Holy man, secular plan: clean up the River Ganges
Veer Bhadra Mishra, a Hindu priest and former professor of hydraulics, has gained government approval for a pilot program.
Most mornings, as the sun steals over the Ganges, Veer Bhadra Mishra takes a dip in India's holiest river. As high priest of a Hindu temple, it is his solemn duty. But as a scientist, the ritual is profoundly discomforting.Skip to next paragraph
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The Ganges, revered as a symbol of spiritual purity for more than 2,000 years, is today a filthy soup. This is especially true in the ancient pilgrimage site of Varanasi, where 32 old pipes on the riverbank disgorge raw sewage into the flow.
"I have a rationally trained mind," says the retired professor of hydraulics, who says he has contracted potentially fatal diseases from Ganges water. "But I also have a passionately committed heart."
Mr. Mishra has used both in a 20-year river cleanup campaign now coming to fruition. With his spiritual clout in a country that's more than 80 percent Hindu and his scientific expertise, Mishra has won government approval for a pilot sewage-treatment program.
Religious imagery is never far from the lyrical speech of Mishra, who couches his environmental language in terms of saving the "Ganga Ma," or the Mother Ganges. Even more than the compassion he shows for the well-being of Hindus, he seems most concerned about the health of Hinduism – how a dirty river might damage the faith.
Mishra inherited the role of high priest of the 400-year-old Sankat Mochan temple when he was 14 years old, following a centuries-old tradition of passing the job from father to eldest son.
But he has also been driven by scientific curiosity, becoming the first family high priest to wear Western-style trousers and to attend university. Later, he became a professor at Varanasi's renowned Benares Hindu University.
In 1982, he set up the Sankat Mochan Foundation – named after his temple – which has led the city's clean-river campaign with an unusual mixture of science and spirituality.
A meeting with the prime minister
More than a decade ago, with scientists from the University of California in Berkeley, Mishra developed what many environmental experts attest is a cheap, sustainable system for diverting the city's sewage away from the river, and cleaning it.
The scheme was unanimously accepted by the city council nearly a decade ago, but the state and central governments rejected it. Gentle-mannered Mishra continued his tenacious lobbying, and last year secured a meeting with prime minister Manmohan Singh.
Last month, he heard what he describes as "the best news in 20 years."
On June 30, the central government wrote to him, telling him it would support a pilot run of his scheme in Varanasi and suggesting it would hold back support for a much costlier, ineffective state government-led scheme.
"If the result is convincing, it will be difficult for the government to refuse to roll it out," he says, with a broad smile. He says he is confident the system will not disappoint, but only hopes that the government will reverse years of "disastrous" policy on the Ganges.
It would be difficult to exaggerate how sacred the river is to Hindus, who see it as an incarnation of the god Ganga.