The Ganges has long been associated with life-giving properties, and amazingly, scientific studies may have found a scientific basis for the myth. Unfortunately, it might be too late, as the Ganges is highly polluted.
At Patna, a few days after celebrating the 1997 Chhath festival on the banks of the Ganges, several devotees suddenly suffered from skin eruptions, red spots and other skin irritations. Apparently it was the 'holy dip' in the Ganges that led to this problem; something in the water, possibly a result of indiscriminate waste disposal into the river, had triggered off this reaction.
Cynical though it may sound, such an incident was simply waiting to happen, as the rivers in India are basically treated like glorified sewers. On the one hand they are considered sacred, and on the other they are abused day in and day out by the very people that revere them. Religious ceremonies and practices that have been followed for centuries only help to spread infection, and it's highly unlikely that things will change any time soon.
Along its 2525km-long course, the Ganges receives mostly untreated sewage from 27 major towns. The Ganges Action Plan (GAP), which is touted as the centrepiece of river cleaning policy in India, has spent more than 4.5 billion rupees on the problem, but with little concrete success. The reality is that in all the main towns situated on the banks of the Ganges, untreated and partially treated sewage still flows into the river. The sewage treatment plants lie idle for most of the day because there's no power to run them, lots of the pumps are clogged up with plastic bags, and as an example of the lack of progress, in Patna the public toilets have been converted into offices, and the town sewage ponds serve as cricket grounds.
The waters of the Ganges have always had the strange quality of not putrefying, even after long periods of storage. Scientific studies carried out by Roorkee University in the early 1980s confirmed an age-old belief that its waters were special; the Ganges was shown to have a unique quality in that it has a remarkable self-cleansing ability, certainly better than any other river in the world. It also has a very high oxygen-retaining capacity, which explains why its waters remain fresh over long periods of storage.
Conducted between 1982 and 1984, the studies indicated that concentrations of disease-causing bacteria, which shot up at waste dumping points along the river, reduced by almost 90 per cent some 7 to 10km downstream from the dumps. As far back as 1896, E. Hanbury Hankin, a British physician, reported in the Annales de l'Institut Pasteur that cholera microbes died within three hours in Ganges water, while they continued to thrive after 48 hours in distilled water.
When such a unique and remarkable river becomes the source of skin problems, it is reflective of the river's degradation. Essentially a 'pipes and pumps' scheme, the GAP is being replicated in 14 polluted rivers in the country without anyone asking whether the original GAP has worked. While sewers and sewage treatment are an absolute necessity in any town or city, mindlessly repeating an expensive and arguably unsuccessful plan is probably not the best way to tackle the situation.
It seems that some rivers, however holy, are destined to die. I sincerely hope that Mother Ganges isn't one of them.