Why is India so dirty

India : Mother Ganges is a sewer

The Ganges is actually a "she". For the approximately 1.1 billion members of the Hindu religion worldwide, “Mother Ganga” is the holiest of all rivers, one of seven braids of the god Shiva. Statues of him and other deities of the colorful Hindu pantheon, newborns and newlyweds are sprinkled with the river water. Corpse ashes from the numerous cremation sites on the banks of the river are scattered in its waters. Visiting the ancient holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges even once in a lifetime is considered the highest blessing of a Hindu life, splashing in the holy water as the best purification of all sins. The poet Heinrich Heine dedicated his poem "Auf Flügeln des Gesangs", published in 1827, to the Indian river. Today, however, he would no longer rave about "the most beautiful place on the banks of the Ganges". Because the Ganges is now one of the six dirtiest rivers in the world.

At the beginning there are still crystal clear drops

The mighty stream begins high in the western Himalayas as crystal clear drops of a glacier. It is hard to imagine what fate awaits him on his 2700 kilometer run to the Bay of Bengal. Untreated sewage from households, toxic chemicals from fields and industry, plastic waste and building rubble: everything flows unhindered into the Ganges. In Varanasi there are also body ash and animal carcasses. Many of the native 140 species of fish, 90 amphibian and five aquatic mammal species are almost extinct. Until "Mother Ganga" flows into the sea, it is a stinking, poisonous and life-threatening sewer.

That's why Father Rhine should help: At a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Hanover Fair 2015, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked for help. Germany is participating in India's cleaning mission with 120 million euros through the KfW development bank and the technical expertise of the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ).

It is not enough to purify the river once

"The cleaning of the Rhine cost 45 billion euros and took a total of 30 years," says Jasper Wieck, Germany's deputy ambassador to India, "you need time, money and the right approach." The Rhine is only half as long as the Ganges. 600 million people live in the Ganges basin, a tenth of them on the Rhine. And the relationship between people and the river is fundamentally different in India.

"Around two million people use the Ganges for personal purposes," says Upendra Prasad Singh, a doctor of engineering and head of India's Ganges cleaning program. People bathe themselves and their cattle, do their laundry, and burn corpses. “The river basin is also the source of grain for all of India,” says Singh, “so I would call the Ganges a living river.” Singh, who is also State Secretary in the Indian Ministry of Water, points out the size of the cities on the Ganges, including Calcutta with 14 million inhabitants. They all cause a corresponding amount of wastewater. In addition, the river water is contaminated by pesticides from agriculture and chemicals from leather factories. “Because of this constant dynamic, the cleaning process doesn't have to be a one-off, but rather an ongoing one,” says Singh.

There are 18 million cesspools in its vicinity

Three quarters of the pollution consists of waste from around 100 cities and towns and thousands of villages along the Ganges. According to official figures, there are around 18 million cesspools and ten million outhouses near the river. Of the twelve billion liters of wastewater that flows into the Ganges and its tributaries every day, 53 percent remain untreated.

It is true that the temples of Varanasi, India's spiritual capital, offer western visitors just the exoticism they are looking for on their journey through India. But behind the romance lies a harsh reality. A third of the roughly four million inhabitants live in slums. Around 33,000 corpses are burned on the bank each year and their ashes are thrown into the water. Greedy operators of incineration sites also secretly throw half-burned corpses or animal carcasses into the water, thereby further increasing the level of E. coli bacteria.

Millions of dollars probably disappeared through corruption

Modi's cleaning mission, for which around 2.38 billion euros are earmarked and to which the World Bank, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany also contribute, is not the first in the history of India. As early as 1986, the then government had announced a Ganges action plan. By 2015, 245 million euros had already been spent. A glance at the river, which is even more polluted today, is proof that the funds must have once again fallen victim to the notorious Indian corruption.

Modi's Ganges cleaning initiative is also criticized. In 2017, India's special court for environmental protection found that despite the previous expenditure of 84.3 million euros of 163 announced sewage treatment plants, only 41 are in operation. There is also no improvement in the quality of the water, report environmental activists. "An improvement in the water quality will only be noticeable when all projects are up and running," says the head of the cleaning program, Singh. GIZ has also developed an information campaign. Vice Ambassador Wieck says: "Mentalities don't change overnight, but you have to start at some point."

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