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Modi plans to clean up sacred Ganges

By Agence France-Presse in Kanpur, India | China Daily | Updated: 2014-07-18 07:11

Standing on the banks of the Ganges a day after his election triumph, Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to succeed where numerous governments have failed in cleaning up the filthy river beloved of India's Hindus.

From a deeply religious prime minister already known for the scale of his ambitions, it was a bold but calculated promise to improve the health of what he referred to as his "mother".

Success would pay huge dividends in endearing him further to his core Hindu supporters. Correcting the long-standing neglect of the river would demonstrate his fabled administrative skills.

But nowhere is the scale of the challenge more evident than in the northern town of Kanpur, around 500 km from the capital, which is known for its large leather-treatment industry.

A river believed to cleanse sins is used in Kanpur as a giant sewage line for the largely untreated excrement of 5 million residents and a disposal facility for millions of liters of chemical-laced industrial waste.

Some devout pilgrims still brave the obvious dangers of submersing themselves in the water, in which fecal coliform bacteria can be 200 times the safe limit, according to local authorities.

But even they are increasingly put off. Local boatman Vijay Nishad, who has been rowing religious visitors on the river for more than 15 years, says his business is suffering.

'Terrible stench'

"Around 100 or 200 people came to bathe this morning, but they left without going in the water because of the dead fish and the terrible stench," he said, reaching his hand into the brown water and plucking out a few small fish floating lifelessly just below the surface.

The Ganges snakes for 2,500 km across northern India from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal through a basin that is home to an estimated one-third of India's population - 400 million people.

Kanpur is one of the four most critically polluted spots. The region also includes the holy city of Varanasi, from which the 63-year-old Modi was elected to Parliament for the first time in May.

Rakesh Jaiswal, founder of the Kanpur-based campaign group Eco-Friends, said the city produces 500 million liters of sewage a day, and has a capacity to treat only around 160 million.

A recent note from the environmental ministry, which was seen by AFP, estimated that the combined capacity of sewage treatment plants in the 50 biggest cities along the river was only 1.2 billion liters daily. Total human waste is estimated at 2.7 billion liters a day.

Jaiswal said he wishes Modi and his newly named Minister for Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation Uma Bharti well, but he is skeptical that significant changes can be made in their five-year term.

India's first highly publicized effort to clean its most sacred river was in 1986, when the Ganga Action Plan was launched.

Environmental activists estimate that billions of rupees have been poured into cleanup efforts over the last three decades with few, if any, results.

Modi's government announced another 20.4 billion rupees ($340 million) for a new "Ganga Mission" in its first budget on July 10.

"It is the first time I have seen one issue uniting people from across the board. Everybody is united and working with unseen enthusiasm for this campaign," minister Bharti told a conference on July 7.

 Modi plans to clean up sacred Ganges

Plastic bags and garbage litter the banks of the River Ganges in Allahabad, India. The Ganges suffers from extreme pollution levels caused by sewage, industrial waste and plastic from religious offerings. Sanjay Kanojia / Agence France-Presse

(China Daily 07/18/2014 page11)

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