MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to India, which is facing a different kind of crisis. It's an environmental crisis affecting the Ganges River. The Ganges is a part of what it means to be Indian. Many consider the river sacred. NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on an unusual bid to clean it up.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS)
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Small cradles of chrysanthemums illuminated by candles flicker in the moonlight, bobbing along the fast-flowing water. They are offerings to the Ganges, which, for many of India's majority Hindus, is the goddess Ganga or Mother Ganga.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).
MCCARTHY: Devotees sing her praises in the town of Rishikesh in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, where the headwaters of the Ganges began. It's here that the state's high court declared the river to be a living entity. Environmental lawyer Raj Panjwani says that includes all aquatic biodiversity that would depend on the river. He says, in the court's rationale, the Ganges is what's known as a juristic person, meaning...
RAJ PANJWANI: An entity which is not a human being, yet it has got certain rights.
MCCARTHY: Panjwani says Indian law accepts that a deity embodied in a stone carving is a juristic person.
PANJWANI: If a stone which is a deity can be conferred with rights, then the water which has all the attributes of a deity can also be conferred with rights.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
MCCARTHY: Pujya Swami agrees with giving the Ganges rights. At his Riverside ashram, he presided over this aarti - or fire ceremony - one recent Saturday night. Indians worship up and down the course of the 1,500-mile-long river. And he says that's as it should be. But cremating the dead in the river is harmful and should stop, he says. The Swami notes that the Ganges supports the lives of 500 million people.
PUJYA SWAMI: If Ganga dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives. No Ganga, no India.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLOWING WATER)
MCCARTHY: The slate-gray river is relatively clean here. But downstream, the Centre for Science and Environment's Sushmita Sengupta says the river is clotted with pollutants.
SUSHMITA SENGUPTA: You have flowers, you have plastics, you have dead bodies, you have construction debris, so much filth coming in from the cities.
MCCARTHY: But the biggest contaminator - millions of gallons of untreated sewage. Sengupta's center found fast-growing cities on the river to be hotspots of the bacteria fecal coliform. She says government data shows certain places are 230 times the acceptable level for human health.
SENGUPTA: So it's not even suitable for outdoor bathing, leave apart drinking.
MCCARTHY: Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, an American and prominent figure at Pujya Swami's ashram, says many believe the Ganges is indestructible, which explains how Indians can consider the river holy and still pollute it.
SADHVI BHAGAWATI SARASWATI: When you say to people things like, don't put that plastic bag in the river, don't pollute the river, they actually turn around and say to you, that has no connection to her power. Pollution in the river has no impact on the divinity of the Mother Goddess.
UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Singing in foreign language).
MCCARTHY: Faith leaders recently gathered at her ashram to challenge those attitudes. Environmentalists, meanwhile, say the water is so dirty because sewage treatment plants can't take the load. Poor planning made them obsolete before they were even built. Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have underestimated the problems when he promised three years ago that the Ganges would be cleaned up by now. 30 years of his predecessor's schemes failed to improve the water.
A dissatisfied Uttarakhand court designated state officials to be, quote, "the human face that would protect and preserve the Ganges." Legal experts say that if they don't, they could face fines and jail under existing laws. But it's a rare polluter who is penalized in India. Raj Panjwani says, however, the court order represents a bid to change attitudes towards the Ganges River.
PANJWANI: And all these things take time. Therefore, I would consider it to be a first step in the right direction.
MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News.
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