Every day at dawn, the ancient bathing ghats of Varanasi are crowded with devotees preparing to bathe in what they call the sacred waters of the river Ganges.
Pious Hindu pilgrims believe that a dip in these waters will wash away their sins, and even a few drops on the tongue are thought to be enough to clean their bodies. To be cremated on the banks of the Ganges, they believe, guarantees that the soul will escape from the material world's cycle of suffering.
But the holiest of India's rivers is also its most polluted. In its 1,500 mile trek from its icy source high in the Himalayas to the tropical shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges runs through one of most densely populated areas in the world.
Nearly 40 percent of India's population of 960 million live in the Gangetic basin, most of them without access to sewer and sanitation facilities. Dozens of cities spew millions of gallons of untreated human and industrial waste into its sluggish waters every day.
"Once we saw plenty of [river] dolphins here, now even ordinary fish are few and far between in these waters," says Kamal Ram, a Varanasi boatman whose family has been ferrying pilgrims across the river for generations.
All India's rivers in trouble
The Ganges is not the only river in India to suffer from environmental degradation. According to the World Health Organization, virtually all of India's surface water is polluted.
"It's now difficult to get water of any kind, let alone clean water. And the problem can only worsen," says Mr. D.K. Biswas, chairman of the government's Central Pollution Control Board.
The state of India's skies is not much better. India has become the world's sixth-largest and second-fastest growing producer of greenhouse gases.
The level of air pollution in at least 20 cities is classified as dangerous. Vehicles, which have risen in number from 300,000 in 1951 to 30 million in 1991, contribute the most to the black haze hanging over cities like New Delhi, followed by power plants and industrial units. The private Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) estimates air pollution will contribute to 2.5 million early deaths across the country this year. "A hidden crisis is on for which there is no immediate solution," warns TERI's director, R.K. Pachauri.
When the total cost of environmental degradation is taken into account, it more than offsets the positive economic growth of the past two decades, according to the Nagpur-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute.
Few comply with rules
Despite India's stringent pollution control measures, outdated technologies, a lack of capital, and poor infrastructure contribute to the low levels of compliance with environmental legislation.
But according to Anil Agarwal, director of the Center for Science and the Environment, the lack of enforcement is not the only barrier to cleaning up India's environment. "What we are seeing today is a total failure of the entire governance system, aided and abetted by a complete lack of political vision," says Mr. Agarwal.
One of India's most dramatic failures on the environmental front has been the Ganges Action Plan (GAP). Launched in 1985, the ambitious project was meant to clean up India's most important river. But after 12 years of work and $300 million in funding, the GAP has achieved few of its objectives. A recent study found that the amount of sewage flowing into the Ganges has doubled since 1985, while a government audit found evidence of widespread corruption in siphoning off funds earmarked for the project.
"It's money flowing down the drain," says Varanasi-based Prof. B.N. Juyal, a social activist. "They used to call this the eternal city because it was never affected by flooding. Now because of the Ganges Action Plan it is being flooded with sewage."
GAP's chief adviser, R.P. Sharma, admits the river is undergoing "slow poisoning" but he blames the lack of political will on the part of state governments to fully implement the project for its many failures.
"The state governments give a low priority to the environment, and because they are always strapped for cash, the upkeep of civic amenities is always the first to go," says Dr. Sharma.
"What is needed is an integrated approach that generates awareness of the problems to the fullest extent by involving the public and locally elected representatives," says Sharma.
At the Dinapur Sewage Treatment Plant in Varanasi, however, where visitors are presented with bouquets of fragrant flowers grown on sludge from the plant, officials are upbeat about the success of GAP. "By the introduction and implementation of the Ganges Action Plan there has definitely been an improvement in the quality of water in the river," says N.C. Gupta, general manager of the Ganga Pollution Control Unit.
Armed with reams of statistics, Gupta says that the quality of river water at Varanasi has improved substantially, but he admits that a more coordinated and sustained effort will be required before the waters of the Ganges become as pure as pious Hindu pilgrims believe them to be.
"Name me one major river where you can drink the water without first boiling it," says Mr. Gupta. "Look how long it took to clean the Thames and this is a much bigger river system."
FOUL WATERS RUN DEEP: A woman wades through flood waters near India' s southern city of Madras. Severe pollution has put India's vital waterways in increasing jeopardy.