Pollution, Indifference Taint India's Sacred River The second report in a six-part series follows India's Ganges River south to Kanpur, where industrial pollution has tainted the water and sickened those living on its banks.
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Pollution, Indifference Taint India's Sacred River

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Pollution, Indifference Taint India's Sacred River

Pollution, Indifference Taint India's Sacred River

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Last week, in his first report on Ganga, the River Ganges, Julian Crandall Hollick took us to the river source in the high Himalayas.

In today's episode, he's reached Kanpur, 500 miles downstream.

(Soundbite of music)

Kanpur, established in 1801 by the British to supply their army in India, is an anomaly. It's an industrial city that lies on the banks of a river that almost everyone else in northern Indian thinks of as a goddess, and therefore pure, revered and self-renewing.

At Kanpur, the Ganges definitely does not look like a goddess. It is dirty, unappetizing and synonymous with the pollution that gets in everyone's eyes. Twenty years ago, the Indian government began a massive program to clean up the river, but Kanpur offers proof that those efforts have failed as Julian explains in his second report titled, "The Rape of Ganga."

(Soundbite of water)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of water)

JULIAN CRANDALL HOLLICK: Not many people bathe in the actual bank of Ganga in Kanpur for two reasons: The waterfront is distinctly unappetizing; a mixture of broken concrete, raw sewage, and piles of garbage tossed over garden walls. And the actual rivers swung away to the north where a few hearty souls are bathing.

Now, why did you come over here as opposed staying on the bank by Kanpur?

Mr. SERENDER KUMADAYAP(ph): (Speaking in foreign language)

HOLLICK: Serender Kumayadap thinks the stream next to the waterfront is just a toxic drain. Even though he believes in the benefits of Ganga Jal, he wouldn't drink from that stream even if he was paid.

Mr. KUMDAYAP: So that's why we cross this canal and come and have the bath here. (Foreign language spoken)

HOLLICK: Serender launches into the usual litany of grievances that (unintelligible) should've and the tunnels from discharging their raw sewage into the river. Brother, if any man is still using Ganga as a drain, we should put a stop to right here and now then the problem will be solved.

Mr. KUMDAYAP: (Speaking in foreign language)

HOLLICK: Serender now says something unusual. Yes, Ganga can clean herself but only up to a certain extent. We, the public, we are the worst offenders because we dumped all our trash into Ganga. If we stopped, then the river would automatically be cleaner.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: In the 1986, Rajiv Gandhi announced a massive Ganga Action Plan to clean up the entire river. The basic idea made sense, intercept and treat pollution before it's discharged into Ganga.

Politicians and engineers in Delhi designed the hardware sewage treatment plants. But they then expected states and cities to come up with the money to operate and maintain them.

Professor VINOD TARE (Environmental Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology): And at that time they knew that they would not have enough resources to offer it and maintain it, right?

HOLLICK: Vinod Tare is a professor for environmental engineering of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur.

Prof. TARE: But, still, they went ahead with the idea that okay let me have some resources to build this and that's it.

HOLLICK: His colleague, Binayak Rath, says there's another reason specific to Kanpur.

Professor BINAYAK RATH (Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology): The major problem in Kanpur is there is no participation of the local people in this project. No participation of the municipal authorities from the beginning. No participation of the district administration from the beginning. So at the moment, they have - they've lived on attitude of indifference and carelessness. And because of the indifference attitude and carelessness, none of the project has proved to be a failure.

HOLLICK: Vinod Tare says to measure the clean up those in charge chose complex criteria, which mean absolutely nothing to the ordinary Indian.

Prof. TARE: Because if I tell to the people that I'm treating sewage, I change VOD - I change the - it doesn't make any sense to them. What makes sense to them is what they see.

HOLLICK: Binayak Rath thinks East-West cultural differences also played a role.

Prof. RATH: There's nothing wrong in the West technology, but that means better and even in their context. Therefore, what is feasible and what is the best solution in a foreign country should never be considered the best solution in Indian context.

HOLLICK: This flaw is being compounded by a second basic cultural mistake. The plans all rely on a constant supply of electricity, the one thing no one can guarantee in northern India. So when the electricity fails, the plants shut down and rural sewage and heavy metals pour untreated into Ganga. Result, situation is worst than before and a great deal of money has been wasted.

(Soundbite of machine)

HOLLICK: One Sunday morning, Rakesh Jaiswal, a local environmental activist, invites me to come take a look at Kanpur's sewage system in action. We bumped down on urban tractors (unintelligible) park near a small white-washed temple on the edge of Ganga. Beside it is a nala(ph), a small stream.

(Soundbite of waterfall)

HOLLICK: There's a distant roar. We climb up the bank.

(Soundbite of stream)

HOLLICK: A waterfall is tumbling out of a shattered brick run of the main town's sewer. The (unintelligible) of the entire sewage system have burst, raw sewage is cascading down to the nala 20 feet before.

Mr. RAKESH JAISWAL (Environmental Activist): And you can see that because it's completely clear and now it's going to the river directly afterwards.

HOLLICK: You mean, this is the first sewer. There's the gray thing that's supposed to go to the whole links(ph) of the…

Mr. JAISWAL: Yeah, it means the sewage from the town?


Mr. JAISWAL: …is being carried through this…


Mr. JAISWAL: …ground sewer. Ideally, it should rid the main pumping gas station and then it should go to treatment plants.

HOLLICK: The city water department aware they have a problem, but they say there was nothing they can do. Under the Ganga Action Plan, there's plenty of money to build sewers and treatment plans but no money for operation and maintenance.

Mr. JAISWAL: This is just one example of the shortcomings or failures of the Ganga Action Plan. You can see dozens of drains drained carrying raw sewage which is meeting the Ganga.

(Soundbite of geese)

HOLLICK: A waddle of geese sensed something's not quite right. They head down to the water's edge and (unintelligible) it with much vociferous protest, they turn away from the water in search of something rather more appetizing.

(Soundbite of machine)

HOLLICK: Just 100 yards downstream of the little temple, another huge pipe is discharging directly into the river.

Mr. JAISWAL: It's in the Jamal(ph) area so, of course, it contains some (unintelligible) fluid also, black, viscous, and frothy.

HOLLICK: Taj Mahal is home to the tanneries, the city's sewage treatment plant and an important cremation cut(ph).

Unidentified Man #1: Why here? Look how polluted it is.

Did you cremate a body here?

Arkeo Vasti(ph) and Kaypi Chon(ph) have just unloaded their sister's body. According to Hindu custom, the body should be immersed in Ganga just before the actual cremation.

Mr. ARKEO VASTI: We have come here, but we are unable to take the bath because of this. These are dirty - very dirty one.

HOLLICK: Because you have to immersed her body in the water, so…

Mr. VASTI: (unintelligible).

HOLLICK: …what you're going to do?

Mr. VASTI: We have to alight all of this - I mean, but we are bound by what to do.

HOLLICK: Take the body out in a boat in the clean water - perish the thought.

ARKEOVAS: I don't use this, sir. I take the water from the hose, and we are giving a bath to put on her body.

HOLLICK: Kaypi Chon puts it in a nutshell.

Mr. KAYPI CHON: It is the custom. This takes time. This takes time.

HOLLICK: But it's already changing. Hinduism can be surprisingly flexible when it needs to be.

(Soundbite of car horn)

HOLLICK: We continue on to the main sewage treatment plant. The place is totally idle and deserted. The workers have been on strike for three months because they haven't been paid.

Mr. JAISWAL: U.P. (unintelligible) the employer, are they executing it into the Ganga Action Plan. They say that they do not have fund, they do not have money for operation and maintenance cost. That has to come from the state government.

HOLLICK: And like all governments, they don't want to raise taxes to pay for this.

Meanwhile, the expensive machinery sits rusting in the sun.

Mr. JAISWAL: And if it's not revived soon, I think the money will go to waste completely.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Tanneries used highly toxic chromium to tan or soften buffalo hides. The new sewage treatment plant was supposed to remove this heavy metal. For a whole variety of reasons, it couldn't and it didn't with terrible consequences for the nearby village of Motipur.

Unidentified Man #2: That's it.

Mr. MOHAMMED AWAIS: Now before Ganga Action Plan, the sewage was mixed in 50 percent ratio with the Ganga waters, and that time there was no time to implement. So the condition was far better, and the productivity was also very high.

HOLLICK: Mohammed Awais is the son of a tannery owner.

Mr. AWAIS: But after the Ganga Action Plan, they stopped supplying the Ganga water, the seabed water is mixed with the (unintelligible), so the condition started changing since then.

HOLLICK: And since the toxic chromium has not been removed, many villages suffer from skin ailments. At least one has contracted leprosy since the changeover. Their fields produce a tenth of their previous crop; buffalos, half the normal yield of milk.

(Soundbite of buffalos)

HOLLICK: Many buffalos are either aborting or dying. But what is far worse, Motipur supplies Kanpur with much of its milk and vegetables. Awais says it's a heinous crime, especially if the city sells the villagers this contaminated water.

Mr. AWAIS: (Unintelligible) they are consuming the entire sewerage of the city. They are consuming the toxics of the tanneries and then they are charged.

HOLLICK: New technologies may be able to neutralize toxic metals in the ground, but the damage has been done and no one really seemed to care.

(Soundbite of music)

HOLLICK: Vinod Tare has an alternative to the massive and misguided engineering of the Ganga Action Plan.

Prof. TARE: We are talking about making a tank which will return the sewage for about three hours or so. That is all the idea is. If you just have simple settling basins. That would only remove 40 to 50 percent of the load.

HOLLICK: So the total amount going to the sewerage treatment plants would already be 50 percent less.

Prof. TARE: And that would not have required extensive mechanization, pumping and so. And that should all have been built not at one place but should have been distributed all along.

HOLLICK: Decentralized to several different sections of the city.

And was this ever considered?

Prof. TARE: No, it was not considered.

HOLLICK: Vinod thinks it's probably far cheaper, far more popular and far more politically effective than all the interceptors, treatment plants, and other complicated solutions beloved of engineers. He may be right. But in the real world of the 21st century, Rakesh Jaswail is very discouraged.

Mr. JAISWAL: Total wasting of funds. Ganga Action Plan is a complete failure. You can say that neither it has been Ganga-friendly nor people-friendly.

HOLLICK: Rakesh is also depressed by the ignorance of so many residents. Take Metala Lahal(ph).

(Soundbite of washing)

HOLLICK: Mitha Alal's family has been Dobis or washmen for as long as he could remember. A dobi washes, rinses and beats the hell out of his customers clothes on large stones set in the river.

Darth Mitha Alal(ph) think washing powder is harmful to Ganga.

Mr. DARTH MITHA ALAL: Yes, it's good for Ganga.

HOLLICK: Why is it good for Ganga?

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. ALAL: (Through translator) The germs in the water…


Mr. ALAL: (Through translator) It will finish, you know, if we use this detergent here.

HOLLICK: So you're killing the germs.

Mr. ALAHAL: Yeah.

HOLLICK: Don't you think the soap does any harm to Ganga?

(Soundbite of washing)

HOLLICK: Mitha Alal says washing powder doesn't just kill germs. It also bleaches the water.

Mr. ALAL: (Through translator) I like to wash this (unintelligible), blue ones.

HOLLICK: Mitha Ala shows me a shallow basin base full of a purple liquid, actually, a popular fabric whitener.

Mr. ALAL: (Through translator) This bleaching powder and this indigo thing, you know, it is actually cleaning these waters.

HOLLICK: One final question.

Mitha Alal, you think Ganges is a clean river?

Mr. ALAL: (Speaking in foreign language)

HOLLICK: Of course. Ganges, by definition, pure, therefore, clothes washed in it will also be pure. Detergent merely cleans the physical water.

In Kanpur, I'm Julian Crandall Hollick.

(Soundbite of washing clothes)

HANSEN: The Rape of Ganga was edited and produced by Tina Morris and Fernando Ruiz del Prado. The interpreter was Roger Chatergee(ph). Julian's account of the whole trip - "Ganga: A Journey Down the River Ganges" - has just been published by Island Press.

If you'd like to learn more about Julian's five months sojourn, go to our Web site at npr.org. Next week, Julian travels to the sacred heart land of India.

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