New Delhi, June 3: The World Health Organisation has attributed 80 per cent of all health problems and one-third of all deaths in India to contaminated Ganga water, considered holy by Hindus.
Its effects are both deadly and widespread. River contamination reaches into the ground water system, affecting water supplies and agriculture.
According to Worldwatch Institute in Washington, eight out of every 10 Indians suffer from amoebic dysentery each year. “The toxic cocktails in (the) Ganga and throughout the entire Indian river system are ghastly,” says Green Hope, a journal on environment.
In 1985, the government launched an action plan to clean up the Ganga in 29 cities of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Twelve years later, a public interest litigation filed by Eco-Friendly, a non-government organisation, led to several landmark orders, including closure of polluting factories on the riverbank.
The organisation, working in the Jajmau region of Kanpur, says toxic chemicals have entered the food chain causing, among other illnesses, a host of skin diseases.
Water from the Ganga directly and indirectly supports nearly half of the Indian population and, according to Green Hope, the damage caused by its polluted water is as extensive as it is deadly. “As things stand today, nearly half of all Indians have to make do with muddy water in their day to day living,” says the journal.
According to NGOs, the action plan to cleanse the Ganga did not succeed because of a string of reasons — “engineering blunders, over-reliance on electrical power, problems of flooding and indifferent maintenance”.
“Since many official statistics are kept under wraps, we cannot always be sure about the extent of the failures,” says Green Hope.
In Varanasi, the NGOs are running their laboratories to assess the extent of pollution. “We do this everyday. And the results usually indicate that drinking the water directly can be fatal,” says Eco-Friendly.
As a result of the continued pollution, crops are becoming contaminated and fish are disappearing. People are losing eyesight because they are forced to bathe in the polluted water.
“In many places, the river is hardly more than a sewer,” says Green Hope. Faecal coliform, a measurement of human and animal waste in water, is alarmingly high in the holy city of Varanasi. “Millions bathe in Varanasi and elsewhere along the 2,525-km waterway,” says Green Hope. Campaigns by NGOs for safe Ganga water have led to increase in public awareness, though marginal, in Varanasi and Kanpur.
In Varanasi, two organisations — The Campaign and the Sankat Mochan Foundation — have presented a feasibility study for putting in place a non- electrical wastewater system covering a crucial 7-km stretch of the riverbank.
The project will treat the water biologically in ponds through a process of photosynthesis.