ecology of the Ganges Basin, home
to some 500 million people.
The water project will also mark
a major milestone in a 30-year-long
grassroots campaign to improve
the river that began in Varanasi,
one of the oldest inhabited cities on
Earth. And it would be a personal
triumph for the movement’s charismatic 71-year-old leader, Veer
Bhadra Mishra, an engineer and
mahant, or spiritual head, of Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Temple.
A Remedy at Last for
The Ailing Ganges?
After decades of futility, a charismatic civil engineer’s campaign to clean the
polluted river is poised for a breakthrough
VARANASI, INDIA—Yellow and gold marigolds drift slowly down the languid Ganges.
Remnants of garlands, the flower heads add
splashes of color to the turbid river that Hindus call Mother Ganga. The overwhelming
fragrance, however, is the stench of sewage.
Downstream of this holiest of Hindu cities, Gopal Pandey dons a pair of rubber
gloves and lowers a steel canister over the side
of a motorboat. Methane bubbles rise to the
surface of the murky water and burst silently.
Nearly every week since 1992, Pandey, a
technician here at Swatcha Ganga Research
Laboratory, has sampled up and down Varanasi’s famous ghats, the sets of broad stone
steps along the riverbank that give pilgrims
access to the water.
Pandey’s ritual has changed little through
the years. He hoists up the canister and with
an old-fashioned glass pipette adds manganese sulfate and alkaline potassium iodide
with azide to fix dissolved oxygen. Back in the
lab, he’ll measure oxygen content, fecal coliform bacteria, and other water-quality indicators. He knows what to expect. Every day,
more than 200 million liters of sewage and
industrial waste—much of it untreated—ooze
into the Ganges from Varanasi. “The pollution
is getting worse,” Pandey says. As he takes
another sample, a goat carcass floats by. It’s
not uncommon to see human corpses that had
been consigned to the river as well.
Although the Ganges is filthier than
ever, a remedy for the ailing river may be
at hand. This spring, India’s central gov-
ernment is expected to give final approval
for an innovative water-treatment scheme
here. “If the project is successful, it would
serve as a model for other cities and rivers in
India,” says Steve Hamner, a microbiologist
at Montana State University in Bozeman.
“One single project is not going to solve all
the problems of the Ganga River,” cautions
A. K. Gosain, head of civil engineering at
the Indian Institute of Technology in New
Delhi. But the Varanasi solution will have an
impact, he says, and as part of a $4 billion
initiative to cleanse India’s rivers by 2020,
the government intends to replicate it in other
cities on the Ganges.
Dusk has fallen at a cluster of modest buildings at Tulsi Ghat, Mishra’s
home and office of the Sankat
Mochan Foundation (SMF). As
worshippers clang bells, the heady
aroma of sandalwood incense wafts
into the “throne room.” Mishra is
relaxing after a long day presiding over a ceremony at his temple,
dedicated to the Hindu deity Hanuman. Devotees approach, reverently greet their mahant, and mumble prayers
as they touch the edge of his white dhoti.
For 500 years, the mantle of mahant has
passed from father to eldest son. When
Mishra was 14, his father died. He embraced
his fate—with a twist. At the time that he
became Sankat Mochan’s chief priest, Mishra
was developing a fascination with physics
and mathematics. “All the good students were
going into engineering. I felt I should too,” he
says. He earned a Ph.D. in hydraulic engineering from Banaras Hindu University here and
joined its faculty while continuing to serve as
the temple’s spiritual leader.
One day in 1966, the young professor
became aware of the plight of the Ganges.
At the confluence of the Ganges and the Assi
River, Mishra observed thousands of dead
fish sweeping into the Ganges. “I thought,
‘What is this?’ ” he says.
“That’s when I started
blamed industrial effluents. Little was done
to rein in pollution, so
Mishra began speaking
out. In 1980, he visited the
United States and met the
folk singer Pete Seeger,
who was then leading
a campaign to clean up
New York’s Hudson River.
The trip inspired Mishra
and two colleagues to
found SMF in 1982 “to
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