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As India's rivers turn toxic, religion plays a part

Traditional ceremonies are a major source of water pollution

<p>Thousands of statues of deities are immersed in India's rivers every year, adding to their pollution</p>

Thousands of statues of deities are immersed in India's rivers every year, adding to their pollution

  • By Ritu Sharma, New Delhi
  • India
  • January 9, 2014
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India's rivers, which number more than 400, are the main source of its water, supplying 90 percent of the country. Yet the Central Pollution Control Board has warned that the water in half the nation's rivers is unsafe to drink and at least a quarter of the rivers can not be used for bathing.

Various factors play a part in this worrying state of affairs, such as dumped industrial and household waste and open defecation. But a surprisingly high level of pollution comes from religious ceremonies.

Statues of deities, flowers, pots and ashes are thrown in the rivers with impunity. In fact several rituals in the Hindu religion make it mandatory for people to use rivers as a vital component.

Immersing statues of deities in the river is a highlight of several major festivals. The paint and decorations on the statues are not environmentally friendly so they pollute the river, which in turn affects the flora and fauna. During the festival season of September-October, thousands of statues are immersed.

Hinduism also declares it mandatory to cremate the dead and scatter their ashes in a river. Hindus believe the dead will not attain salvation if the last remains are not immersed.

In another Hindu observance, holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy or chicken pox, people bitten by snakes, those who commit suicide, the poor and children below five years old are not cremated but floated in the water to decompose.

“Earlier, if a body was floated in the river, it was consumed by crocodiles, but these days there are no crocodiles left in rivers because of the pollution. So these dead bodies only add to the filth and pollution in the river,” said Rajender Singh, who has been campaigning for the cleaning of several small and big rivers in the country for more than three decades.

"There is not a single river in the country that is without pollution," said Singh, who is also known as the Waterman of India. “The rivers  these days have become sewage canals that carry our filth.” 

Manoj Mishra is convener of the Yamuna Network, a nonprofit coalition of like-minded organizations and individuals whose sole purpose is to stop the Yamuna River from being diverted and to prevent waste from entering into it. “On the one hand rivers are revered by us," he said, "and on the other, we have no problem in putting all our rubbish into them.”

The Yamuna and the Ganges are the most revered - and most polluted - rivers in the country. They are the focal point of almost all religious activities in India. People go to their banks to pray, cremate and immerse.

The Ganges is one of the largest rivers in the country, providing water to an estimated 500 million people in 29 cities, 70 towns and thousands of villages. Yet nearly 1.3 billion liters of household waste goes  into it every day, along with thousands of animal carcasses, mainly cattle, and another 260 million liters of industrial waste. No surprise that it is one of the world's most polluted waterways.

The government has, over the years, made efforts to tackle these problems.

The Ganga Action Plan was launched in April 1986 to reduce pollution in the Ganges. It involved building water treatment stations along the river to filter out sewage and pump water into effluents before they flowed into it. The plan was withdrawn on March 31, 2000, with no concrete results and more than US$145 million spent.

The Yamuna Action Plan is one of the largest river restoration projects in India, launched in the early 1990’s. As part of the project, the government has installed water cleaning plants in several locations. But the river is still deteriorating, despite an expenditure of US$250 million so far.

“The feasibility study on the project played a negligible part," said a critical report by the World Wide Fund for Nature-India. "Due to this, the project defies the very role it was meant to play."

Environmentalists have plenty of ideas on how to improve conditions.

"It is not easy to change people’s mentality overnight," said Mishra. "The government needs to provide them alternatives like creating immersion sites for religious ceremonies near rivers." 

Singh believes that tough legislation is needed. “We need to have a mandatory system in place to protect the rivers,” he said. 

He also thinks the education system should play a much more active role.

“Children need to be made aware about this from a young age so they do not follow such practices when they grow up. It's sad the education system in our country does not teach ecological, environmental and cultural values.”

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