The Parched Tiger: India’s Gargantuan Mission to Clean the Ganges River

Via Wired, an article on India’s efforts to restore the Ganges river, one of the world’s most sacred waterways—and one of its most polluted:

IN THE MORNINGS in Varanasi, the air on the banks of the Ganges fills with the scent of burning bodies. On the steps of the Manikarnika ghat—the holiest of the city’s stepped riverbanks, upon which Hindu dead are cremated—the fires are already lit, and mourners assemble by the hundred to accompany their loved ones at the end. Pyres of sandalwood (for the rich) and mango wood (for everyone else) are already burning; on one, a corpse wrapped in white is visible in the flames.

Down at the river, where I’m watching from a boat, some families are engaged in the ceremonial washing of their dead, the corpses shrouded in white linen and decorated with flowers. A few meters away, a man from another family (usually, the honor is bestowed on the eldest son) wades into the water, casting in the ashes of an already cremated relative so that the Ganges might carry their spirit onwards to the next life or even moksha, the end of the rebirth cycle, and transcendence.

The funeral ceremonies, held against the backdrop of the ancient city, are undeniably beautiful; but the same can’t be said of the river itself. The water’s surface is flaked with ashes; ceremonial flowers linger in the eddies. Just downstream, a couple of men are diving for discarded jewelry. Not 50 meters upstream, another group, having finished their rites, are bathing in the filthy water. An older man, clad in white, finishes his bathing with a traditional blessing: He cups the fetid Ganges water in one hand and takes a sip.

The Ganges is one of the most densely populated river basins in the world, providing water for an estimated 600 million people. But to Hindus, it is more than a waterway: It is Ma Ganga, the mother river, formed—according to the sacred text the Bhagavata Purana—when Lord Vishnu himself punctured a hole in the universe and divine water flooded into the world. Water from the Ganges is widely used in Hindu prayer and ceremony; you can buy plastic bottles of it from stalls all over the subcontinent—or order one on Amazon in the UK for as little as £3.

And yet despite its sacred status, the Ganges is one of the most contaminated major rivers on earth. The UN has called it “woefully polluted.” As India’s population has exploded—in April 2023, it overtook China to become the world’s most populous country—hundreds of millions of people have settled along the Ganges’ floodplain. India’s sanitation system has struggled to keep up. The Ganges itself has become a dumping ground for countless pollutants: toxic pesticides, industrial waste, plastic, and, more than anything, billions upon billions of liters of human effluent.

It’s March 2022, and I’ve come to India while reporting my book, Wasteland, about the global waste industry. And few issues in waste are more critical (yet less sexy) than sanitation. In the global north, sewage is a problem that many of us assumed was more or less fixed in Victorian times. But access to clean water and adequate sanitation remains an urgent global issue. Some 1.7 billion people worldwide still do not have access to modern sanitation facilities.

Every day, an estimated 494 million people without access to flushing toilets and closed sewers are forced to defecate in the open, in gutters, or in plastic bags. The World Health Organization estimates that one in 10 people consumes wastewater (aka sewage) every year, either via unclean drinking water or contaminated food. In India, the result is that 37 million people are thought to be affected by water-borne illnesses such as typhoid, dysentery, and hepatitis every year. Worldwide, poor sanitation kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined.

Sanitation is one of those amenities that most of us in the global north don’t think about until something goes wrong. In the UK, sewers have lately dominated news headlines for the wrong reasons: Many of Britain’s rivers and beaches are being polluted by sewage overflow and farming runoff. According to the UK’s Environment Agency, water companies discharged sewage into English rivers on 301,091 occasions in 2022, totaling more than 1.7 million hours; on Britain’s beaches, sewage is reportedly making swimmers sick. Britain’s sanitation woes have been caused by years of neglect: systemic underinvestment by profit-chasing ownership; austerity-starved and ineffectual regulation; and the ever-widening expansion of our concrete urban spaces, which divert water away from natural soaks like soil and wetlands and into our watercourses.

In India—like much of the global south—the issue is the opposite: In most cases, the sewers were never there in the first place. In this respect, the Ganges’ pollution is a strange mark of success. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was first elected in 2014, among the first things he did was launch the Clean India Campaign, a nationwide effort to install sanitation and modern waste facilities in a country that had previously lacked them.

Even those critical of Modi’s government—denounced for alleged Islamophobic policies and oppression of the press, among many other things—have to admit that the numbers since have been astonishing. Between 2014 and 2019, by one official estimate, India installed 110 million toilets, providing sanitation for an estimated half a billion people. Little more than a decade ago, India was known for having the highest rate of open defecation (that is, shitting in the open) in the world. Thanks to this massive expansion of public and private toilets, that rate has reportedly plummeted. The issue is that with so many new toilets, the sewage needs to go somewhere.

In that sense, India is like many rapidly urbanizing countries in the global south. But India is also unique, in that Hindu culture places rivers at the center of religious beliefs. And it’s for this reason the Modi government, alongside its Clean India Campaign, launched an expensive infrastructure plan to clean up the national river: the Namami Gange (“Obeisance to the Ganges”) program. It is by no means the first attempt. Previous governments have been launching “‘action plans”’ to clean the Ganges since at least the 1980s. But past efforts, beset by alleged corruption and mismanagement, rarely got far.

To date, the Namami Gange program has cost over 328 billion rupees ($3.77 billion) and promised the construction of more than 170 new sewage facilities and 5,211 kilometers of sewer lines—enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean. It is a fascinating test case in the global effort to clean up our rivers and seas. After all, if you can’t clean a river sacred to hundreds of millions of people, what hope do the rest of us have?

THE OFFICES OF Varanasi’s water board, are a traffic-clogged drive west from the cremation ghats and the old city, in one of Varanasi’s increasingly busy commercial neighborhoods. When I arrive there is construction work and activity everywhere. In his air-conditioned office, Raghuvendra Kumar, Jal Kal’s general manager, explains that this is one of the challenges that the Namami Gange project has faced. “This city does not sleep,” he explains.

Kumar, a neat man with a side parting, in a black leather jacket and surgical mask (when we speak, India is not long out of a Covid spike), has been at Jal Kal since 2018. “When I joined, the situation in the city was much worse, because the work was still in progress,” Kumar says. “Sewers were flowing everywhere. It flowed into the streets.”

Varanasi is among the oldest inhabited cities in the world. It is situated at the confluence of two rivers: the Varuna and Assi, both tributaries of the Ganges, which join the river course here. The city’s spiritual and tourist center, on the western bank of the river, is a warren of alleyways, many too narrow to move cars down and often blocked by stray cows and market stalls. The city’s original trunk sewer (the main sewer, into which smaller pipes feed) was built by the British in the early 20th century, but local officials explain that the precursor can be traced back to the Mughal Empire.

Until a few years ago, much of the city’s sewage was released untreated into the Ganges via public drains, or nullahs, which discharged along the same bank as the ghats, where people habitually bathe. Since 2016, the center of the city has seen the installation of several kilometers of new sewer lines, connecting pipes that once spewed straight into the river to a new intercepting sewer, which now carries much of the flow off to one of three new sewage treatment plants. Out of 23 known drains that previously carried raw sewage into the Ganges, Kumar says that 20 have been capped, with the rest in progress. Later, on the same boat that took me past the cremation sites, I see it myself: The city’s most notorious drain, Sisamau, is now capped. Only a steady trickle remains.

In a city that has seen near-constant civic engineering work going on for the last two decades, the sewer project has not always been popular. (“Changing the mindset of the people is a very difficult task,” Kumar says.) To improve uptake of the new waste regime, Jal Kal and the state’s Pollution Control Board put out a series of local adverts; the city ran public announcements over loudspeakers from garbage collection vehicles, warning against open defecation and asking inhabitants not to pollute the river and new drains with garbage. “In the last three to five years, it has come into the habit of the citizens that we have to improve our lifestyle, we have to change our behavior,” Kumar says. “And now it has become the habit of the people.”

It’s not the only change that has taken place in Varanasi. The temple flowers that once clogged the banks of the Ganges after cremations and religious festivals are now collected on the banks in marked bins and in the river using floating barriers; the remains are composted or collected by a local startup, Phool, which converts them into incense sticks. The city’s wider green policies have helped cut pollution levels: Varanasi has passed laws banning certain plastics within the holy city and launched a scheme mandating that more than 580 diesel-powered boats on the river be converted to run on compressed natural gas, reducing oil slicks on the water’s surface. The city also set about “beautifying” the ghats, employing teams of workers to collect leftover waste for recycling, and artists to paint murals celebrating the Namami Gange campaign. And most importantly, 361 public toilets have been built, connected to the new sewers, to reduce the rate of open defecation.

Among the Namami Gange projects inaugurated by Modi himself are a new sewage treatment plant in Dinapur, to the northeast of the city, designed to process up to 140 million liters of effluent per day. Similarly, as the city has expanded, so by necessity has the sanitation system. The day after I visit Jal Kal, I am given a tour of a brand-new sewage plant in Ramnagar, on the river’s west bank, where the population is booming. On the road to the plant I’m surrounded by building works, formal and informal; at one point, we pass a group digging up bricks from a newly laid road, presumably for housing construction.

I’m met by Shashikari Shastri, an engineer in charge, who shows me around. The sewage treatment plant is a modern and pleasant place (at least, as pleasant as sewage works get), with pale green buildings and neat rows of trees in the flower beds.

Most sewage treatment plants work in a similar way. To grossly simplify: The bigger solids (i.e., feces) are screened out in large, often open tanks, and those solids that remain are allowed to settle on the bottom of the tank or float to the surface, and are removed. The remaining water is then passed into a series of tanks and mixed with bacteria, which digest the leftover organic matter and kill off remaining pathogens. The ponds are aerated to encourage digestion. (The result tends to be bubbling lanes of sewage which, if you close your eyes, could sound like water fountains, were it not for the smell.) At this stage, any lingering solids are again settled out. Different technologies exist for third and even fourth steps to clean the water further—UV light, chlorination, etc.

The older sewage treatment plants in Varanasi work using an activated sludge technique, in which some of the solids removed during the settling process are reinjected as a kind of bacterial starter. Ramnagar, however, uses a modern A20 (anaerobic-anoxic) design, in which the effluent is passed through additional tanks to reduce dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus. “Our focus is to minimize eutrophication, because last year lots of algae and eutrophication was found [in the Ganges],” Shastri explains. Eutrophication is when a body of water becomes overly enriched with nutrients and minerals, leading to an explosion of algae, which can choke the river of aquatic life.

We arrive eventually at the outlet pipe, a cascading series of tiled waterfalls at the river’s edge. By now, Shastri says, the treated water is far cleaner than when it arrived. This is measured using biological oxygen demand (BOD)—the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water that bacteria need to remove any unwanted organic matter, a proxy measure for how much waste is in the water. “The BOD at the inlet is 180 mg/liter,” Shastri explains. “At the outlet, it’s 5 to10 mg/liter.” Down on the sand, children are playing. Another group is mining sand (illegally, most likely) for building materials.

The sewage treatment plant—like several that I visited along the Ganges reporting my book—is an impressive place, if small. (Despite asking, I was not permitted access to the city’s largest plant, in Dinapur, during my time there.) Still, I couldn’t help but feel that its minuscule size was woefully inadequate for the task in hand.

SIZE IS NOT the only issue. The rosy image of the Namami Gange campaign, painted by the city’s civil servants, does not always match the reality on the ground. While almost everyone I spoke to in Varanasi was positive about the effect of the campaign on the river and the city, it’s clear that despite the rapid pace of building, the Ganges is still far from clean.

One afternoon in Varanasi, my fellow reporter Rahul Singh and I walked over to the banks of the Assi River (or “Assi nullah [sewer]” as many people still colloquially refer to it). Despite the Namami Gange project’s efforts, the banks of the Assi were buried ankle-deep in plastic waste: microsachets, bottles, packets, pots. I met one of the city’s waste pickers collecting PET bottles, which he can sell for 10 rupees (less than 10p) per kilogram. A little further upstream, floating barriers have been installed in the water to help catch the garbage; so much trash has built up on them that it has created reef-like islands midstream.

When the Assi reaches the Ganges, it passes through a pumping plant, designed to filter out solid rubbish before transferring the wastewater downstream to a sewage treatment plant. But when I visited, the pumping station was barely manned and operating at a fraction of its capacity. One of the metal screens for trapping garbage was broken; inside the facility, plastic and other waste trickled slowly off a conveyor belt and into sacks to be carted away for recycling or incineration. One of the staff (who I agreed could remain nameless) told me the plant extracts a ton of plastic waste per day.

The creaking reality of some of the infrastructure goes against the government’s line on the Namami Gange campaign, which it tends to portray in rapturous, nationalistic tones. The reality is that nearly 10 years after Modi first unveiled the project, the Ganges in Varanasi, and along much of its stretch, remains polluted.

According to the government-run Pollution Control Board’s own figures, in 2020, samples of the river water collected in Varanasi far exceeded India’s own recommended limits for fecal coliform and fecal streptococci bacteria—the latter exceeding the limit by more than 20-fold. The same was true when I visited the industrial city of Kanpur, known for its chromium and heavy metals pollution. It’s not just the Ganges, either: The Yamuna, in Delhi, registered fecal streptococci readings at 10,800 times the recommended limit. All across India, there are reports of rivers foaming with toxic waste or lakes catching fire.

This is the reality of a country like India, that is growing at such an astonishing rate: The risk for India’s civic planners is that by the time new infrastructure—sewage plants, waste facilities, roads—are built, the population is already greater than their capacity. (It is also, it should be said, not solely an Indian problem. Every major industrial country—from China in the last two decades, to the US and other Western countries several decades ago—has faced river pollution crises.) But the continued failure of the government’s schemes to clean the Ganges is a wedge issue for religious campaigners, to whom the issue of cleaning the Ganges is more than practical or political. It’s moral.

ONE EVENING IN Varanasi, I head back to the ghats, to meet with one of the Namami Gange project’s most outspoken critics. Vishwambhar Nath Mishra is an intense man in his fifties, with white hair and a thick mustache. Mishra is a professor of electronics engineering at Banaras Hindu University, and also mahant (high priest) of Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, a position he inherited from his late father, Veer Bhadra Mishra. Mishra’s father was a lifelong campaigner for the Ganges, and back in the 1980s he set up the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an NGO focused on protecting the river; when we meet, in a room near the foundation, there is a picture of the elder Mishra on the wall, smiling happily. When Mishra Sr. died in 2013, Vishwambhar inherited the foundation, along with his religious duties.

For Mishra, that combination—of engineering, campaigning, and religion—gives him a unique perspective on the requirements of cleaning the Ganges. “The use of this river is entirely different from other river systems,” Mishra says. “People come from distant places and worship Ganga like their mother. A few [of those] people come and gently touch Ganga water and put it on their forehead. A few people come and take a religious bathe in the river. And a few take sips of Ganga water.” This sip is a sacred ritual part of the daily bath in the river taken by many devout Indians.

“Now, if people are sipping on the water, that means the quality has to be potable water quality; there has to be no compromise,” Mishra says. For him, it’s personal. As a religious leader, one person expected to sip Ganges water during their daily bath is Mishra himself.

Mishra’s weapon in the fight for the Ganges is a simple one: data. In 1993, the Sankat Mochan Foundation established one of the few independent labs to analyze the quality of the Ganges’ water in Varanasi. “That’s why they [the government] are scared,” Mishra says. “We have a database that speaks the reality of how healthy the river is.” Ever since, the foundation has been keeping track of the water—bacteria levels, oxygen demand—and has seen the river’s health decline with India’s growth.

According to Mishra and his fellow activists, the government’s own figures when it comes to sewage in Varanasi don’t add up. The largest sewage treatment plant, at Dinapur, has a stated processing capacity of 140 million liters a day (MLD). “Now as a matter of fact, I know that in [the Dinapur plant], they are able to carry only 60 MLD of sewage,” Mishra says, growing more animated as he talks. “At Goitha, where the capacity is 120 MLD, a few months back when I asked those people, they are able to transport only 10 to20 MLD of sewage. That’s all. So as a scientific man, you can just calculate the efficiency.” Similarly, Mishra claims that the government’s assertions that drains are no longer discharging into the river is not true. “Five years ago we found 33 locations discharging [sewage] … That has reduced to 15 or 16,” he says. (The Uttar Pradesh Pollution Control Board did not respond to requests for comment.)

Whereas India’s religious and environmental campaigners like Mishra hope to make the Ganges drinkable again, the Indian government has to date only declared an intent to make the Ganges in Varanasi a Class B river—fit for bathing only. Even by that standard, Mishra says, the project is failing. “We have scientific parameters that if Ganga is a Class B River, then total fecal coliform count should be less than 500 per 100 ml,” Mishra says. (Fecal coliform bacteria are a strong indicator of other pathogens being present.) Mishra shows me a ream of paper, upon which he has printed charts of the lab’s water quality data at numerous locations, going back months. “Right now [in March 2022], where we are sitting at Tulshi ghat, the figure is 41,400 per 100 ml. At the end of [Varanasi], where a big channel is discharging, it is 51 million.”

(While I could not independently confirm these numbers, even the Indian government’s data shows that pathogen levels in the Ganges at Varanasi are many multiples higher than its safety targets.)

Back in 2014, before the launch of the Namami Gange program, Mishra sat with Modi to discuss his hopes to clean the Ganges. Mishra’s foundation has since presented its own proposals for treatment projects, but has been ignored. The Pollution Control Board and state government dispute the foundation’s data; Mishra, meanwhile, says that the government’s figures, which are averages of samples taken from across the width of the river, do not reflect the reality experienced by bathers on the ghats, where sewers discharge into the Ganges and the water is slower. “They will never recognize our laboratory because they know that it will be a big trouble for them. But we have all the data since 1993.”

Mishra also claims that commercial interests are preventing the government from taking even more decisive action to cut pollution. “Ganga happens to be a very fertile cow. So, everybody’s milking in the name of Ganga,” he says. (Allegations of corruption have plagued India’s many Ganges cleanup campaigns, although Mishra didn’t share any specific evidence of corruption. India’s Ministry of Jal Shakti, or water ministry, did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)

Most politicians and engineers in India, when asked, will tell you that a totally pure Ganges, of the sort that Mishra is aiming for, is almost certainly impossible. (“Religious people don’t follow logic,” SK Barman, a project manager for the state water company’s Ganga Pollution Prevention Unit, told me. “We have to achieve salvation somehow. Moksha, moksha, moksha.”) But in driving the conversation, it’s also clear that without Mishra and the countless other environmental activists across India campaigning for the Ganges restoration, the issue would be worse.

A YEAR SINCE I was last in Varanasi, it’s clear that India’s sanitation drive is still far from where the government’s narrative would have the public believe. According to a public information request by the Indian news organization Down to Earth, in 2023, 71 percent of the Ganges’ river monitoring stations were reporting “alarmingly high” levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Over 66 percent of drains in the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Varanasi sits, still empty into the Ganges and its tributaries.

There is no doubt that the Namami Gange project has made progress, and not just in the number of toilets installed and treatment plants made operational. Nearly every member of the public I spoke to in India—in Varanasi, Kanpur, and in New Delhi—confirmed that anecdotally, pollution issues are improving. It wasn’t that long ago that dead bodies would be regularly found in the river, and sewage in the rainy season flowed up onto the ghats. Today, there are increased sightings of aquatic life, such as the Ganges river dolphin.

And at 2022’s state elections, Modi’s BJP party remained in power—a significant sign ahead of 2024’s presidential election. In March 2023, Modi’s government confirmed Namami Gange Mission II, an additional $2.56 billion of expenditure on expanding the program and continuing to complete already commissioned infrastructure.

As for Mishra and the other activists advocating for a clean holy river, their campaign continues, no matter how unpopular it makes him with the government and Modi-leaning press. “I have heard, ‘Why? Why don’t you say the Ganga is clean?’ Mishra says. “I cannot say that. We are totally committed to the Ganga, and we cannot mislead people. For me, the Ganga is the medium of my life.”

It’s a holy mission, I say.

“It’s a holy mission, and it’s a scientific mission.”

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