A mighty river cries for help

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Kanpur wakes up to the dangers of disposing human corpses and animal carcasses into the Ganga.

Garbage chokes the Ganga river near Har-ki-Pauri, in Haridwar - Praveen Kumar
Garbage chokes the Ganga river near Har-ki-Pauri, in Haridwar - Praveen Kumar

Dinesh C. Sharma

On Makar Sankranti every year, thousands take a dip in the Ganga along the ghats in the industrial city of Kanpur, unmindful of the polluted water. In addition to untreated sewage and industrial effluents, the river faces pollution of a different kind human corpses and animal carcasses. Although no religious text speaks of consigning unburnt or partly burnt bodies to the river, the practice is rampant in Kanpur. Ritually it's the ashes that are immersed in sacred rivers. This year, however, there were considerably less number of bodies consigned to the river, as a result of a sustained campaign by local groups over the last seven years.

Earlier, more than 100 human bodies and animal carcasses could be seen floating in various stages of decay in a 10 km stretch of the river in Kanpur at any given time, according to a survey by a local group, Eco Friends. Since 1997, the group has fished out 1,000 human bodies during its annual awareness campaigns. In April last year, volunteers removed 60 bodies and tons of polythene bags and worship material. In comparison, five bodies were spotted during a boat ride in the second week of January this year.

The practice of dumping unburnt bodies into the river is also common in places such as Varanasi, Allahabad and even far off Patna. According to superstition, bodies of those who die from certain diseases (asthma, tuberculosis, leprosy, snake bite, poisoning etc.) and those of newborn babies, unmarried persons and holy men are consigned to the river. But a study showed that poor people were also dumping bodies into the Ganga to save on costly wood cremation. In addition, the police dumped unclaimed bodies into the river, as a cheap and easy means of disposal. "The river in Kanpur is currently treated as a natural sewer, garbage depot and morgue," says Rakesh K. Jaiswal, Executive Secretary, Eco Friends. "People can be seen in hordes defecating along the river."

The Ganga Action Plan (GAP), formulated nearly two decades ago, aimed at preventing the disposal of bodies in the river. Three electric crematoria were constructed in Kanpur to promote burning of bodies. But they fell into disuse for a variety of reasons, most notably lack of electricity. The city faces severe power shutdowns. It takes months to rectify even minor technical faults. In addition, there is poor acceptability due to social taboo, and the vested interests of pandas (priests who handle cremation rites) and the wood sellers.

Eco Friends decided to tackle the issue at various levels. It started by creating awareness among people, particularly among the `Dhanuks' the community involved in cremation work. Annual campaigns that involved fishing out bodies and burying them, helped bring the problem to public attention. "We tried to educate people on why bodies should not be dumped into the river, and encouraged them to bury bodies that they are reluctant to burn as per their beliefs. We are seeing a change, and thousands of bodies are buried every year now," says Jaiswal.

On Budhia ghat, the main cremation site in Kanpur, the Dhanuks now don't allow people to throw bodies into the river. The word has spread to cremation communities in Varanasi and Allahabad as well.

Eco Friends wrote to the State Chief Minister, the Prime Minister and even the Allahabad High Court. The court converted the letter into a writ petition and served notices to the State Government, the DGP, the urban development department, State electricity board, Jal Nigam, State pollution control board, Central pollution control board, National River Conservation Directorate and polluting industries. The case is pending in court.

In the meantime, the court issued two important directions. The State Government should set up a river police force to guard the banks not only in Kanpur but also other districts through which the river flows. Second, the Kanpur Municipal Corporation, in charge of the electric crematoria, should allow the cremation of unclaimed bodies sent by the police. The court directed the home department to pay Rs 500 to the city corporation and, if "the electric crematorium is not functional then the Rs 500 shall be given to the river police", which will buy firewood to cremate the body. Jaiswal says that while the idea of river police has remained on paper, unclaimed bodies are now cremated at the electric crematoria, mainly due to the intervention of the district collector. And many others are burying the dead along the riverside. "Dumping of bodies is just one form of polluting the river. Cattle wallowing, washing of clothes, use of soaps and detergents, discarded worship material and defecation are the other problems facing the river. And, what's worse, nearly 85 per cent of the river's pollution load comes from sewage and industrial effluents.

The effluent treatment plants and pumping stations set up as part of the Ganga Action Plan largely remain non-functional due to power shortage in Kanpur. Sewage, as well as effluents from tanneries, is discharged untreated into the river. Tanneries are supposed to remove chrome before sending their waste for further treatment at common effluent treatment plants, but this is not done. The waste that reaches the treatment plants contains heavy metals, rendering biological treatment ineffective. A large number of people living on the banks fishermen, the washer community and boatmen depend directly on the river waters for their livelihood. The river's high level of pollution is affecting their livelihood. The population of fish has declined dramatically and even these are unfit for consumption due to the accumulation of toxic metals. People no longer take boat rides due to the repulsive odour and sight of the river.

"Kanpur's leather industry may have globalised, but not its environment practices,," comments Dr Binayak Rath, professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. "Air, water and land in the city are being polluted with no regard for environmental norms."

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated February 25, 2005)
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