Funeral fires have been burning non-stop at Manikarnika Ghat for centuries. Up to 33,000 bodies are cremated each year. It is this tradition that is putting environment in direct conflict with faith. Image Credit: Saify Naqvi/Special to Gulf News

Varanasi: India’s holiest city is killing the country’s holiest river — bit by bit, Varanasi is destroying the mighty Ganges. Here, life revolves around the river. Here, all things living or dead end up in the river. Here, faith and poor urban planning are in direct conflict with environment and science. Here, this river is the giver, the taker and the sustainer of life. Here, for the deeply religious, the Ganges helps them escape an unending cycle of life and death, attaining Moksha or salvation.

Seventy-three-year-old Murli Mohan Shastri is living in a Hindu Dharamshala, one of dozens of such lodges here, since his retirement in 2007. He was a professor of physics and principal of a school in Hyderabad in the South Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. He paid Rs200,000 (Dh12,232) as one-time rent for a small one-bedroom unit in Mumukshu lodge where he will stay till he dies. “Salvation is the ultimate purpose of all Hindus, the intention is to die in Varanasi, but death is not in our hands,” he said explaining why he chose to lead a frugal life away from his family. Shastri, who taught science all his life, is a deeply religious man. Yet he is pragmatic enough to understand that death in Varanasi is not guaranteed. His mother spent 12 years at Mumukshu waiting to die. But when she fell ill, Shastri took her away to Hyderabad for treatment where she died. Shastri’s wife, Sechi, 65, lives with him and he hopes she will also stay here till death, a tradition known as ‘Kaashivaas’. The couple has two sons.

A mile away from Mumukshu is Mukti Bhawan, where only those who have days to live can stay. A notice board at the reception clearly states: “Those on their death bed can stay here only for two weeks, anyone taking medicines is not allowed, patients of TB, cholera and plague cannot enter.” Most people who stay at Mukti Bhawan die within days and are swiftly cremated at nearby Manikarnika Ghat or the slopes leading to the Ganges.

Hindus’ search for salvation ends at Manikarnika Ghat where the dead are cremated round the clock, seven days a week, a practice going on non-stop for centuries. It is this tradition that is putting environment in direct conflict with faith. “Each year around 32,000 bodies are cremated on the Ghats of Varanasi,” Professor B.D. Tripathi, a member of National Ganga River Basin Authority, told Gulf News. Due to the cremation, “300 tonnes of ashes and 200 tonnes of half-burnt human flesh go into the river,” he said, adding that a recent survey found more than 3,000 bodies floating in the river.

Moreover, Prof Tripathi continued, the city dumps 300 million litres of domestic and industrial waste into the river as the sewage treatment plants use obsolete technology, unable to cope up with the amount generated daily. As a result, two critical indicators of a river’s health — dissolved oxygen and biochemical oxygen demand — have shown alarming readings in government studies. Also found were high levels of lead, cadmium, and chromium — potentially lethal metals. On top of this, tens of thousands of pilgrims visit Varanasi daily — bathing, washing in the river.

“When Ganga enters Varanasi it is clean — with a faecal coliform count of zero,” said Prof V.N. Mishra, chief priest of Sankat Mochan Temple and professor of electronic engineering, adding, “but leaves the city with a faecal coliform count of a million per litre.” Essentially, Ganges turns into a giant flowing gutter.

“See the biggest problem is that Ganga has not become a vote bank and that’s why our politicians are never serious about Ganga,” Prof Tripathi said. “A drop of Ganga water, people believe, is enough to purify human body and soul and the river is regarded as our mother. In 1972 when I first raised the issue of pollution in Ganga, I was opposed by religious figures of Varanasi,” he said.

Since the late eighties, on paper the government has spent close to a billion dollars on Ganga’s conservation and projects worth millions of dollars are in the pipeline. But little progress has been achieved. “It was [late prime minister] Rajiv Gandhi who sincerely tried to do something for Ganga but after his death nothing has happened,” Prof Mishra said.

“Sewage contributes 95 per cent of Ganga’s pollution with the city of 2.5 million dumping its waste at 33 points,” he said.

“We want the government to immediately plug these points, set up an advance sewage treatment plant,” he said. “The existing STP capacity is only 102 million litres per day,” he added.

However, Prof Tripathi said, in the last two decades pollution has become a secondary issue. “The main concern is whether in the coming decades water will flow in Ganga or not,” he said. “There is a continuous decrease in quantum and velocity of water. The total length of Ganga — from Gangotri in the Himalayas to Bay of Bengal — is 2,525km,” he said.

Reduced water flow, capacity and water quality are threatening the very existence of Ganga and the survival of 450 million people who live along the river basin, he warned. Compounding the problem are 44 existing and proposed dams and hydro projects on the river — a new 30km-long tunnel is being planned to divert the flow of Ganga by turning it underground. This will hugely reduce absorption of ambient oxygen into the river.

“If Narendra Modi is elected from here I would expect him to take concrete steps to conserve Ganga and not just cosmetic beautification as he has done for Sabarmati river in Ahmedabad,” he said. “The flow of Ganga must be restored, otherwise we will turn this river into small lakes,” he said. In Varanasi, the main culprit is industrial affluent getting mixed with domestic waste and reaching the river, he added.

Regarding the dumping of half-burnt bodies into the river, he said: “I think the logic behind this practice was that it helps carnivorous aquatic animals but now thousands of bodies are dumped in the river.”

— Bobby Naqvi is the Editor of XPRESS, a sister publication of Gulf News