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India Struggles to Clean Sacred Ganges River

India's government's efforts to clean the badly polluted Ganges River have been given a fresh impetus after the river was declared a national heritage. But a visit to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi finds there are challenges to cleaning a river that is sacred to the country's 930 million Hindus.

As the early morning sun graces the ghats, the wide concrete steps to the river's edge at Varanasi, hundreds of Hindus come to bathe. The ancient city, with its narrow cobblestone lanes, has for hundreds of years drawn the faithful to the Ganges.

More than 450 million people in five states live near the river, known as Ganga Mya or "Mother" Ganges. It runs from the Himalayas and passes through about 120 cities. Millions rely on its waters for drinking.

Environmental hazards abound

But population growth and economic development take a toll on the river. Every day, 1.7 billion liters of effluent run into the river - most of it untreated. Day after day, the remains of Hindu followers are also committed to the Ganges. The World Health Organization describes the river as an "environmental hazard".

Environmental experts say each year the pollution contributes to the deaths of up to 1.5 million children under age five from dysentery and diarrhea. It raises the threat of diseases such as cholera, typhoid, guinea worm, and trachoma.

For 25 years, the Sankat Mochan Foundation environmental group has led calls for cleaning the Ganges. Veer Bhadra Mishra is president of the foundation and a Hindu priest.

"The pollution in Ganga is contributed by two sources; the point sources of pollution, that is the sewer outfalls, open drains discharging domestic sewerage and industrial pollution along the whole length of Ganga - the 2,500 kilometer length - and they contribute 95 percent of the pollution," Mishra explained. "So this has to be stopped."

New initiative seeks to protect river

In November, the government declared the Ganges a national river and established the Ganga River Basin Authority to protect the river.

This new initiative comes a quarter of a century after the first "Clean Ganga Campaign" began.

The government says its plan replaces older piecemeal efforts with an integrated approach that looks at both the quantity and the quality of the water flow.

The initiative has been widely welcomed.

Supporters of one group, Palawal Jogpit, of Haridwar, led celebrations to the river at Varanasi. The group spokesman is Jaideep Aeya.

"We are giving thanks to the government of India and the religious bodies and those who work for the freedom of the Ganga," Aeya explained. "Now the government of India has considered Ganga Mya as a national river. We are giving thanks to them after 50 years Ganga is a matter of pride for all the Ganga putras."

Aeya says health concerns are at the core of the latest initiative.

"If Ganga water is free from all pollutions and the sewerage they all will be free from these diseases. And our view, the view of Puja Samiran Jay Jimarad, is, 'clean India and healthy India'," Aeya said.

Chronic power shortages hinder clean-up effort

But Mishra at the Sankat Mochan Foundation has doubts. He says the initial effort to clean the river included construction of water treatment plants, but it was bedeviled by power shortages and other problems.

"Ganga Action Plan phase one has been completed - between 1986 and 1994. So the claim was that Ganga Action Plan in Varanasi was successful - that is, no sewerage flows into the river and the treated effluent is good enough to use in the agricultural fields. But this has not happened," Mishra noted.

He says the latest initiative, while attracting public and media interest, does not provide legal force to anti-pollution efforts.

"Ganga as a national river and with this there should have been an ordinance with this announcement that the discharge of point sources in Ganga from one end to the other end must be stopped - this should not happen. That would have given us so much power and so much encouragement - that has not happened."

Some are unrealistic about current state of river

Many people are not interested in scientific arguments. For them, the Ganges - the Mother River - can never be spoiled, no matter what mixes in its waters.

Larkhan is a boatman and father of two who plies the Ganges every day. For him the waters are sacred.

"This is the nature of Mother Ganga - God of the Shiva. This is the Shiva City in Varanasi," he explained. "[For] All Indian people, Ganga is very holy. I like Mother - nobody, no Indian people, feel that Ganga is dirty Ganga, really, not dirty. People take the plastic, the paper, everything and take to the Ganga but Ganga really not dirty."

As the sun sets at the end of each day, thousands gather along the Ganges to give thanks to the waters.

The rituals are key to daily life here at Varanasi. For officials the challenge lies in finding ways to cleanse the river, even as communities depend on it for water and economic growth, and as millions of the faithful come to its banks each year in the pursuit of spiritual cleansing.