Riding on the overwhelming mandate he received in the recent election, India’s new prime minister Narendra Modi has taken on a Herculean task – to clean up the 2,500-kilometer River Ganges.
A devout Hindu, the 63-year-old leader made the pledge during a religious ceremony marking his poll victory on the banks of the river at Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities, the Telegraph reported.
“Now it is time to do my bit for Maa Ganga [Mother Ganges],” Modi said. “Maa Ganga is waiting for her son to free her from pollution.”
The mission is almost impossible. Previous administrations had pledged about US$4 billion to revive the river system, but failed amid poor planning, lack of coordination, people’s indifference, and corruption.
This time around, Modi hopes to see substantial results. Uma Bharti, his minister for water resources, river development and Ganges rejuvenation, plans to make the campaign a people’s movement that will involve everyone, including sadhus, or holy men, who live along its banks and perform rituals in the river.
For starters, Bharti has asked the heads of the five states through which the river passes — Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal — to build toilets and sanitation centers so the 450 million people who near the river will not have to relieve themselves in or near its waters, according to India’s The Pioneer.
Ganges is the most sacred river for Hindus, but it is also one of the most polluted in the world. It is full of industrial effluent and untreated sewage; its banks are strewn with garbage and even the remains of cremated bodies.
In particular, open defecation is a major hygiene problem. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, an estimated 620 million people in India lack access to a toilet, creating a major public health hazard by leaving an estimated 65 million kilograms of waste each day.
Communities along the Ganges produce nearly three billion liters of sewage per day but only 1.2 billion liters are treated. Most of the waste drains into the Ganges.
Environmental protection groups welcome Modi’s campaign. “It is a gigantic task but not impossible to implement. Availability of loos will certainly create awareness among the people and end open defecation in the country”, says Sadhvi Bhagawati of the Ganga Action Parivar.
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