New Delhi — Hindu high priest Veerbhadra Mishra carefully pushes aside large pieces of floating filth before beginning his daily religious ritual - immersion in India's holiest river, the mighty Ganges. ``The Ganges is the symbol of our prosperity, our culture, our civilization,'' Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has said. ``But perhaps most of all, it is the holder of our spirituality and our tradition.''
The Ganges is also the holder of massive amounts of municipal and industrial waste. Scientists say that pollution level has reached such catastrophic proportions it threatens the ecological balance of the river basin, the livelihood of farmers, and the health of millions.
Every day, some 234 million gallons of untreated municipal sewage is discharged into the river, accounting for three-fourths of the river's pollution and turning the holy waters of the Ganges into a floating sewer.
Now, the Indian government is pushing ahead with a multimillion dollar campaign to clean up the 1,565-mile river by 1990 - a project whose scale boggles the mind of believers and nonbelievers alike.
Central Ganga Authority director K.C. Sivaramkrishnan said last month that a special effort would be made to clean up the river near Allahabad by 1989, when 7 million pilgrims are expected to attend a Hindu ceremony. He also said that in 140 projects in 27 cities, existing sewage plants would be repaired.
``It is the most challenging task we've undertaken since independence ,'' says project information officer S.S. Bagchi. ``But it can, and will, be done.''
The plan, much of it still on the drawing board 18 months after launch, is to divert sewage now flowing into the river to other locations for treatment, converting some of it into biogas to operate the treatment plants.
As a start, the Indian government has allocated 2.92 billion rupees ($242 million) to the project. But further investments could boost total spending on the plan by several million dollars, says Vikram V. Nanda, a scientist at the US Embassy here who follows the project.
Project technical director Dr. H.R. Ranganathan admits the task is daunting. ``We know the technology exists to solve it,'' he says. But ``it's the will of the people that will determine the project's success or failure.''
Securing the cooperation of the people who live along the Ganges, in fact, may not be that easy. To the scientists, the river is polluted. But to many pilgrims and villagers, Ganga Ma (``Mother Ganga'') is forever pure.
``When the heavy machinery begins to roll in,'' says a Western diplomat familiar with Indian politics, ``the religious protests will be massive. ''
At Varanasi, Hinduism's holiest city, the project's plans to replace open-air wood-burning cremation ceremonies with electric crematoria have already drawn criticism from residents who argue that would impinge on religious freedom. Electric crematoria, the residents are advised, would be more hygienic and cost less. About 35,000 bodies are consigned to the flames at Varanasi every year, official records show. And 10,000 partially burned bodies are simply dumped into the river.
The government has identified unburned human ``carcasses'' - along with municipal and industrial waste - as one of the ``principal sources of Ganges pollution.''
The 560,000-square-mile Ganges basin is home to about 300 million people - 35 percent of India's population. Yet few of the 693 cities and towns in the basin have adequate sewage treatment facilities.
Twenty-seven cities with populations over 100,000, which account for about three-fourths of the Ganges' pollution, are slated for immediate action. Sixty-four of the 300 industrial plants along the river have been named ``gross polluters'' and urged to clean up their act.
Some foreign help is being sought for the project: The Dutch have offered to build plants to treat industrial effluent; the British have agreed to provide some technical expertise; a French company is negotiating to construct a waste treatment plant. And the US Environmental Protection Agency is organizing seven water management workshops in India, to exchange technical know-how. But the technology for ``implementing the project will be principally Indian,'' Indian officials say.
``The purity of the Ganga has never been in doubt,'' Mr. Gandhi said. ``Yet we have allowed [its] pollution. ... From now on we shall put a stop to it. We shall see that the waters of the Ganga become clean once again. ''