Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hindu Holy Man Bathes in Sacred Waters, Falls Dangerously Ill the Following Day

It is not known with certainty whether the above headline is true, but what is known with deadly certainty is that it is highly possible. The Ganges River in India is one of the most heavily polluted rivers in the world. 400 million people live, work, play and worship along its banks. It serves as sacred holy water used in Hindu rituals, and as one of the major sources of the nation's drinking water. It also serves as one of India's principal sewage disposal sites, receiving tons of untreated, raw sewage daily, plus medical wastes, human and animal corpses, and toxic chemicals, to name only a few of the dangerous pollutants found in its waters.

From his base in Kampur, Rakesh Jaiswal has waged a lonely battle to clean up the Ganges, India's sacred river for almost 15 years. He was born in Mirzapur, 200 miles downstream from Kanpur, and remembers his childhood as an idyllic time.

"I used to go there to bathe with my mother and grandmother, and it was beautiful," he said. "I didn't even know what the word 'pollution' meant."

Then, one day in the early 1990s, while studying for his doctorate in environmental politics, "I opened the tap at home and found black, viscous, stinking water coming out. After one month, it happened again, then it was happeing once a week, then daily. My neighbors experienced the same thing."

Jaiswal traced the drinking water to an intake channel on the Ganges. There he made a horrifying discovery: two drains carrying raw sewage, including contaminated discharge from a tuberculosis sanitarium, were emptying right beside the intake point. "Fifty million gallons a day were being lifted and sent to the water-treatment plant, which couldn't clean it. It was horrifying."

Mishra says he's especially concerned for the future of India's most devout Hindus, whose lives are entirely focused on Mother Ganga. He calls them an endangered species. "They want to touch the water, rub their bodies in the water, sip the water," he said, "and someday they will die because if it."

"If you tell them 'the Ganga is polluted,' they say, 'we don't want to hear that.' But if you take them to the places where open sewers are giving the river the night soil of the whole city, they say, 'this is disrespect done to our mother, and it must be stopped.' "

The problem is that there is no sign of any real prospects for any solutions! Population growth is considered to be the most important factor in increasing environmental destruction because, for one thing, India's population grows by 1,815 people every hour. In one year, that's equal to almost one-half the total population of New York City.

—Excerpts from "A Prayer for the Ganges" by Joshua Hammer;
Smithsonian; November, 2007; pages 75-82.

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