Introduction is a reflection on my own


During the
summer 2016, I spent three months traveling through India and I had the
opportunity to follow the river Ganges upstream from the sacred city of
Varanasi all the way to the its Himalayan source. I got to understand the
spiritual importance of this river as well as the existential. By Hindus, the
Ganges is believed to descend from the heaven to become the embodiment of all
sacred waters and is worshiped as the goddess mother Ganga. Having a bath in
the river is believed to have purifying effect and to cleanse one’s sins. Many
Hindus in India pilgrimage to the Ganges during their lifetime. As the river
has descended from the heaven to the earth it is also used as the connection
from earth back to heaven. Hundreds of burning bodies are buried in the river
every day. The river also provides for daily needs of millions of Indians
living on its banks. It is important source of water and food for those who
farm or fish along its course. (Aloian

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the river is heavily polluted and when watching its dark brown stream full of waste,
it was difficult to imagine its miraculous impacts on human organism, as well
as raising questions about the impact on the food produced in the area. I
decided to use the research for this essay to have a deeper look into the issue
and to understand where is all the waste coming form, how far the pollution has
gone and the efforts to clean the river that has been made so far.

This paper
is a reflection on my own personal experience supported by literature. Firstly,
I will describe the sources and the impacts of the pollution of the Ganges
river. The scale of the problem is huge and numerous newspaper articles and
scientific reports have been written covering this issue. Those have been the
main source for my research that suggested information stated in the first
chapter. And secondly, I will map the history of attempts that have been made
to clean up the river. The core documents for this part are the article ‘The Ganges and the GAP: An Assessment of
Efforts to Clean a Sacred River’ published in the ‘Sustainability’ journal, available in the Radboud University
library and the interview with the India’s minister of environment done by the

Ganga, the dying mother of India

India has
the fastest growing population in the world (BBC
News 2016) and it is predicted to overtake
China as the most populated country on earth by 2022. (Worl
Economic Forum 2016) This substantial population growth
caries alarming environmental pressures and the Ganga is no exception. There
are over 450 million people living in the Ganges basin. That represents more
than one third of India’s ever-growing population. All these people produce huge
amount of waste every day. 115 tones of plastic are dumped into the river
Ganges every year all being washed off into the ocean. This makes the Ganga the
second most polluting river in the world. (D’Mello
2017) Plastic is not the only issue.
Other forms of human waste, industrial effluent from sugar plants, paper mills
and other industries poor into the river.  Leather producing factories located near the town
Kanpuri are another significant contributor to the Ganges pollution. To soften and
preserve the hides, highly toxic chemicals are used. Some of them, including
compounds of chromium, are powerful carcinogens. (BBC
News 2016) “Sewage systems, built during the colonial era, are grossly inadequate
in meeting the demands of a growing city,” (Das
and Tamminga 2012) and many cities and villages located
in the river basin poor their untreated human sewage straight into the river
stream. Then there is the hazardous waste from recycling electronic products. Many
people still swirl the waste ash from the foundries in deep bowls to recover
tiny remnants of metal, even though it is illegal, because of the known
toxicity of many components. (Mallet
2015) Farms located along river’s course
use chemicals like pesticides in their agriculture production. Those chemicals
often run off from fertilizers straight into the river. (Aktar
et al. 2009) As some of the families struggle to
pay for adequate cremation, half cremated human bodies float in the river which
also add to the pollution. In January 2015 more than 100 dead bodies, many of
them of woman and children, were found washed up in a shallow tributary of the
river, near the village of Pariyar, in Uttar Pradesh. (MailOnline

The river
Ganga really seems to be dying. The substantial drop of the level of dissolved
oxygen present in the river is alarming. The head of the department of chemical
engineering at the IIT-BHU PK Mishra reports on the issue. “Examination of the samples collected …
revealed that DO level in certain stretches of the river dropped to 4 mg per
litre. … A dissolved oxygen level of 8 mg per litre in a river is considered
healthy … It clearly shows that the river struggles to maintain its oxygen
level.” (Hindustan Times 2016)

In the 2014,
the organization Toxic Link published a report on the toxicity load of Yamuna
river, the longest tributary river of the river Ganga. The report found the
river bed to be highly contaminated with heavy metals, such as cadmium,
arsenic, mercury and lead. This report emphasises the problem of the food
safety as the vegetables grown in the flood plain of Yamuna are being
contaminated. (Toxic
Link 2014)

Pollution of
the Ganges threatens not only to people. “The
… river basin contains high biodiversity. There are over 140 fish species,
the richest freshwater fish fauna in India, 90 amphibian species, and 5 areas
supporting birds found nowhere else in the world. … The basin is home to 5
species of freshwater cetaceans including the endangered Ganges River Dolphin
which faces an annual mortality rate of 10% and the rare freshwater shark,
Glyphis gangeticus.” (WWF


Attempts to clean up the river

pollution of the river has accelerated in response to the recent industrial development
and the significant population. However, it is certainly not an issue of the
recent years. The need to clean the river was brought to public attention already
around the year 1980. In response to the public outrage regarding the pollution
the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was created in 1885. In the same year, the Central
Ganga Authority was established, to be later renamed the National River
Conservation Authority (NRCA). NRCA set up clear goal to improve the state of
the river’s pollution by the March 1990. However, this goal had to be extended till
March 2000 due to huge delays and over all, this project resulted in a major
failure. For instance, by the year 2000 the GAP achieved only 39% of its target
regarding sewage treatment while already consuming 90% of its budget. According
to project’s critiques, the main reason for this failure was the inability of
the NRCA to create any kind of regional cooperation in addressing the pollution
between the states laying in the Ganges river basin coupled with the top-down,
technocratic management, the weak position of local governments and the lack of
public engagement and participation. Almost all major planning was done by NRCA
on central level, not taking into consideration the local needs and conditions,
including the financial, management and infrastructure capacities. NGO’s were
expected to participate in the project without receiving sufficient funds for
their work. Additionally, there were no adequate provisions for monitoring the
performance of local governments and mechanisms to penalize those that are under-performing.
Corruption also played a significant role. “The
government’s top-down approach assumed that people are the problem, rather than
the institutions. Most of the projects were, therefore, targeted towards
people’s interaction with the river. … For instance, a police task force was
created in Varanasi to monitor pollution along the river. Residents and
pilgrims complained about being harassed by the police who were supposed to
garner public support in the fight against pollution. Some of the residents we
interviewed mentioned how the police had taken to petty corruption. They would
dump dead bodies in the river and pocket the money they were paid by the
municipal corporation for cremating unidentified bodies.” (Das
and Tamminga 2012)

In 2008, the
India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh declared the Ganges to be the National River
and set up the National Ganga River Basin Project (NGRBP) with the main goal to
clean up the river. The recent prime minister Narendra Modi caries this mission
on. Over 3 billion UDS has been pledged for this project and a huge emphasis
has been put on this issue. However, most of the fund remains unspent and
therefore it is still too early to assess the success of this project. India’s
Environment Minister Prakesh Javadekar says the government has learned from the
mistakes that have been made in the past and he sounds optimistic when talking
about the eventual improvement. “There is
tremendous focus and therefore we are very confident we will achieve our
targets.” (BBC
News 2016) According to Javedekar every aspect
of the pollution problem has been mapped out. He claims that new regulations on
industrial units are being implemented, numbers of tanneries have been closed
down and that the industrial pollution has already dropped by a third. He promises building of new effluent
treatment plants and is not even afraid to state that the corruption will no
longer be a problem and that every rupee the government spends will be
accounted for. However, he admits complete solving of the issue will take time.
“We are not saying that the whole Ganga
mission will be complete in five years, no. Five years will ensure there is a
marked difference but this is a long project. … The Rhine and the Thames were
in the same dirty state 50 or 60 years ago and it took nearly 20 years to
change the overall ecology of that, and we will also achieve it within 10 to 15
years’ time.” (BBC
News 2016)


The Ganges
is a river of a huge importance to the people of India. It provides everyday
needs like food and water for those living on its banks and it is a very
important spiritual symbol for all followers of the Hindu religion. However,
the river is heavily polluted mainly due to the population growth, urbanization
and industrialization. This pollution puts in direct risk not only more 450
million people living in the river basin but also the rich biodiversity that
inhabits the river bed. In 1885, the first serious attempt to clean up the
rivet vas carried out but without any significant impact. The current
government led by the prime minister Manmohan Singh declared the clean-up of
the river to be one of their prime priorities and has pledged over 3 billion
UDS for this project but most of this fund remains unspent. However, the India’s
minister of environment is optimistic and believes the full recovery of the
river is possible.

of the Ganges is not only an environmental issue but also a test of India’s ability
to modernise, to crackle corruption and to enforce proper regulation. Only time
will show whether the Indian government truly managed to learn from the
mistakes of their precursors and made a significant improvement.