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.

Mian Ridge
Veer Bhadra Mishra: A priest and scientist, he's finally won approval for a pilot program.
Bikas Das/AP
The river Ganges: Hindu devotees, such as these at the river's mouth, have bathed in its waters for 2,000 years. But raw sewage has made it a filthy soup.

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.

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.

The Ganges flows over 1,500 miles, from the Himalayas across the densely populated plains of India, into Bangladesh, before gushing into the Bay of Bengal.

It would be difficult to exaggerate how sacred the river is to Hindus, who see it as an incarnation of the god Ganga.

"Man becomes pure by the touch of the water, or by consuming it, or by expressing its name," says Lord Vishnu in the Ramayana, a poem written in the fourth century BC.

But while India's Hindus have maintained their reverence for the river, modernization – in the form of speedy population growth, urbanization, and industrialization – has sullied it. There are more than 100 cities, numerous towns, and countless villages scattered along its banks. Some 500 million people are dependent upon the Ganges for water. As it has been siphoned off for irrigation, its water levels have fallen.

Climate change is also taking a disastrous toll. The Himalayan Gangotri glacier, the source of most of the Ganges' water during India's long, hot summers, is shrinking by 40 yards a year, say scientists. By 2030, they warn, it could disappear altogether – making the Ganges dependent upon erratic monsoon rains.

While environmentalists urge India, a top greenhouse-gas producer, to take action, Mishra says that an opportunity is being lost to tackle the much simpler problem of domestic sewage pollution.

Few of the fast-growing cities and towns along the Ganges' banks – indeed, few in India, period – have sewage treatment plants. But the problem is especially crucial in Varanasi, where millions of Hindus make annual pilgrimages to pray and ritually bathe on the broad stone steps that lead down to the river from the riverbank temples.

The World Health Organisation, which labels dirty water as the leading cause of child deaths in India, says the coliform bacteria count is some 3,000 times higher than it considers safe.

That hasn't stopped the pilgrims at its banks, however, who may be unaware of such concerns.

Small boys water bomb into the river beside pious elderly men dressed in loin cloths who pour water over their heads. Sari-clad women murmur prayers as they scatter fragrant rose and jasmine petals, seemingly oblivious to the small islands of reeking rubbish that float by.

India's government, however, has been aware of the problem for some time. Twenty years ago, it launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP), a multimillion-dollar scheme intended to clean up the river by means of wastewater treatment plants.

Replacement for government plan?

A near-consensus among experts exists that GAP has been an expensive disaster. The plants handle only a small amount of the sewage generated along the river. Because they rely on electrical pumps during power cuts – frequent in India – even the small amount of sewage they're meant to handle often flows into the river. And, experts say, when the floodwaters rise, sewage enters the slump well of the pumps, stopping operations for months of the year.

Most seriously, the GAP system is designed to remove solid waste but not microorganisms. Mishra's scheme is different. His adaptation of an "advanced integrated wastewater pond system" (AIWPS) developed by Prof. William Oswald at Berkeley and in operation in parts of California, is, experts say, suitable for a tropical climate like India's.

Instead of depending on scarce supplies of electricity, the system would use gravity to carry sewage to four big pools, built on wasteland several miles outside the city, where it would be broken down by bacteria, algae, and sunlight.

An independent assessment found the plan was cheaper and more effective than the existing scheme. He hopes that his pilot project may one day become a model for other Indian towns and cities. But his inspiration remains the Ganges.

"All our rivers have stories," he says, as a wooden boat of pilgrims floats by his window, trailing flickering floating candles in the gathering dusk. "All our rivers are important. But there is nothing anywhere like the Ganga."

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