Pollution of Rivers in India Reaches a Crisis Environmentalists Blame Government for Neglect and Mismanagement

Article excerpt

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. …


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