NEW DELHI // For more than 40 years, Ramesh Chand has earned a living immersing the ashes of recently cremated Hindus in the River Yamuna. Every morning he tethers his creaky boat to a small pontoon below the cremation pyres at the Nigambodh Ghat in north Delhi and waits to be approached by mourners, who pay him 10 rupees to row to the middle of the river and scatter the ashes of their loved ones.
The ritual is supposed to sever the bond between the deceased's body and soul, leaving the spirit free to be born again. Today the waters that are supposed to be life-giving are technically dead themselves - so full of effluent, body parts and rubbish, they are no longer considered fit to be used for anything other than industrial cooling. "When I started, the river used to be very clear, like a mirror," Mr Chand, 65, said.
"People used to come for picnics, but it's so dirty now no one comes here unless they have to." Seven of India's rivers - including the Yamuna - are sacred in Hinduism and most of India's 900 million Hindus will try to make a pilgrimage to one of them at least once in their lives. This month, as many as 2.5 million pilgrims journeyed to the northern town of Haridwar to bathe in the Ganges on the first day of the three-month Kumbh Mela - or Pitcher Festival. Over the coming weeks, some 60 million devotees are expected.
A new study has revealed that the waters of the Ganges and other rivers, where such festivals are performed, carry billions of litres of untreated sewage from India's rapidly growing urban population. The study made public on January 11, revealed that in 2008 India's main towns and cities treated only 31 per cent of their sewage and poured 26.5 billion litres of unprocessed effluent into the country's rivers and costal waters every day.
The report, the first of its kind in10 years, was carried out by the Indian government's Central Pollution Control Board and shows the enormous environmental effect of poor sanitation. "The discharge of untreated sewage into water courses is the biggest source of water pollution in India," the report said. "To improve the quality of rivers and lakes, there is an urgent need to increase sewage treatment capacity and its optimum utilisation."
Worryingly, it said, it was the rivers that provided the most drinking water that were also receiving the most waste. At the heart of the problem, the report said, was a simple lack of sewage treatment plants. India's 908 largest towns and cities, which are home to 258 million people, produce 38.25 billion litres of sewage each day, but there are only enough treatment plants to process 11.78 billion litres of that.
While on average India treats 31 per cent of its waste, many cities are able to process only a fraction of that. Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh state, with a population of about 1.5 million, has the capacity to treat six per cent of its wastewater, while Rajastahn's Jaipur, with a population of 4.4 million, can process only 11 per cent. That capacity is reduced further by frequent power cuts and breakages, with the result that treatment plants often release water that has not been sufficiently cleaned.
"Nearly all treatment plants are not conforming to the general standards prescribed under the Environmental Protection Rules for discharging into streams," the report said. It also highlighted the "the widening gap between sewage generation and treatment capacity" as India's urban population grows faster than municipal authorities are able to bring new plants online. Only four cities in India manage to process all of their waste, and four more, including Delhi, manage to treat more than 50 per cent.
Even though Delhi treats 61 per cent of its waste, it still remains the single largest polluter because of the sheer size of its population. The city of 14 million produces 3.8 billion litres of sewage a day, of which 1.5 billion litres flow untreated into the Yamuna. "In some parts of the river, there is more sewage than water," said K S Kamyotra, a member of the Central Pollution Control Board. As a result, the board grades the water in the Yamuna as it passes through Delhi as E-class - unfit even to wash animals in.
The Biochemical Oxygen Demand, a standard measure of water pollution, is as much as 10 times higher than permissible levels and the river's faecal coliform load - the bacteria that grows in human waste - is some four million times higher than is deemed safe for bathing. This is despite successive schemes to clean the river up. Over the past 16 years, close to US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion) has been spent on new water purifications plants and pumping stations.
India's government had promised to have the river clean by the time Delhi hosts the Commonwealth Games in October, but last summer it was forced to admit it would have to confine itself to beautifying the riverbanks where the athletes' accommodation is being built. Standing on the banks of Nigambodh, it is easy to see why they need beautification. As Mr Chand shifts his weight on the pontoon, it stirs the black mud beneath and releases bubbles of methane.
The banks themselves are green and greasy, and littered with sodden detritus of religious rituals - fake gold coins, sweets and scraps of brightly coloured fabric. There are no fish in the water and no birds on the surface. The only life, apart from humans, is the dogs that scavenge for unburnt human flesh and bones. Yet Mr Chand still has faith in this holy river, which he has to dive into regularly to save people from committing suicide.
"The river is a goddess," he said. "If I am saving a life, she won't make me sick." email@example.com