The BJP-led NDA Government has chalked out a tentative plan to build thousands of toilets along the 1,600-mile bank-line of the Ganges in an attempt to prevent people from relieving themselves on the banks the holy river.
Hindus bathe in the Ganges as an act of ritual purification, yet the 2,500-kilometre-long river stretching from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal is full of industrial effluent and untreated sewage, its banks strewn with garbage.
One of the major challenges posed to the river’s sanctity is the human excreta going into it, which mars its purity both on the environment front as well as the religious front.
Lack of toilet facilities on the river ghats (banks) forces tourists to relieve themselves on the banks of Ganges, making it unclean and toxic.
“There is no toilet on the banks and wherever there were, they have all been closed. Nobody is paying any attention. The tourists face a lot of inconvenience. They go to use the toilets, but the toilets are closed so if it’s an emergency, they relieve themselves by the river in the open.
It is not a pleasant site for other tourists on boats. Moreover, if you see the banks, there is filth everywhere,”said a resident of Varanasi, Manoj Gupta.
In fact, an alarming recent report by the Department of Atomic Energy’s National Centre for Compositional Characterisation of Materials (NCCM) found that bathing in the Ganga can cause cancer, after it tested water samples from the river and found carcinogens in them.
The new government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, elected last month to represent the 3,000-year-old riverside city of Varanasi, has taken personal responsibility for restoring Maa Ganga, or “Mother Ganges”, as part of a broader push to husband nation’s scarce water resources and improve standards of public health and hygiene.
It has even created a new ministry of water resources, river development and Ganges rejuvenation to deal with the worrying issue.
Previous attempts to clean up the river, including introducing flesh-eating turtles to devour the charred remains of the dead cremated on its banks, have failed due to a lack of planning or coordination.
Modi will also seek the advice of holy men on how best to carry out his ambitious plan to cleanse the Ganges, a river that is sacred to the majority Hindu population.
However, the holy men are concerned about the disposal of the waste from the toilets and are suggesting construction of toilets miles away from the river banks and some are even discarding the plan as a bad one.
“Making toilets on the banks of Ganga will ease people’s issues but the government will have to ensure that the waste disposed from the toilets should not go into Ganga,” said a member of a religious organisation,Puranamba.
The new ministry’s head, Uma Bharti, has declared that though toilets will be built along the bank, the water, despite being treated and cleaned, will not be allowed to return to the holy river.
Bharti has promised to come up with detailed proposals in a month and a half for the project, dubbed “Ganga Manthan”. In the Hindi lexicon, manthan signifies a deep contemplation and churning of facts that leads to enlightenment.
“If it becomes imperative that a place (near the river) has to be assigned for waste and filth, that water will have to be treated at once. But we will not let that treated water enter the Ganga. I am saying that purity doesn’t mean treated water. Though the water will not only be treated, it will also be recycled,”said Bharti.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power on his campaign promises to boost economic development in India. The 63-year-old leader has also stressed Hindu values that he believes have been undermined by modern secularism.
A day after his election victory last month, Modi travelled to Varanasi to observe a fire ritual in honour of the sacred river.
“From the beginning to the end, Maa (mother )Ganga, is crying and waiting for her son to free her from pollution,”he had said in a speech from one of the ghats where riverside ceremonies are held.
Environmental experts have expressed cautious hope that a basin-wide approach advocated by Modi, involving northern states and neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, would help address issues like reduced meltwater flows into the river caused by the progressive retreat of Himalayan glaciers.