The first thing I notice is
how shallow the river is in Kanpur. The culprit is, of course, lack of adequate
In recent years, Ganga has swung away from the city and only returns just below Sirsalya Ghat. The whole waterfront is a mixture of broken concrete, untapped drains and piles of garbage tossed over garden walls.
Between the main river and the ‘nullah-that-calls-itself-Ganga’ are substantial sandbanks. A small group of men are bathing on the far side. The bathers begin by blaming the government for the state of the river here. So much so normal.
But then they accept part of the blame. “If we stopped throwing our trash into the river it would soon get cleaned up!” This admission is unusual.
In theory fairly easy to regulate: banning people from disposing of their plastic bags (trash) in the river. But of course it’s anything but! A local environmental group called Eco-Friends has been promoting just such a programme here, but with only moderate success. The river’s just too convenient a dumping ground. Besides, there’s an entire economic subculture that lives from producing or recycling these gossamer-thin plastic bags. The Indian government can ban sale of ultra-light plastic bags, but how many lives will be sacrificed as a consequence? And if they ban plastic bags ten millimetres thick then tomorrow factories will start producing plastic nine millimetres thick.
Another bather says the religious belief that Ganga can purify herself of pollution has some validity - but only to a certain extent. It isn’t carte blanche to continue dumping indiscriminately.
This is an interesting answer because there is solid scientific evidence that the river can indeed absorb a surprising amount of organic waste. Not inorganic waste from the tanneries at the southern end of the city. Nobody can figure out how to do that yet! Everybody loves to blame the tanneries for all the pollution, even if it’s upstream!
One Sunday morning, Rakesh Jaiswal asks me to come and take a look at Kanpur’s sewage system in the raw. Rakesh has been militating in Kanpur for fifteen years to try and increase public awareness about the need to do something to clean up Ganga. Earlier this week, Rakesh made an alarming discovery.
So we pile into the Scorpio and head for Dapkah Nullah, just beyond the golf course where my friend Chutku plays religiously at five thirty every morning. We bump down an earthen track towards the river and park near a small Shiva temple at the edge of Ganga. It’s a beautiful scene - a whitewashed temple in an oasis of calm inside the bustling city.
Beyond it is a nullah - a stream flowing into Ganga. We follow the nullah back up fifty yards. I hear a dull roar. We clamber up the bank: the roar suddenly becomes reality - a waterfall tumbles out of the shattered brickwork of the Kanpur municipal main trunk sewer, five feet in diameter. It’s severed almost in two: the whole city’s raw sewage is cascading down into the nullah twenty feet below.
‘Rakesh, how long has this been broken? Why doesn’t the municipality repair it? Does the city know?’
‘I got to know of this only on Thursday. The water authorities have no idea. But I think it has been broken for some weeks.’
We climb down to what remains of the brick pipe. Rakesh explains: ‘This is the main trunk sewer for the whole city. All the sewage from the city is carried through this to the Sewage Treatment Plant. It has completely failed and now raw sewage is going to the river directly.’ He repeats those last words with huge contempt: ‘ Raw sewage.’
The main aorta of the city’s sewage system has burst. It’s heart - the Sewage Treatment Plant at Jajmao - can’t be getting much blood at all. There’s still some liquid flowing in the unbroken bottom of the massive pipe. But no more than a quarter of what should be in the pipe.
Rakesh has pleaded with Jal Nigam [Municipal Water Authority] to carry out regular maintenance. But Jal Nigam simply throw up their hands and say they’re starved for funds. Lucknow in turn says it doesn’t have the cash for maintenance. Everyone, from the Pollution Control board to Jal Nigam to the Mayor of Kanpur, sings from the same song book. The end result: a smelly mix pouring directly into the river.
We walk back up to the Scorpio. Down at the Shiva temple a gaggle of geese are inspecting the Ganga lapping against the beach. On the sand are discarded clay idols.
The water in the nullah is oily and black from the waterfall fifty yards above. It’s pouring out into the river. But oil and water don’t mix. There are in fact two distinct rivers, visible even to the unobservant eye - a black Ganga flowing out of the nullah into the milk chocolate Ganga, side by side as far as the eye can see. Visually, it reminds me of Devaprayag, except it’s not the (fairly) pristine mountain torrents of the Alaknanda and the Bhaghirathi, but raw sewage and a sluggish, muddy river.
Even the geese wandering round the shrine sense something is not quite right: they waddle down to the water’s edge, but then think better of it. They don’t want to swim in this muck. With much vociferous protest they waddle away from the water, heading downstream in search of something rather more appetizing.
Bijoy Tivari is visibly shaken: a few days before he’d filled plastic bottles with Ganga jal, presumably for drinking. He now goes back to the Scorpio, takes them out, goes down to the river and pours them mournfully back into the river.
‘Tivari chalo chalo. I want you to look at mother Ganga. Would you take a dip in this?’
Tivari looks insulted I’d even ask the question. ‘No, no, not here. It is very dirty water right here. I won’t take a dip.’
‘Why not? Remember this is a holy river. It can clean itself.’
He won’t bite. ‘Yes, what you say is right. The river has the purifying capacity but here it’s very much obvious and visible that it’s raw sewage. It’s not the Ganges water. Maybe a few kilometres in the downstream when all these pollutants will get diluted then I can think of having a dip.’
If this isn’t bad enough, a hundred yards away on the cliff overlooking Ganga another huge pipe is pouring a dark oily liquid directly into the river below. How come? It can’t be raw sewage because the trunk sewer that would feed it is broken.
‘This is directly from the tanneries. See how blue it is. This is untreated chromium.’ Rakesh looks angry. This site visit confirms an unwelcome truth he’s probably suspected for some time. Many tanneries can’t be treating their chromium waste, as they endlessly tell the outside world. Otherwise, this would be fairly clear water.
Rakesh is by now very angry. His hunch is, that it’s pure, raw effluent going directly into the river. But just yesterday VK Sinha at the Jal Nigam had assured me the opposite. Rakesh is contemptuous: ‘A total lie. I will show you other drains which are also carrying toxic tannery effluent and contaminating the Ganges water.’
We’ve parked near one of four Shiva temples in Kanpur. Rakesh jokes: ‘I don’t know how Shiva would be feeling about this stench. He has to watch the discharge of raw and toxic sewage directly into Ganga which he brought down from Heaven through his hair!’
The Ganga Action Plan mandated electric crematoria in many cities. A friend tells me that in Delhi two thirds of cremations actually take place in these electric crematoria. At Nimtala Ghat in Kolkata the ratio is also roughly one is to three in favour of electric crematoria. In Varanasi the electric crematorium next to Harishchandra Ghat seems largely idle, while fifty yards away the traditional funeral pyres are in regular use.
There are two official cremation areas in Kanpur - Bhairon Ghat and this one at Jajmao, where the local dhoms, called dhanuks in Kanpur, perform the needful on the beach. Rakesh has worked with them before, when his group led a campaign to fish out dead bodies and clean up Ganga.
Disposing of dead bodies in Ganga sounds lazy. But there are several obvious reasons why you’d want to avoid having to pay even a modest fee of several hundred rupees. Poverty (it costs a minimum of five hundred rupees in wood); accident (you drown or accidentally fall in); or simple practicality (you need to dispose of a body on the quiet). And dead bodies can also include cows and other large animals which fall into the river and drown.
On the beach in Jajmao a dhanuk called Munar explains they now bury the ashes of those they have burned. Near the waterline are three fresh mounds - bodies they have fished out of the river this morning, proof that someone is listening to Rakesh’s campaign to clean up Ganga.
Munar admits that the condition of the river is now so foul that rituals themselves are having to change. When families bring bodies for cremation they often bring their own water with them to wash the body. They’ve seen the condition of Ganga, even in mid-channel. The relations and friends of the deceased are also supposed to take a dip when they bring a body for cremation. They now go back home and take a shower instead. Much like using a few drops of Ganga jal in various everyday rituals. I can see why purists feel it’s the thin edge of the wedge.
A truck bumps down the paved road to the beach, followed by several cars. Men of all ages bundle out and carry a light stretcher covering a dead body down to the edge of the river. Normally, they would push it out so that the river could wash the body. Definitely not here today.
RK Awasthi says he won’t be taking a dip in Ganga, even though he’s supposed to. ‘It’s a pucca, dirty water. We are supposed to take a bath here, but I will take it back home. This is dirty, very dirty water.’
What about the traditional washing of the body in Ganga? A real dilemma:
‘We have to avoid all this, but we are bound. What to do?’
The solution: ‘I take the water from either hand pump or we bring the water from the house and that way we are giving bath to the dead body.’
‘But then you’re not performing the ritual correctly,’ I point out.
‘You are very right, I mean one hundred percent. But we are bound.’
His voice tails off. Change the subject please! Rakesh asks him why he isn’t up in arms against this pollution of Ganga.
A delicate subject. ‘If we protest there will be a riot.’
The tanneries cause the pollution, but who works and lives in the tanneries? Muslims. Accusing the tanneries of pollution is therefore code for a not-so indirect attack on the so-called minority community. The main political parties jump in and the whole thing quickly becomes a public mess. His friend KP Chauhan sees this in very personal terms:
‘We are small people, if we complain they will kill us and throw our bodies in this Gangaji.’
Some of these problems - the toxic waste from the tanneries and the very real political repercussions - are not present up at Bhairon Ghat at the other end of town. This is very different from Jajmao. It’s a much older cremation ghat, added on over the years with a paved road, a parking lot, marble and stone floors, two raised slabs on which bodies are washed with groundwater, a large central covered area for the actual burning of the body.
But the rituals, the problems, and above all the adaptations are similar to Jajmao. Until Ganga was diverted in 2005 through the new barrage, the only water Bhairon Ghat received regularly was from the already-deficient channel and highly dubious discharge from an untapped drain from a local tuberculosis clinic.
The gates open and a Tata pickup delivers a load of fresh wood. I’m curious so I go up to Shivkumar Tewari - the head pandit:
‘How long does it take to burn a body? Any idea?’
‘Three hours, if it’s thin and skinny. Longer if it’s got some fat to burn!’ he replies.
Bodies are washed on the two shining white marble slabs, then burned in the covered area. A family is sifting through the ashes of an earlier cremation, looking for phool, or the ash and unburned bit of bones, euphemistically called flowers. These are then collected in an urn or pot. They are the mortal remains of a person that will be carried to the edge of Ganga for the last rituals. Mr Tewari chants slokas so that the souls of both the dead person and the family will attain peace.
One family member tells me he will take a dip here in Ganga after the ceremony. ‘The river is dirty yes, polluted no. (Some sort of window where explanation in footnote can be read How can she be polluted? She is Gangaji, she is holy to us. This is our mother. We don’t think that mother can ever be polluted.’
Next door is the imposing electric crematorium, gates padlocked. No one answers the bell. Shivkumar Tewari says they don’t turn up until after lunch anyway. Is it competition for him? ‘No way. Only the reformist Hindus such as the Arya Samaj use it.’ It costs too much to burn a body there.
Shivkumar Tewari’s traditional crematorium still averages ten bodies a day:
‘Many people prefer that certain rituals be performed before cremation. So, traditionally people like to cremate their dead on a wooden pyre.’ He adds mischievously: ‘People don’t like the electric. I think a lot of the bodies burned there are basically unclaimed anyway.’
I’m curious about the economics of cremation. How much does it actually cost?
‘A conventional cremation at this Ghat costs around six to seven hundred rupees, including wood. That’s the single most expensive item and the one in shortest supply. It takes four to five quintals of wood to burn a body. At today’s rates that’s five hundred rupees - and we’re not talking sandalwood but ordinary wood. Of course, the softer the wood the more you’ll need because it will burn quicker.’
The electric crematorium used to be a lot cheaper - twenty-five rupees a body. But the Allahabad High Court ordered the city to raise the fee for the electric crematoria from twenty five rupees a cremation to five hundred rupees. While even the poorest of the poor can afford the former, those fees were totally inadequate to pay for the actual costs of running the electric crematorium. As a consequence the building was more or less closed for twenty years. Even today the gates are more often padlocked than open. The price differential has almost vanished: it now costs virtually the same, however you cremate the body. And the traditional method doesn’t involve load-shedding.
‘No one over there,’ Shivkumar jerks his head towards to the electric crematorium, ‘of course, ever performs the sanatana dharma. We’re much more adapted to the modern world than they are. My elder brother has even conducted rituals with a family in the USA, using a landline phone! Before mobiles! Part of the family here, part over there, and he saying the slokas into the phone.’
A few days later, Rakesh and I drive down to the Combined Effluent Treatment Plant complex at Jajmao. When I’d visited it a few years previously I’d been quite impressed by its working efficiency. Today, the place appears shut down. The only visible sign of activity are a few workers playing cricket on the lawns. They tell me they’ve not been paid for four months by the state. So they’ve gone on strike in the autumn sunshine on a ‘glorified time pass.’
All three treatment plants have stopped functioning. The Jal Nigam say they haven’t received any funds from Lucknow so they can’t pay any salaries, even their own. I would feel more sympathy if it wasn’t for a large clean vacant administrative building at the entrance of the complex marked, Administrative Building UP Jal Nigam. This was constructed with Ganga Action Plan funds but now the UP Jal Nigam office is right at the other end of the city, nowhere near the river they are supposed to regulate.
Meanwhile they pay heavy rent for a vacant building, from where they could be on top of things. They’d see at first hand how little wastewater is actually coming into the plant because that main trunk sewer is broken. They’d also surely notice that tannery waste containing hexavalent chromium is going directly into the river because no plants are working. They’d also see that the machinery inside the sewage treatment plant is visibly rusting. If the strike continues much longer, those machines will start to resemble an animal skeleton, picked clean by predators and bleached white by the sun.
I think all this has come as a terrible shock to Rakesh. He just wanders round, shaking his head, muttering a mantra of despair. If only the Jal Nigam had kept their office manned here in Jajmao! But nobody in government seem aware that the whole plant has been idle for months! They know about the strike, but profess total ignorance about its effect on the plant. Anyway, to a man they (the Pollution Control Board, the Jal Nigam, the Mayor) all throw up their hands and lament impotently:
‘It’s not my responsibility!’
Part of the problem is water and sewer rates are still far too low. They were set in the nineteenth century. Although they’ve been raised recently, politicians are naturally reluctant to be seen raising taxes, any taxes.
Popular wisdom blames political corruption but Rakesh Jaiswal thinks public apathy is the real culprit. He simply cannot understand why the citizens of Kanpur don’t rise up against all the public institutions that are responsible for cleaning and maintaining the river: ‘Why don’t they demand accountability, raise water taxes, stop throwing their garbage directly into the river?’
Plain ignorance too often rules.
One day on the river I stop and talk with Tanga Lal who is performing his pooja at Bhagwandas Ghat. He’s been coming here every morning for most of his sixty-eight years. He says all the right things: things like ‘Those who pollute are sinners,’ while pouring milk from a plastic bag into Ganga ‘to feed her.’ When the bag’s empty he casually throws it too into the river.
‘Why do you just do that, if you know you are sinning?’
Tanga Lal is immediately contrite.
‘I will stop as of today. Ganga is my mother! I worship her for peace of mind. You are right, Sir. I will no longer pollute my mother.’
Somehow I doubt it.
Tanga Lal can’t help himself or change the habits of a lifetime. And he really doesn’t understand why pouring milk into Ganga is a form of pollution. For him it is showing respect for his mother.
Raja exhorts Tanga Lal to spread the word. I think it would be in vain. Tanga Lal admits as much: ‘I will tell them, tell them sir. But the public here, does not agree sir.’ Raja sternly admonishes him: ‘We have to make them agree.’
Tanga Lal repeats his simple statement:
‘The public here does not agree.’
A little bit further downstream we pull in to chat with some dhobis rhythmically beating the hell out of someone’s clothes on flat stones propped up at the river’s edge.
Washing powder contains phosphates. Everyone knows that. Most people in the West also know phosphates and caustic soda are harmful. They’ve been banned from all laundry detergents not least because they stimulate the wrong sort of algae blooms. But word hasn’t reached the dhobis on Ghola Ghat. Mithai Lal is proud that his family have been washing clothes for as long as he can remember.
‘Yes, of course we use detergent powder. It is good.’
‘You don’t think it’s harmful to Ganga?’
The conversation takes on a surrealistic tone:
‘It is good because it cleans Ganga. It kills all the germs and small insects. It bleaches the water. See the dirty water coming from the nullah. This is sewage, shit. This is what is killing the water. But we are cleaning Ganga, with these detergents and caustic sodas and acids.’
Of course Ganga is pure and yes, in case you doubted, Mitha Lal does indeed drink Ganga jal daily and never gets sick.
We pull up back in to Sati Chaura Ghat and are drinking chai, gazing out at the river, talking with our boatman Bhagwan about the on-going campaign to prevent people using the river as a dumping ground for their plastic bags. A young Gurkha soldier from the nearby Cantonment strides up to the Ghat, throws a ball of flowers and plastic bags as far out into the river as he can, turns round and marches briskly off back to the barracks.
Just when you thought it can’t get any worse, we’re invited to Motipur village a few kilometres inland from Jajmao. The sewage treatment plant has been sending treated waste water through canals to irrigate the fields in local villages, and charging for it.
Mohammad Owais, one of Rakesh Jaiswal’s assistants and himself the son of a small tannery owner, explains that the irrigation water used to be 50:50 Ganga river water and raw sewage. Now it’s one hundred percent sewage, including the supposedly chromium-free treated effluent. In theory this should be okay, because anything harmful will have been removed at the sewage treatment plant.
But not if hexavalent chromium is still flowing from the tanneries to the plant, and out again into the irrigation water. The plants can’t remove hexavalent chromium, so the new “improved” irrigation water will be toxic and lethal.
In 2002, the National Botanical Research Institute in Lucknow found Cr(VI) in the groundwater and soil in the villages around Jajmao. More recently, the Facility for Ecological and Analytical Testing at IIT-Kanpur carried out more detailed testing, and it’s bad, very bad. Hexavalent chromium and a whole host of other heavy metals - cadmium, mercury - are now in the food chain. The villages all rely on that irrigation water from the plant for their fields and animals. At least, Jal Nigam has had the decency to suspend payments.
Motipur is probably the worst-affected being nearest to the main irrigation canal. Walk down the main road in Motipur village and all you’ll see are buffaloes. Motipur supplies much of the milk for Kanpur.
We go to the clinic of the village doctor Parshuram Yadav. He also covers all the surrounding villages. The total affected population is forty thousand. Of those he says three thousand are sick because of the irrigation water. Sickness means the usual skin diseases, eczema, stomach worms. But in Motipur things are worse. The ground water is now contaminated down to a depth of forty feet. They have to sink deep-bore tube wells to a depth of twelve hundred feet to find pure drinking water, and at their own expense. They could go after the Jal Nigam or the Dutch. But people are understandably reluctant to go to court because the effort could take a lifetime.
Dr Yadav’s treating ten new patients a day with symptoms of Cr(VI) poisoning. We tramp down Motipur’s main street. He points out a two-year-old buffalo that is so weak and thin it can’t even stand. Others have mottled skin. A third of them have aborted. For any farmer the loss of unborn livestock is equivalent to an uninsured bank collapsing, taking with it all your savings. A female buffalo costs at least twenty thousand rupees. You can expect it to give twelve litres of fresh milk a day. The buffaloes in Motipur are now giving half that yield.
Dr Yadav calls out a healthy young boy, asks him to turn round, pulls aside his thick dark hair: underneath, the scalp is completely bald. While we’ve been walking, a middle-aged woman called Ramkali has been summoned and now comes in from her fields. Ramkali pulls back her left sleeve. Her entire hand is deformed by leprosy: she’d contracted it five year’s ago. Dr Yadav has sent her for tests at the Medical College: they say it comes from washing in the contaminated irrigation water.
One young farmer, one-eyed Sunil, asks me to follow him: he wants to show me his fields. They look the picture of health. In the centre of one field is a small pile of threshed wheat. Sunil picks up an ear; crumbles it in his hand. The husks are empty. An entire standing crop is in effect dead on arrival. In a healthy harvest this field should yield one thousand kilos of wheat. This year twenty five kilos, fit only for fodder.
All the correct things have been done. The courts have told the state government to clean up the contaminated land, pay the medical costs of the villagers. The state government does nothing. So the court issues contempt notices, which are equally casually ignored.
Martine in disgust calls what has happened here ‘a crime against humanity.’ Certainly these are crimes against their own kith and kin. The state pollution control board and the Jal Nigam do not see themselves as evil. They are flawed human beings in a system that makes it hard to stand up for basic moral standards. But if children and adults in Kanpur start getting sick, even dying from drinking milk contaminated with toxic metals, then maybe Martine isn’t exaggerating: it will be a crime against humanity. But who to bring to justice?
Rakesh Jaiswal feels all his life’s work has been wasted.
‘Total waste of funds. Ganga Action Plan is a complete failure. It’s neither Ganga-friendly, nor people-friendly.’
There are alternatives, and they rely on what India has in abundance - sun and time. Vinod Tare proposes settling ponds located on a decentralized pattern throughout Kanpur. ‘No need to centralize everything in Jajmao,’ he says.
These settling ponds would remove forty percent of the organic load in just three hours, reducing the total amount of sewage that needs to be pumped to sewage treatment plants, saving the need for costly electricity and mechanization throughout the city. The solids simply sink to the bottom. That’s a pretty effective alternative.
It’s always tempting to try and turn the clock back to a simpler, more innocent age. But history does not go backwards. The Ganga Action Plan is still a good idea but it has been mis-managed from day one. Ineffective and (possibly) inappropriate criteria were selected. The whole operation was run badly from the start and maintenance was scandalously neglected.
Everyone today in Kanpur feels powerless. They know it. They have no money to do the needful. At the same time as the Indian economy is growing by leaps and bounds there are still staggering inefficiencies, bordering on criminal incompetence.
Kanpur is the scene of this tragedy. Ironically, it’s also the doorway to India’s most sacred heartland, where millions of Indians (among them our driver Bijoy Tivari) come to worship Ganga as the goddess.
But even though he’s visibly disturbed by what he has seen here in Kanpur, Bijoy Tivari’s faith remains unshaken:
‘It has not lessened. I have seen this pollution and I will tell people how much it is polluted. She will become pure and clean again when she reaches Allahabad and beyond. This is her greatness, how she purifies this much dirt. I do not believe Ganga will ever really dry up, even if she has much less water.’