)
- Madhya Pradesh (198,962 km²)
- Bihar (143,961 km²)
- Rajasthan (112,490 km²)
- West Bengal (71,485 km²)
- Haryana (34,341 km²)
- Himachal Pradesh (4,317 km²)
- Delhi (1,484 km²)
Cities facing struggles along the Ganga:
Gangotri is one of the most sacred places in all of India for the Hindu devotee. One of the four places of pilgrimage in the Himalayas (the Char Dham) established by the great saint Adi Shankaracharya, Gangotri is considered the place of origin of the river Ganga on earth and is deemed the seat of the goddess Ganga. The temple that stands housing the murti of the goddess Ganga in Gangotri dates back to the 18th century, yet this place has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. While the population of Gangotri is only just above 600 people, each year when the temple opens from May until October and the population booms to thousands with pilgrims and devotees (1).
Just nineteen kilometers from Gangotri, the Gangotri glacier at Gaumukh emerges from the higher reaches of the Himalayas to give birth to the Ganga, here named the Bhagirathi River. (To read more about the birth of Ganga on earth, click here.) The glacier itself is ancient, finding mention in the Puranas when a shepherd boy looking for lost sheep comes upon a glacier with a snout like the mouth of a cow, thus giving the glacier the name “Gaumukh” (literally: cow’s mouth). Each year many of the pilgrims in Gangotri make the trek to Gaumukh to have the darshan of Ganga.
However, despite the sanctity and importance of the entire area surrounding Gangotri and Gaumukh, the increasing influx of pilgrims and tourists each year has had a detrimental effect on the environment. A century ago, Gangotri was a small, quiet pilgrimage spot nestled in the Himalayas. Since the mid-1970s however, the tourism industry has boomed in this area. With the construction of a giant iron bridge over the Jadh river on the way to Gangotri in 1985, the way to Gangotri became completely accessible by motor vehicle, encouraging a growth in the amount of tourists and pilgrims who come (2). Over 100,000 tourists visit Gangotri each year, and due to a lack of oversight, this tourist boom has caused unplanned development of the small town. Hundreds of concrete structures, shops, guest houses, hotels, ashrams and dharamshalas were created in Gangotri along the banks of the Bhagirathi. Due a lack of planning, the sewage from these structures has been dumped without any treatment into Bhagirathi ever since. In addition, the solid waste from these structures is put into landfills along the banks of the river, thus eventually leaching into the river during the rainy season (3).
The actual activities of the thousands of tourists and locals have also been detrimental to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. Visitors, unaware of the impact of their actions, have left behind years of waste such as plastic bottles, bags and discarded clothes in heaps along the banks of the river. As the way to Gaumukh is difficult, pilgrims have consistently cut down the local slow-growing Bhojpatra (Birch trees) to use as walking sticks. In addition, due to lack of alternative energy sources, locals have cut down these Birch trees and Juniper bushes to use as firewood, leading to massive deforestation of the surrounding environment. Some areas, which were once lush high Himalayan forest, are now completely deforested, transforming the landscape into high Himalayan desert in the matter of a few decades (4).
Another environmental concern that is causing greater alarm not just in India but in the world community is the receding of the Gaumukh glacier. While the glacier has been receding since the late 18th century, the glacier’s retreat has quickened in the last several decades (5). From satellite images taken by NASA, scientists have learned that the Gaumukh glacier is receding at an average of thirty meters each year (6). In a normal glacier’s life, there will be melting and receding, but it is balanced by a building up of the glacier from snowfall in its higher elevations. However, this effect has not been seen at the Gaumukh glacier and it is receding so quickly that some scientists predict the glacier may in fact disappear. The effects of this would be catastrophic, as the glacier provides up to 70% of the water that flows in Ganga during the dry season in India, providing water to the millions who depend on her for life (7).
The reasons behind why the Gaumukh glacier is melting at such an alarming rate are several. The first and perhaps most obvious is due to the fact of global warming. As the earth becomes warmer, the glacier begins to melt at a rate much faster than what it can build up at the higher, colder reaches of the glacier, as there is less snowfall, thus causing the glacier to shrink. Another perhaps less obvious reason is because of the deforestation occurring in the environment surrounding the glacier. Nature is an intricate, interconnected web, and disturbing one aspect of nature inevitably affects other aspects. In normal forest environments, trees and plants hold water in the soil instead of letting it drain away. Thus, the trees that once grew along the sidewalls that contain the glacier used to hold water in the soil and contribute the water to the growth of the glacier. However, now that the trees are gone, the water flows away, causing the glacier to shrink (8).
While the government has taken some commendable action to find solutions to the problem of pollution, such as banning tea stalls near Gaumukh (which cause a lot of trash to be left on the banks), banning the grazing of ponies and horses in the eco-sensitive area, and only allowing 150 pilgrims up to Gaumukh each day, much more remains to be done (9). A sustainable plan must be created to deal with the thousands of pilgrims (and their waste) who visit the area each year. In addition, one can really see by looking at the situation in Gangotri and Gaumukh the dire need for environmental education among the people of India. The public must be educated on how to live green, how to properly dispose of their waste, and how to protect the local flora and fauna. If we truly desire to see an aviral nirmal Ganga, than we must begin at her source.
Varanasi, also known as Benares, is a truly ancient city. One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Varanasi is revered as being founded by Lord Shiva Himself. Mentions of Varanasi appear as far back as in the ancient Vedas, where the city is called–among many other names–Kashi, or “the city of light.” Varanasi has always been an epicenter of religion and culture, and in addition to being one of the holiest cities for Hindus, it is revered by Buddhists and Jains as well. It was in Varanasi that the saint Tulsidas wrote his Ramcharit Manas, and it was near Varanasi that the Buddha preached his first sermon. From Varanasi have come some of India’s greatest musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers.
To learn more about the spirituality and culture of Varanasi, click here.
Varanasi currently has a population of approximately 1.5 million people. Millions of pilgrims travel to visit the city’s many temples and take a holy dip in the river Ganga each year. Approximately 60,000 people are believed to take bath in Ganga each day alone. To these individuals, Ganga is the ultimate purifier, and they come to Varanasi to have her darshan, to touch her water and become immersed in Ganga. Many people are also cremated in Varanasi, as it is believed that if one’s ashes are submerged in Ganga here, one can obtain ultimate liberation, or moksha, from the cycle of birth and death.
However, there are several issues facing the millions of people who live and visit the city of Varanasi. By the time the Ganga reaches the end of the city, Ganga is polluted–her waters are grey, stinking, and a breeding ground for water-borne diseases such as dysentery, cholera, and typhoid, among others. An estimated 66% of the local population of Varanasi faces some sort of water-borne disease each year.
The infrastructure of Varanasi has never been properly developed to fit the booming population. The sewage lines that exist today were created by the British for a population of 200,000. Many residents do not have access to any sort of toilet, and thus use the river. No proper solid waste disposal has ever been created for the city. Many residents do not have access to any sort of clean, purified drinking water. Thus they use the polluted Ganga for their every day needs, such as drinking, bathing, cooking, and doing laundry. Further, the sewer lines and sewage treatment plants that are present in Varanasi do not work, as they rely heavily on electricity (and electricity does not work in the city for many hours each day). During monsoon season, the floods force these facilities to cease their function entirely. Thus, raw untreated sewage is directly dumped every day into the Ganga, Varuna, and Assi rivers at approximately thirty sources. This accounts for 95% of the pollution in Ganga at Varanasi, and it is making people sick.
The other 5% of the pollution in the Ganga at Varanasi comes from non-point sources, such as cremation grounds. Thousands of cremations happen along the banks of the river in Varanasi, and the river simply is filled with ash and half-burnt bodies.
To learn more about the issues facing Ganga in Varanasi, click here.
Click here for a list of books, articles, and reports written on Varanasi.
Vrindavan & Mathura
Vrindavan and Mathura are equally ancient cities to Varanasi. These two cities lie on the site of a once extensive ancient forest, full of sacred wild Tulsi plants (holy basil) as well as peacocks, monkeys, birds and cows. It was in this forest that many of the stories and exploits of Lord Krishna’s childhood took place, including His birth at Mathura and then His herding of cows and dancing with gopis in the forests of Vrindavan. In the last 250 years however, much of this forest has been removed in response to urbanization, yet the city is still a very important pilgrimage point. Hundreds of ashrams and temples dedicated to Lord Krishna and Radha fill Vrindavan and Mathura, and millions of bhaktas, or devotees, visit the cities each year. A number of festivals occur throughout the year relating the scenes from Krishna’s life on earth. These cities are considered extremely sacred to both Vaishnavites and Hindus in general. Vrindavan supports a permanent population of around 60,000 people, while Mathura, just fifteen kilometers downstream, has a population of over two million (10, 11).
Although these cities are the birthplace of Lord Krishna – who reverentially viewed nature – Vrindavan and Mathura are not untouched by the issues of pollution facing India today. Vrindavan and Mathura lie along the banks of the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganga that has been named one of the most polluted rivers in the world and even called “dead” (12). The water in Yamuna here is extremely poisoned, and scientists have even found antibiotic-resistant bacteria growing in Her waters, such as pneumonia-causing Klebsiella, Mycobacterium Avium which causes paratuberculosis in animals, and the infamous E.coli bacteria, which causes often fatal gastrointestinal infections (13). This bacteria is not only affecting the river itself (and thus those who use the river), but is seeping into the groundwater as well.
There are several causes for the pollution in the Yamuna River at Vrindavan and Mathura. The first and foremost cause is that the Yamuna River is basically being used as a sewage drain. In fact, in 2010 the Indian Supreme Court even referred to the Yamuna as a “ganda nullah,” – a “dirty drain” – rather than a dirty river (14). 58% of the waste from Delhi is dumped directly into Yamuna, which then flows down to the two cities. According to the Central Pollution Control Board, 70% of pollution in Yamuna is from human excrement (15). This sheer amount of waste makes it impossible for Sewage Treatment Plants to treat and clean the water properly, and STPs are now having to use more than double the amount of harmful chemicals (such as chlorine gas and alum) to attempt to purify the water, making the drinking water situation worse in Vrindavan, Mathura and other cities downstream (16). In addition, these two cities often contribute their own waste into the river. It has been cited that local authorities often do not run their sewer pumping stations effectively, and open drains are allowed to freely discharge the cities’ wastewater into the Yamuna. Local religious leaders and environmental activists have long demanded proper tapping of nullahs (sewer pipes) in Vrindavan and Mathura, but no plan of action has yet been drawn (17).
Further issues complicate the matter even more. Various industries in Mathura dump their effluents – often untreated – into the Yamuna. For example, several reports by various organizations, including the Central and State Pollution Control Boards, have found petroleum waste released into Yamuna from Mathura’s oil refinery. In 2007, this release caused the death of thousands of fish in the river (18). This, however, was unfortunately not the only time large fish kills have occurred in Mathura due to pollution. Fish have been killed in large numbers due to decreasing oxygen levels in the highly toxic water below levels that can sustain life (19, 20, 21). Construction in and around the Yamuna, such as pillars that were built near Keshi Ghat in Vrindavan for a project that has now been cancelled and the Gokul Barrage, create a situation where the Yamuna cannot properly flow (22). Sewage water and industrial effluents get trapped in the river, creating highly toxic lakes of stagnant, polluted water. Furthermore, more than 80,000 million liters of water are being held back by an irrigation dam in the neighboring state Haryana – a highly contentious issue, as the holding of water is against federal regulations, yet thousands of people in Haryana now depend on this water – depriving the Yamuna of the water it so desperately needs to be able to flush pollution out (23).
There are been a lot of pressure, particularly in the last few years, to clean up the Yamuna in Vrindavan and Mathura. Local religious leaders, environmental activists and concerned citizens have demanded that the government do something to fix the pollution problem that is affecting the environment and public health. The government has begun to take steps to remedy the issue, however it has not been perfect and without criticism. For example, the Waterworks Department has planned to lay sewerage line twenty-five feet deep in the ground in Vrindavan. However, this sewerage line will be in the Yamuna flood plain where pure, potable groundwater can be found as little as ten to fifteen feet deep. This proposes a serious risk, as if there is ever any leaking or seeping from the pipe, it will contaminate the groundwater table – the only source of pure drinking water now for residents of Vrindavan (24).
A wonderful effect that has developed out of this dire situation is growth in the movement by the people to clean their environment. Various groups are now working in Vrindavan to help find and implement solutions to clean the Yamuna and to clean their cities. These groups have been working to ban plastics and polythenes, the use of chemicals for washing clothes in Yamuna, and the dumping of animal carcasses in the river. They have also been working to construct bathrooms for people away from the river, to identify canals and drains discharging in the river, and set up a home-to-home solid waste management system, which as of now does not exist (25).
With such a dependence on the Yamuna for life itself, it is extremely important to find solutions for the pollution in the river, and with the appearance of serious health issues such as drug-resistant bacteria in Vrindavan and Mathura, time is of the essence.
The story of the town of Tehri is actually the story of many towns. The town now known as Old Tehri was built in 1815 by King Sundershan Shah, king of Tehri Garhwal, at the confluence of the Bhagirathi and Bilangna Rivers. This city served as the capital of the state of Tehri Garhwal, and was used by the British as a port city. With a population of just over 25,000 people, it was a flourishing social and commerical hub for the surrounding villages of Tehri, and even served as the epicenter of the environmental Chipko movement – a movement to save the forests from deforestation – in the 1970s and onward. Old Tehri was full of old temples, including one small temple given the name Chhota Badrinath, or “Little Badrinath,” where people who could not make the journey to the distant holy Badrinath could go to pray. It is said that the great saint Swami Ram Tirth reached enlightenment here in Old Tehri on the banks of the Bhagirathi (26, 27).
However, that has all now changed. Old Tehri exists no more, as it now lies at the bottom of the reservoir of the Tehri dam built in 2004. At the time of its building, the entire town of Tehri was evacuated, as well as over one hundred surrounding villages, and the people were forced to relocate to new lands. New Tehri was created in its place.
Tehri Dam – now the eighth tallest dam in the world standing at 855 feet (261 meters) – was created with the hope to generate up to 2400 MW of electricity, stabilize irrigation water supply for an area of 6,000 square kilometers, and supply 270 million gallons of drinking water to Delhi as well as other major cities in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. However, the dam currently only generates around 1000 MW of electricity, has cost crores more than originally expected, and has in fact had detrimental effects on the local people and the environment (28).
Tehri Dam is located in the middle of a very fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The first, most obvious damage that came to the ecosystem here was when the reservoir began to fill, submerging thousands of acres of precious Himalayan forest land and all its varied life forms – a land that was already under attack due to massive deforestation and other development works. The repercussions of this are far-reaching. Many animals had to flee to higher ground to save themselves from being submerged, putting themselves in a smaller space and closer interaction with humans. For example, many farmers in the villages surrounding the Tehri reservoir consistently have their crops destroyed by wild boar and must defend themselves and their crops against the creatures, thus putting both parties at risk (29). Further, by altering the flow of Bhagirathi it transformed the river ecosystem into that of a lake ecosystem. This has seriously threatened some of the river’s aquatic life, such as the Indian mahseer, a fish who prefers to live in cold, clear, fast-flowing, stony-bottomed rivers. It has now lost much of its breeding ground in Uttarakhand’s rivers, and its numbers are on the decline (30). Within the Tehri reservoir temperatures have increased 16% from its flowing river counterpart, pH levels have increased, and amounts of dissolved oxygen have decreased. This has led to a significant decrease in biotic communities such as phytoplankton, algae and hydrophytes (aquatic plants), which all form the base of the entire aquatic food chain and thus have the potential to upset the entire balance of the ecosystem both within the reservoir and throughout the river (31).
The building of the dam has also increased the number of landslides, which have always naturally occurred in this area, that happen each year. The mountains surrounding the dam are very dry and loosely sedimented, and the rocks are naturally fractured. The slopes are naturally steep and unstable. As water from the reservoir seeps into the surrounding earth – earth that was not originally meant to be part of a river bed – the soil and rocks because heavy with moisture and cause small but progressive slides, which eventually culminate in much larger slides. Many landslides occur close to the reservoir, thus making the upper slopes of the mountain vulnerable, and huge fissures can be seen in many places (32). These landslides are a major issue for several reasons: with each slide, more of the sacred Himalayan forest land disappears into the reservoir, and with each slide, the lifespan of the dam is shortened, as it increases the sedimentation within the reservoir thus reducing its capacity.
Then of course, there are the residents of the area surrounding Tehri dam. Since February 2007 (the dam became operational in June 2006), thousands of families have been directly affected by landslides (33). These villagers, whose homes overlook the reservoir from high up on the slopes, and whose agricultural lands are further downhill, are at constant risk of literally having everything slide forever into the reservoir. Some villagers now live in cracked houses due to landslides, and with 46% of the landslide zone estimated to be farmland, fertile soil for agriculture is vanishing fast. During the rainy season, these problems are further complicated (34). In 2010, during the monsoon season which was cited by villagers of Tehri to have been the worst rains and flooding in fifty years, the water levels in the dam were increased far beyond their legal limit (water was held at 832 meters, while the permitted limit is 820 meters), setting off landslides and subsequent house collapses in nearly four dozen villages (35). However, if the water had not been held, massive flooding would have occurred further downstream as far as Rishikesh and Haridwar, causing loss of homes and lives (36). It has become a lose-lose situation.
It is not just environmental aspects however that the Tehri dam has had a negative effect on. Once, the villages surrounding Tehri were made up of completely self-sustainable, subsistence farmers whose very lives were closely connected to and depended on the land. Now, these villagers’ ancestral homes and agricultural fields are gone, and with them an entire culture hangs at risk. Some villagers or even whole villages completely dispersed to different parts of the country, moving to Rishikesh or Haridwar or even further cities. For those that stayed and relocated to the higher slopes surrounding the reservoir, many social communities have been split up and spread apart, and they must deal with the hurdles of landslides, water-logged soils, increased salinity of soil and numerous other problems. Even water is scarce, as although some houses overlook the large reservoir, the slopes are too steep (often due to landslides) to access the water and they must walk long distances to reach a source. Many villages feel that they have been neglected by the government and the dam officials, as they face so many problems due to their forced relocation yet nothing is done to help them, or what has been done has not been enough. “Fertile lands are vanishing fast,” claims one villager. “We have been requesting rehabilitation, but in vain. When all our land is disappearing this way, where will we go?” he concludes. “They have made us all into beggars,” states another.
Finally, Tehri Dam is not just a source of contention for locals, but is in fact a much larger issue due to the religious significance of the river. The Bhagirathi River is believed to be Ganga – although she does not go by that name until she merges with Alakananda River at Devprayag – and any tampering with her flow is seen as tampering with her sanctity. Since 2005, Bhagirathi has been reduced from her normal flow of 1,000 cubic feet per second to a mere 200 cubic feet per second, and at some points during the year this tampering has stopped her flow altogether (37, 38). After undergoing such a reduction in flow at Tehri, Bhagirathi must then run another eighty kilometers to reach the Alakananda at Devprayag. People fear that by the time she reaches, she will hardly have any water, and it is predicted that if this is allowed to continue for twenty years in this way, Ganga will be reduced to a trickle (39). This has created great resentment among many Hindus, as they feel the sanctity of Ganga has been compromised for the generation of electricity (40). Protests against the dam have been widespread across India, in places even as far from Tehri as Varanasi (41).
With so much at stake – the sacred and fragile Himalayan ecosystem, the lives of thousands of local peoples, the very sanctity of an ancient holy river – the need to find a solution to address these issues is imperative. Any solution created in the name of “development” – whether it be to generate electricity, irrigate fields or provide drinking water – must be in the benefit of all, not the benefit of one group at the cost of lives and livelihoods of another. Further, by protecting Ganga and her tributaries and restoring them to their aviral and nirmal state, we are not only protecting the environment but safeguarding India’s entire culture and tradition.
Patna is the second largest city in eastern India with a population of almost six million, and it serves as the state of Bihar’s capital. This city was ranked in 2009 by the World Bank as the second easiest place to start a business in India (second only to New Delhi), yet it also holds the significance of being one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world. Seated on the southern bank of the Ganga at her confluence with the Sone, Gandak and Punpun rivers, Patna was a major river port for trade since ancient times as well as a seat of learning and fine arts. Patna’s ancient name was “Pataliputra,” and it served as the capitol of the Magadha Empire, even boasting a population of 400,000 as early as 300 BCE. Today it remains a center for agricultural trade, especially for grain, sugarcane, sesame and Patna’s own breed of rice (known as “Patna rice”), has one of the highest GDPs in Bihar, and is the fifth fastest-growing city in India (21st in the world). Patna is also an important pilgrimage place, as many sacred places are nearby for Buddhists (the Buddha himself passed through Patna in the last year of his life), Hindus, and Jains. The last Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Gobind Singh, was born in Patna. Mentions of Pataliputra go back as far as the Vedas, Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the first references to Patna in Jain and Buddhist scriptures date from 2,500 years ago (42).
However, like so many great cities in India, Patna is not free from the issues surrounding unprecedented growth and expansion of urban development. Patna is racked with problems like pollution; it was named the most polluted city in Bihar and is said to be amongst the sixteen most polluted cities in all of India, and its rate of pollution has doubled in the last five years alone (43, 44, 45). All this pollution is due largely to the phenomenal growth the city has faced in the last twenty years, as many areas of the city have been built without proper planning and access to civic facilities like waste water treatment and solid waste management (46).
Most of the waste water that flows in Patna’s drains enters the Ganga without any sort of treatment. A recent study conducted by Patna University and sponsored by the Central Pollution Control Board found that 222.6 million liters of sewage are being generated in Patna every day, yet only 62 million liters of sewage are being treated despite the city’s sewage treatment plants having the capacity to treat 109 million liters each day. This leaves 160.6 million liters of raw sewage to enter into Ganga completely untreated. Further, even if all the sewage treatment plants – the city has four – worked at maximum efficiency (they often face problems of frequent power failures, corrosion of their mechanics, insufficient pumping from pumping stations, deficient sewage collection systems, shortage of skilled sincere manpower, and lack of funds for needed specialized repair), millions of liters of raw sewage would still be unable to be treated. The city simply does not have the capacity to treat its own waste, and thus it flows and pollutes the Ganga, affecting all those who use and depend on her waters. In fact, this disposal of untreated sewerage water into the Ganga at Patna is one of the major sources of pollution of the river along the entire stretch of Ganga that flows through Bihar (47). In areas of Ganga in Patna, fecal coliform counts have skyrocketed, increasing nine-fold in three years in some places alone (48). This has led to serious problems, such as an increase of skin diseases in people who bathe in Ganga as well as waterborne diseases. This pollution has badly hit the natural ecosystem: in the 1970s, there were more than 10,000 species of flora and fauna flourishing in Ganga at Patna, yet now there are only 2,500 species that survive (50). In one study, scientists found that many of the zooplankton which live in Ganga’s waters at Patna, which are eaten by small fish, have developed small tumors due to pollution. Thus, as the small fish are eaten by bigger fish, and then bigger fish eaten by humans, the ill zooplankton move up into the entire food chain, affecting all (51). Attempts by the government, such as the actions that were supposed to be undertaken by the first phase of the Ganga Action Plan – construction of baths and toilets at all ghats and tapping the nine major sewage outlets in the city – have all failed (52).
There are a number of other problems facing Patna in addition to raw sewage being dumped into the river. The use of unadulterated fuel, polythene and deforestation have caused major environmental issues in the city, as well as a lack of a complete system of solid waste management. Often, solid waste is heaped up in garbage piles throughout the city (which, when the rains arrive, wash down into Ganga), causing a number of health issues (53, 54) These wastes are often mixed with biomedical wastes, making the piles extremely hazardous and polluting the soil and groundwater they sit upon (55). The groundwater in and around Patna has been found to be contaminated with arsenic, and the air pollution in Patna is causing serious health problems in inhabitants, ranging from coughing and skin rashes to chronic bronchitis and irregular heartbeats (56, 57).
However, despite the many issues Patna faces, there is hope. The government of Bihar has in recent years made it a key issue to tackle the pollution that is racking both Patna City itself and the entire state of Bihar. The Bihar government has created a comprehensive plan to free Ganga from pollution by 2020, and has identified twenty-one cities along Ganga in Bihar for this project, including Patna (58). In Patna, ways are being created to deal with the city’s solid waste and an effort is being made to ban the use of polythene (59). Several electric crematoriums are being installed along the banks, and Patna is now the second city in eastern India to have a continuous ambient air quality monitoring station running (60). Perhaps most importantly for Ganga, the state government has sanctioned plans for new sewage treatment plants and sewerage networks to be built along the banks of Ganga, as well as for the existing STPs to be repaired (61). Further, a six kilometer walkway along the banks of Ganga is being planned for construction in Patna, providing a green space for the inhabitants to enjoy the river. With this walkway, many trees will be planted along Ganga’s length, and two socio-cultural centers at two main ghats will be built providing an alternative venue for pilgrims and locals to perform special rituals and social activities, which in the past have led to waste disposal in the river. This walkway will be a great boon for Ganga, as it will serve as a barrier between the river and the city, preventing solid waste from entering her as well as checking encroachments on her banks (62). Finally, five of Patna’s ghats will be specially developed to perform Ganga aarti along the river’s banks (63). This practice had been initiated earlier in 2011 at Patna’s Gandhi ghat and had been a huge success, not only generating tourism to the city but also social, environmental and cultural awareness of the need to protect and honor Ganga.
Strides like these being made by the Bihar government must continue to clean up the Ganga, and even more must be planned and accomplished. By continuing with and expanding such environmental work, Ganga will once again flow unpolluted and free.
Lucknow is the administrative and legislative capital of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh (or U.P. for short) and located in what is historically known as Awadh region. Lucknow is most popularly known as “The City of the Nawabs” as it has historically been rooted in the culture, heritage, courtly manner, architecture, poetry, music, and fine cuisine of the Persian-loving Shia Nawabs. It is also known as the Golden City of the East, Shiraz-i-Hind and The Constantinople of India (64).
Today Lucknow is among the fastest growing non-major metropolitan cities in India with a population of over 5 million. It is the second largest city in UP and “the unique combination of its cultured grace and newly acquired pace” give it a very special identity with a promising future (65).It has had and still plays an important role in the social, political and scientific growth of the Indian nation. The first Farmer’s movement in India, known as the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) was formed in the Lucknow session of the Indian National Congress in 11 April 1936. The leader and President of this movement was the legendary nationalist Swami Sahajanand Saraswatiji. Lucknow is also home to Asia’s first human DNA bank, which has the world’s second DNA Identification System (DIS). It is the centre of Urdu literature and remains rich in music and arts. It is well-known for its unique styles of embroidery, namely, Chikan and Lakhnawi Zardozi, both of which are significant contributors to its economy (66).
The city has a subtropical climate; cool, dry winters from December to February and dry, hot summers from April to June, while the rainy season lasts from mid-June to mid-September. Unfortunately, due to the booming and uncontrolled economic growth Lucknow ranks the 7th in the world in air pollution. Aerosols or Suspended Particle Matter (SPM) emitted by vehicles and industries in the air combine with the moisture content in the atmosphere to increase the density of the fog ultimately causing falling temperatures and humidity. According to the UP Pollution Control Board, the SPM level in major cities of the state is three to five times’ the standard limit.
Lucknow is in the heart of the Gangetic planes surrounded by many rural villages. The Gomti river, one of the major tributaries of the national river Ganga, meanders the city separating it into two parts. It originates from Fulhaar Jheel (lake), Madho Tanda, Pilibhit and meets Ganga river at Kaithi Ghat, Ghazipur stretching a course of about 960 km. For many Hindus, Gomti is also worshipped as a Goddess and is believed to be the daughter of Sage Vashist. Hindus believe that bathing in the waters of the Gomti on Ekadashi (the eleventh day of the Sanatana Dharma–Hindu calendar) can wash away one’s sins (67).
Just as Ganga is the lifeline of India so to Gomti is the lifeline of Lucknow. Both rivers are facing critical conditions and struggling to survive. One of major issues surrounding the Gomti river is the ever-increasing abstraction of water from the river and unmonitored development on the river’s floodplain, drying up the groundwater stores that feed and recharge the river. The other major concern is the heavy pollutant load into the river, especially in form of sewage waste and toxic industrial effluents, killing all forms of life in it and health hazard to those who come in contact with it. The major industries along the Gomti River include sugar, paper mill, and pharmaceutical factories. The tributaries of Gomti, Gon and Sarayan carry effluent from more than 51 sugar mill industries. Most of the effluent treatment plants funded and maintened by the Government, in efforts to revive the river, are in very poor situation and ultimately not functional. The two-pronged threat to both the flow and the cleanliness of the river is an issue of major concern, especially as the Gomti river was once the pride and identity of the great Avadh province.
During late March of this year a Gomti Yatra (Journey along the Gomti) organized by local NGOs, scientists, activists and civil society traveled through 13 districts of the state and concluded at the confluence of Gomti and Ganga, in Varanasi. The Yatra spread awareness, sensitised locals about the threats to the river and the simple things they can do to be more environmentally and river friendly. There was also a Gomti Study Group set-up to analyse and test the water quality at several key locations along its stretch. The outcomes of the Yatra were made public and several consequent meetings with the state government have lead to the formation of an implementable restoration plan. However, progress and implementation of the plan must be carefully measured and accounted for. All stakeholders, including all community members, scientists, activists, etc, must continue to work together to ensure a free-flowing and pristine Gomti is revived and maintained.
To learn more about the issues, updates, and news of the plans to restore Gomti in Lucknow, click here.
Click here for a list of books, articles, and reports written on Lucknow.
Haridwar is one of the most important pilgrimage cities in the state of Uttarakhand. After flowing 253 kilometers (157 miles), the Ganga bursts forth at Haridwar into the plains of northern India. For this reason, Haridwar was known in ancient times by the name of Gangadwara, or the “Gateway of Ganga.” Considered to be one of the seven holiest places to Hindus in all of India, it is believed that one of the drops of the nectar of immortality that were churned from the sea fell here. The exact spot where the drop fell, known as Brahma Kund, is located at the Har-ki-Pauri Ghat (“Footsteps of the Lord”) in Haridwar. Each day, thousands of pilgrims come to this point to bathe in Ganga, believing Ganga’s waters will free them from all past karmas and clear their way for ultimate liberation (moksha). Every twelve years the Kumbh Mela is held in Haridwar, and at this time the population of Haridwar –and the number of people bathing here—vastly increases to millions. Haridwar is one of the biggest cities in the state with a population of just under 300,000 people, and evidence exists that dates the occupation of this area as far back as 1700 BCE, although it is believed to be much older and is mentioned several times in the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Haridwar is now also quickly developing as a center of industry (68).
However, although Haridwar is considered one of the holiest cities in all of India, it is not immune to the problems facing Ganga. The disposal of human feces, urine and raw sewage into Ganga directly, starting all the way from Ganga’s birth at Gaumukh down to Haridwar, has greatly polluted the river’s waters. Millions upon millions of liters of sewage are dumped into Ganga every day at Haridwar without any treatment in any plant. For example, the sewage drain at Jagjeetpur alone, which comes from one of the main sewage treatment plants that treat wastewater from Haridwar, is said to pour 129 million liters of sewage daily into the river. These STPs are often not functioning properly, and thus the water they release directly is untreated (69). This problem gets complicated at different points throughout the year when there are large influxes of pilgrims in Haridwar, creating even more sewage that gets dumped into Ganga. During the yatra season (pilgrimage season) between May and October each year, an estimated fifteen lakh (1.5 million) pilgrims come to Haridwar to begin their journey to the Char Dham, and during the Kumbh Mela every twelve years an even larger number arrive; the 2010 Kumbh Mela at Haridwar is estimated to have brought approximately forty million people to bathe in Ganga’s waters (70).
A recent study found the water in Ganga at Haridwar to be completely unfit for any sort of use. After sampling from different drains that fall into the river, as well as Ganga herself, it found incredibly high amounts of fecal coliform bacteria – bacteria that cause a whole range of digestive infections, including dysentery – in the water. The recommended limit for fecal coliform counts in water that is to be used for bathing is 500 MPN (most probable number) per 100 milliliters of water. However, the areas in Haridwar sampled ranged from having fecal coliform counts of 1000 MPN per 100 milliliters to a disturbing 40.6 million MPN per 100 milliliters. Har-Ki-Pauri, Haridwar’s most important ghat where thousands of pilgrims bathe each day, has a fecal coliform count of 1500 MPN/100 milliliters, seriously putting at risk the health of those who bathe here in Ganga (71).
This problem is further complicated by other issues in Haridwar, such as the disposal of half-burnt bodies into the river.
The issue of water flow is also poignant in Haridwar. It is at Haridwar that Ganga is first diverted from her natural flow, with the majority of her water being siphoned off to flow into the Upper Ganges Canal. This water is important, as it is used for the irrigation of millions of crops that are grown in the Ganga Basin which provide food for one-third of the population of India, yet this siphoning has greatly diminished the natural flow of the river and thus its ability to flush out pollution and support life, threatening the Ganga’s very existence.
In addition, there has been a huge problem with illegal mining taking place in the Ganga at Haridwar for the last decade. Mining of stone and sand from Ganga’s river banks and bed, despite Supreme Court bans on quarrying, runs rampant in Haridwar, with hundreds of trucks removing load after load of Ganga’s precious resources each day. Most mining operations in Haridwar are in fact illegal, and where government permits have been given for mining, contractors often illegally mine deeper than they are allowed and outside of the permitted areas (72). This illegal mining is having a vast detrimental effect on Ganga and the environment as a whole. It has led to more flooding of fields and forest areas along her banks, and it has been seen through satellites that the last eight years of mining in Ganga have affected the river channel and caused deforestation along her banks (73).
Within the last four decades, Ganga in Haridwar has shifted 500 meters due to erosion of her banks (74). Every single person who comes on pilgrimage to bathe in Ganga’s waters at Haridwar is put seriously at risk for contracting a waterborne disease, some of which have fatal effects. If Haridwar is to remain one of the seven most holy cities in India – the Gangadwara or “Gateway of Ganga” – then the problems facing the river and the city must be addressed.
Kanpur is the largest city in Uttar Pradesh along the banks of Ganga and is the ninth most populous city in all of India, boasting a population of over four million people. Areas now located in the suburbs of Kanpur, such as Jajmau and Bithoor, date back to legendary times, appearing in tales of the Ramayana and other Hindu texts, and the city of Kanpur itself is believed to have been founded in the 13th century AD by a Hindu Chandel King. Living through the rule of many Hindu and Muslim rulers, Kanpur became one of the most important military stations of the British Raj, as well as a key industrial city. Industry continues to play an important role in the importance of Kanpur today, and Kanpur today is one of the fastest growing cities in India.
However, with the growth of Kanpur happening so quickly, the city has not been able to cope with the pollution associated with a booming population and industry. Kanpur is now listed as the most polluted city along Ganga, and in terms of air pollution is the seventh most polluted in the world. Each day, the city produces 350 million liters of domestic sewage as well as nine million liters of industrial waste, mostly consisting of wastewater from tanneries. Fecal coliform counts in the Ganga far exceed what is acceptable for bathing or drinking. Many sewer lines dump directly into Ganga without being treated first, and lines being directed towards treatment plants often become clogged and overflow, running down the streets of Kanpur into Ganga.
One industry that is heavily polluting the Ganga is Kanpur’s 250+ tanneries. These tanneries are required to do preliminary cleaning of their wastewater before channeling the water into government-run waste treatment facilities, however many tanneries ignore the regulation as it is not cost-effective for them to do so. For those that do treat their wastewater, these tanneries that follow the law experience their wastewater backing up and overflowing directly into Ganga whenever electricity fails or the waste-conveyance system breaks down. With this wastewater from the tanneries come extremely toxic, hazardous chemicals, such as chromium VI, methane, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, nickel, sulfuric acid, chemical dyes, and other heavy metals. These chemicals are known to cause a whole host of problems for humans, ranging from kidney failure to brain damage to lung cancer to spontaneous abortions.
Each day more than 1,124 tons of chromium is dumped freely into Ganga, reaching levels of concentration 790 times higher than acceptable standards. The chromium VI dumping into Ganga alone makes the treated wastewater fifteen times more dangerous than domestic sewage. This chromium has directly affected more than 30,000 people, entering into the groundwater, and has affected thousands more by entering the food chain, as the water used for irrigation of crops in nearly 5,000 villages surrounding Kanpur is directly pulled from the contaminated Ganga. On these farms, one can see crops burning up from the toxins in the water, and the food that is produced is laced with these harmful chemicals. In addition, the fish in Ganga are dying from such pollution.
Under the Ganga Action Plan, three sewage treatment plants (STPs) were built in Kanpur with the intention of treating all domestic and industrial wastewater. However, all three of the plants were not sufficient. Not only were they unable to reduce the biological oxygen demand, fecal coliform counts, or total suspended solids (the three measurements of water quality the plants were supposed to be able to fix) to acceptable levels for bathing or drinking water, but also the plants were not designed to be able to treat any of the harmful chemicals coming from the industries. In addition, these plants could not run during power outages, which are frequent and last for long hours in Kanpur. Thus, unacceptably toxic water containing known poisons continues to be dumped every day directly into Ganga, the river which provides millions with drinking, bathing, and cooking water and water for the millions of crops grown.
To learn more about the issues facing Ganga in Kanpur, click here.
Click here for a list of books, articles, and reports written on Kanpur.
Kolkata is a vibrant city located along the banks of the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganga. Serving as the capital of West Bengal, Kolkata is also the business, financial and commercial hub of East India. Kolkata rose to national prominence while serving as the capital of the British Raj until 1911, yet archaeological evidence shows that the area has been inhabited for nearly two millennia. Today, the city itself is home to approximately 4.5 million people, and its metropolitan area and suburbs account for another 15.7 million, making Kolkata the third most populous metropolitan area in India and the thirteenth most populous urban area in the world (75).
However, this booming population has only existed in relatively recent years. With insufficient infrastructure to support all the migrants to Kolkata, people have built homes and whole neighborhoods without being linked into the original planning of the city. Much of the city, in an effort to cope with the millions of inhabitants, exists on reclaimed wetlands. This informal city planning has resulted in the pollution of Kolkata and the Hooghly River.
The water of the Hooghly River has been severely polluted by the waste from industries. Approximately 150 large industrial plants exist on the banks of the Hooghly, and these plants contribute 30% of the effluents that reach the mouth of Ganga. 50% of this effluent is from the pulp and paper industries, which discharge a mixture of bark and wood fiber full of mercury and other heavy metals, bleach, dyes and dioxin, rendering the water completely undrinkable and accumulating in the tissue of the river’s fish – a source of food and income for many who live along the banks of the Hooghly (76).
The Hooghly has also been drastically polluted by domestic sources. Approximately 860 million liters of untreated sewage are dumped through sewer outlets into the river each day (77). According to a report created by the Federation of Consumer Associations at the request of the government in 2003, much of the drinking water in Kolkata is contaminated with human excrement. After sampling nearly 1,000 locations in the city, the study found 87% of water reservoirs which serve residential buildings, 63% of water collected from taps, 20% of water sampled from city hospitals, and 20% of water from deep wells and hand pumps maintained throughout the city had traces of human feces. The sewage system running throughout Kolkata is old, and thus leaking and pressure variations throughout the system cause contamination of the water (78). Many of the settlements in Kolkata grew up unplanned, so there is a complete absence of a sewage and solid waste disposal system in much of the city and pollution goes directly into the streams connected to the Hooghly and the Hooghly itself. While the different phases of the government’s Ganga Action Plan attempted to arrest this free-flow of raw sewage into the water bodies and to have water treated in Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) before release, this only worked for the homes and other sources that were connected to the city’s underground sewer system (79). Today, only about 10% of houses in the Kolkata area have connections to STPs, and at least fifteen of the STPs that were set up lie unused (80).
According to the Calcutta Pollution Control Board, the quality of water from the Hooghly is far below acceptable standards. At the main point where water is drawn for the city’s filtered water, the total coliform count (a measure to show the amount of coliform bacteria in the water) is 50,000 MPN per 100 milliliters, far exceeding the permissible standard of 5,000 or less MPN per 100 mL for drinking water before filtration. At other places, the count is even higher. At Dakshineshwar – a holy place where thousands of pilgrims bathe each day –the coliform count is 110,000 MPN per 100 mL (recommended coliform count in water for bathing purposes should be less than 500 MPN per 100 mL), and at Howrah monitoring station, levels have even reached 423,125 MPN per 100 mL (81, 82).
At the end of September/beginning of October, a large Hindu festival Durga Puja is celebrated with great fervor in Kolkata. During this ten-day festival, considered to be the most important event of the year, thousands of statues of the Goddess Durga along with statues of Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati are immersed in the Hooghly. However, while the intention of this practice is spiritual, it has severely damaged the river. Idol manufacturers frequently use paints made of toxic chemicals and heavy metals such as mercury, chromium, cadmium, copper, zinc, lead and petroleum. One study found that almost four kilograms of this chemical paint is applied to each statue, resulting in nearly fifteen tons of toxins being submerged and washed into the Hooghly each year during Durga Puja (83).
Another issue facing the Hooghly is low flow due to the bulk of Ganga’s waters entering other distributaries. This causes an issue as the river is not able to properly flush out the toxins and pollution that are being dumped into the waters, causing the pollution to build up and adversely affect all life that inhabit the river’s waters. The pollutants from the annual Durga Puja alone raise the pollution load of the river to a level twenty times higher than normal, and these pollutants stay at these levels for most of the year, only falling once the monsoon arrives and more water exists in the Hooghly (84).
Lately there has been a push from the people of Kolkata to force something to be done. In fact, one survey states that 77% of Kolkatans voted the cleaning of rivers by the government to be top priority (85). Different committees have been set up by the West Bengal government to remove waste from banks, ban plastic bags within fifty meters of the river, keep ghats clean by installing garbage facilities, and demolish encroachments on the river (86, 87). However, the results of these mandates have yet to be seen.
One promising solution though has been enacted in regards to the Durga Puja. In 2010, more than 200 Durga puja organizers encouraged the use of eco-friendly paints – as well as solar power – to green the festival. Over Rs. 300,000’s worth of eco-friendly paints were distributed for free to hundreds of artisans who make Durga statues in Kolkata, and some solar manufacturers actually provided solar power equipment to the pandals for the festival to promote solar lighting. The government encouraged these environmentally-friendly practices by making their use a criterion for the Department of Environment and West Bengal Pollution Control Board’s annual Shera Sharad Nirman Puja Puraskar Award. In 2010, almost two-thirds of the statues that were created were made from eco-friendly paints – a success for this first attempt at making the Durga Puja eco-friendly and sustainable, to be continued in future years (88).
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