raise awareness among the masses,” says one
of the original trio, S. N. Upadhyay, a chemi-
cal engineer and director of the Institute of
Technology at Banaras Hindu University.
Partly in response to SMF’s campaign,
in April 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
launched the Ganga Action Plan (GAP). Its
ambitious goal was to reduce Ganges pollution to levels safe for bathers. Over the
next 15 years, GAP spent about $200 million improving sanitation in cities along
the 2500-kilometer-long river and building
facilities to pump wastewater into sludge-treatment ponds.
“The more money GAP spent, the more
government agencies claimed that pollution
was decreasing,” Upadhyay says. He and his
SMF colleagues believed otherwise. “They
were simply fooling the people,” Upadhyay
says. States dragged their feet in implementing GAP projects, which ended
up processing only a fraction of
the wastewater. To back their criticisms with hard data, SMF leaders,
with help from friends in Sweden,
opened Swatcha Ganga Laboratory
in 1992. They quickly confirmed,
CREDI TS ( TOP TO BO T TOM): ADAP TED FROM SUS TAINABLE SANI TATION AND WATER MANAGEMEN T/ WWW.SSWM. INFO; R. S TONE/SCIENCE
Mishra says, that “GAP’s conventional solutions weren’t working.” In Varanasi, pumps
stopped during frequent electricity outages
and during summer monsoon flooding. Fecal
coliform counts were higher than ever.
“We became watchdogs,” Mishra says.
SMF’s advocacy brought him fame: Time recognized Mishra as a “Hero of the Planet” in
1999. Inside India, SMF’s rising profile “put
a lot of pressure on the government,” Mishra
says. Soon after GAP funding wrapped up in
2000, a damning government audit concluded
that the initiative “was not able to achieve its
objectives.” Frazzled authorities challenged
SMF: “They said, ‘Give us a solution,’”
Mishra says. He responded that with a few
homespun innovations, a wastewater treatment system pioneered in California in the
1960s could be adapted to the challenges of
A simple plan
As dawn breaks, Mother Ganga comes to life.
Standing on the submerged steps of a ghat,
young men, their faces daubed with yellow
powder, splash each other playfully. Nearby, a
rail-thin elderly man dips his toothbrush into
the Ganges and thrusts it into his mouth. At
a “burning ghat,” flames lick from wooden
biers. The oil-drenched legs of a corpse being
cremated strike a pose eerily similar to someone splayed out on a poolside chaise longue.
Half-burned bodies are not an uncommon
sight in the river, Mishra says.
Algal High-rate Pond
Low tech, but it works. In Varanasi, treatment will start in a 7-meter-deep oxygen-free pool.
In Varanasi, approximately 60,000 pilgrims and residents bathe in the Ganges
every day. In a recent health survey, Hamner
and colleagues recorded high rates of cholera, dysentery, and other waterborne maladies in Varanasi. Poor sanitation in 2006 cost
India about $53.8 billion in economic losses,
or 6.4% of GDP.
Mishra scoffs at the idea that devout Hin-
dus are tainting the Ganges. Such nonpoint
sources, he says, contribute about 5% of
waterborne pollution here. As
SMF has documented, most filth
comes from 30 point sources—
sewer outfalls, drainage channels,
and the like—along the city’s
SMF’s solution is the
Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Sys-
tem, the brainchild of the University of Cal-
ifornia, Berkeley’s, William Oswald, now
deceased. In this “engineered natural system,”
as Mishra calls it, waste spends 5 weeks pass-
ing through four kinds of pools (see diagram,
above) that strip out organic matter and kill
off parasite eggs and fecal coliform bacteria.
Reclaimed water can be used for irrigation,
and methane produced in the anaerobic pond
would be used to generate energy to run the
facility. SMF found a promising spot to build
Coliform heaven. Swatcha Ganga technician
Gopal Pandey samples water off one of Varanasi’s popular ghats.
the plant at an oxbow depression several kilo-
meters downstream of Varanasi.
To adapt the system to Varanasi, SMF proposed a tunnel that would use gravity rather
than pumps to move wastewater to the oxbow
site. In 1997, SMF presented the concept to
the central government—which opted to stick
with the GAP approach. Although Vinod Tare,
a civil engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, says he has “no doubt” that
the innovative system will work, a drawback is
that it would require “as much or more land”
as existing options and, he says, would not be
any cheaper. Mishra insists it would cost less,
although his arguments didn’t cut ice with
the government. “But we were persistent and
resilient,” he says.
Prospects brightened in November 2007,
when Mishra met Indian Prime Minister
Manmohan Singh. “He said that cleaning
the Ganga should be a priority,” Mishra says.
Singh also championed a holistic basinwide
approach—“a drastic change” from GAP’s
piecemeal approach, Gosain says. In response
to a government request, SMF, working with
GO2 Water, a Kensington, California–based
company founded by Oswald and Berkeley
colleague F. Bailey Green, drew up plans for a
pilot plant in Varanasi able to process 37 million liters of sewage per day. If the pilot project proves its mettle, similar facilities would
be built in Allahabad, Kanpur, and Patna.
The National Ganga River Basin Authority, launched in 2009, has boldly pledged to
stop the flow of untreated sewage and industrial waste into the Ganges, from beginning to
end. “That will get rid of 95% of the river’s
pollution,” Mishra says. Time is not on their
side. As India’s population grows and its economy flourishes, the pressures on the Ganges
are growing more intense. “If we will lose the
battle against pollution, I don’t know what
will happen to the people of the Ganga Basin,”
says Mishra, who believes that the next 5 years
will be critical to the river’s future.
After decades of futile efforts to purify the
Ganges, that’s a tight deadline. Mishra insists
he is not frustrated by the lack of progress to
date. But even the patience of a mahant grows
thin. The time has come, Mishra says sternly,
“to stop disrespecting Mother Ganga.”