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India - Water Crisis -

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India - Water Crisis

Broadcast: 05/07/2005

Reporter: Geoff Thompson


THOMPSON: From a glacier high in the Himalaya, the Ganges journey begins. India's Hindus believe
that Shiva, the mountain God laid down his matted hair to tame the water's awesome power as it fell
from the heavens to the earth. At holy Haridwar, the pure Ganges of the mountains meets the plains
at a place known as the footstep of God. With a booming economy and superpower ambitions, this
country of 1 billion and counting has never been richer. But the health of its most revered rivers,
the great arteries at the heart of India's spiritual and physical life has never been poorer.
Leading some here to fear that the very future of India herself might be at stake.

It's here that the Ganges great glacial flow really begins to merge with India's vast sea of
humanity. Over thousands of kilometres, on its way to the ocean, this deep, rich and very ancient
relationship between man and river will involve one out of every fifteen people living on the
planet today.

A thousand kilometres downriver, the Ganges reaches Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in
Hinduism. Already a city while the Pharaohs still ruled Egypt, Varanasi has teemed with life for
thousands of years. Everyday some 60,000 people take a holy dip at one of Varanasi's bathing ghats
to wash away their sins. On the days his health allows it, Veer Bhadra Mishra is among them.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: I come to the river everyday when I am in good health. When she is kind enough
to ask me to come to her, to take holy dip, I offer my prayers to her so this is a part of my
religious life, my commitment, my faith as a practicing Hindu.

THOMPSON: In fact most days of his 66 years have begun just like this - with a swim and a prayer
and sometimes a sip of water.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: I cannot be separated from the river. Ganga is mother, divine and goddess.
Nectar, this water is nectar for us.

THOMPSON: But by now, that nectar is noxious. From the Himalaya to here, the waste of more than 100
population centres, including India's capital, New Delhi, has been dumped into this sacred river.
When the Ganges reaches Varanasi, the people of this city also flush their sewerage into her holy
waters. And Veer Bhadra Mishra has spent his life trying to stop that from happening.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: Ganga is the identity of this country. Ganga is the unity of this country. The
diversity of India in terms of faith, caste, regional practices and philosophies all converge into
Ganga so what could be in India if Ganga is gone, if Ganga is polluted.

THOMPSON: People have been touching Veer Bhadra Mishra's feet since he was just 14, then when his
father died, he inherited the job of Mahant - a kind of Hindu priest - at the Sankat Mochan Temple
in Varanasi. But Mahantji, as his followers call him, also went to university and became a
Professor of hydraulic engineering.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: My rational training, my scientific information says that there is something
not good about Ganga water and the pollution level in the water is dangerously high.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: [Talking to Campbell as they travel down the river by boat] I think it is worse
now because now what is happening is that some of the bypasses and some of the spill overs from
other sewers is also reaching . . .

THOMPSON: Since the early 1980s as both Professor and Mahantji, Mishra has lobbied all over the
world to stop the flow of filth into the Ganges. A first Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986 and
sewerage treatment plants were built to dilute Varanasi's waste. But unreliable electricity
supplies, coupled with operational and maintenance problems, means the plants work only

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: [Talking to Campbell as they travel down the river by boat] And then they open
the bypasses and sewerage flows into the river next to where people are taking a dip. It's

THOMPSON: Twenty years later, Professor Mishra says the water is worse than ever.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: There is no other river system in the world that supports the life of so many
people. And it is that river system's threat by pollution, by urban pollution, by industrial
pollution, I think the sewerage and industrial pollution, they are the biggest problem of the

NARESH DAYAL: It has improved, it has improved since the beginning of the Ganga Action Plan and I
don't think it is that much of a health hazard as it is made out to be.

THOMPSON: Naresh Dayal heads India's National River Conservation Directorate, he is responsible for
implementing the Ganga Action Plans. He says that the tens of millions of dollars spent since 1986
have improved the water quality at Varanasi. But it's still far from being fit for human bathing.

NARESH DAYAL: Certainly it needs to be improved further, that's not our case that it is absolutely
bathing quality, it has not yet reached bathing quality but people do bathe in it and most of them
are none the worse for it.

THOMPSON: Just downstream from Varanasi is the small village of Sarai Mohanna. The Varuna River
mixes its poisonous load with Varanasi's waste, right on the edge of the village.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: [Talking to Campbell as they travel down the river by boat] So we have spent
money, but we couldn't stop this flow of sewerage into the river.

THOMPSON: And Professor Mishra is appalled at what we find.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: And all the new development has got no sewerage escape. It is under the toilet
of the whole city of Varanasi. The water here is black, it stinks and methane bubbles are coming
just from the bottom. So it's thoroughly, I would say, polluted water.

THOMPSON: Waterborne disease is rife here. A level of 500 faecal coliform bacteria per hundred
millilitres is considered safe for human bathing in India. But in this part of the Ganges, the
coliform count can reach an extraordinary 370,000 times the acceptable limit.

NARESH DAYAL: When I say that it is safe in the sense that yes there are possibilities if you go
into the river and drink water from it while you're swimming, there would be a problem because it
is not drinking water. It is not meant to be drunk. So I'm not saying that you cannot get an
infection at all if you go into the river.

THOMPSON: The people of Sarai Mohanna tell a very different story. The village medical centre is
always busy. More than half of the people who come here are seeking treatment for waterborne

DR MAHENDRA KUMAR MISHRA: I am getting daily more and more cases not downwards, that is the cases
are going upwards.

THOMPSON: So the pollution and the effects on people's health in this village has actually


VEER BHADRA MISHRA: [Talking to Campbell as they travel down the river by boat] You can see that
still some sewerage is flowing, but it's not the peak hour . . .

THOMPSON: With the help of American academics, Professor Mishra has designed a way of treating
Varanasi's sewerage without the need for electric power. He wants to lay a sealed pipe underneath
the ghats and use gravity to divert the waste downstream and into a series of treatment ponds.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: We can cure the problem just by stopping the sewerage from flowing into the
river. As an engineer, as a person who has taught water resource management all his life, I believe
that this is a simple thing, this can be done.

THOMPSON: In an age when India is talking about sending a mission to the moon, Professor Mishra's
plan sounds simple enough. But India's government insists that despite their failings, more
electric powered treatment plants are the way to go.

So in your opinion and in the government's opinion, Professor Mishra's plan just wouldn't work?

NARESH DAYAL: Yes, the experts whom we had put on the job, who had appraised it, found that it was
not feasible.

THOMPSON: Why not?

NARESH DAYAL: I'm not an expert, I think you'll have to go into that report.

THOMPSON: India's Hindus believe that the Ganges is the Great Goddess Mother of all rivers. That
her fate and the fate of rivers everywhere is somehow linked and destined to flow together. Indeed
the Ganges life and death struggle with pollution, scarcity and exploitation is increasingly shared
with waterways, not only across India but around the world. The orderly parks around New Delhi's
India Gate seem a world away from the colourful chaos of Varanasi. But the capital too is besieged
by its own water crisis. Some parts of the city enjoy water in abundance. In other suburbs,
residents are actually dying in the daily fight to quench their thirst.

Government water tankers arrive at the Dwarka resettlement colony in New Delhi's southern fringe,
for the first time in six days. The community swarms around the tankers, despite what happened here
the week before. In the rush for water, a 13 year old boy named Navin Giri, was killed after
becoming tangled in a hose and falling under a moving tanker. Navin was this man's only son.

SUGRIV GIRI: My son's mishap occurred simply because of water. If there was a sufficient supply of
water in our area, no child or anyone else would make a mad dash for water. No-one would have gone
under the truck. My son is dead because of water.

THOMPSON: 3,200 families live in this Dwarka community, but only a handful of government water
tankers provide for them through the dry summer months.

DR VANDANA SHIVA: The way people are affected by water crisis in Delhi is first and foremost the
poor, have absolutely no access to water. Women will wait 4 hours, 5 hours, 6 hours at one common
public tap. They will wait for a tanker to come from the public utility to give water.

THOMPSON: And these kids are just swimming in that sewerage?


THOMPSON: Dr Vandana Shiva is another who has dedicated her life to saving India's rivers.

DR VANDANA SHIVA: [Talking to Thompson as they walk along the river's edge] Probably he's even
drinking it and must be having diarrhoeal disease.

THOMPSON: She grew up on the Yamuna River, which supplies most of Delhi's water, before carrying
much of the city's waste into the Ganges downstream. It is India's second most sacred river and
it's most polluted.

What's he swimming in?

DR VANDANA SHIVA: Industrial waste, urban waste, sewerage, shit, mercury, anything under the sun
that humans should neither be swimming in nor drinking.

THOMPSON: Does he know he's swimming in it?

DR VANDANA SHIVA: No, I don't think so. For him probably, in his generation, for his life, this is
the only kind of water he has known.

THOMPSON: When the tankers don't come, members of this community must go out scavenging for water.
It can be a treacherous quest, fraught with potential conflict between Delhi's water haves and have

[Man on bicycle with empty containers on the back approaching men who have water - They yell at him
"Hey! Get Lost! and he says "They are giving permission"]

THOMPSON: On this day the Dwarka colony's quiet water warrior is successful and manages to bustle
his way to a free flowing tap. Across town, daisy gardens are drinking their fill, as they do every

DR VANDANA SHIVA: There is actually no shortage of water in Delhi. The shortage is created, a -
because we are blowing up our water reserves by polluting the Yamuna and the second is what water
is there, what's clean is then distributed in such an ugly way that the 14 million population of
Delhi, more than 80 percent of it, has no access to water and the rest is then being wasted to wash
Mercedes cars, irrigate lawns, have beautiful gardens as if we are not in a period of scarcity. So
there is no conservation mentality among the elite and that is a water war.

THOMPSON: Two more casualties of Delhi's water wars. The bodies of a 5 year old boy and his 3 year
old sister are returned to their parents in this poor Delhi village in Tughlaqabad. They too were
killed in a water tanker rush.

BALBIR, GRANDMOTHER OF DEAD CHILDREN: I can't say the whys and hows of it, but the poor man's life
has been ruined. His life has been ruined. His son and daughter are both gone. Is there any hope
for the future?

THOMPSON: But such accidents are not the main threat to India's young - that comes from a lethal
mix of polluted water and poor hygiene. Diarrhoea kills 400,000 Indian children aged under 5 every

DR VANDANA SHIVA: We have to find ways to make this situation reverse because if in our lifetime we
cannot make it reverse, then in our lifetime we will see an end to one of the biggest civilisations
the world has known.

THOMPSON: Hindus believe that at the end of life's journey, if you die in Varanasi and your remains
go into the Ganges, you will go straight to heaven. But it is the survival of devout Hindus on
earth which most concerns Veer Bhadra Mishra.

VEER BHADRA MISHRA: They are the people who have carried this culture and faith for thousands and
thousands of years and they're human beings so if they go on using this polluted water, one day
they will die and with them, the culture and tradition of India will die. So we say that the
practicing Hindus are the endangered species of human beings and they need to be preserved. This
culture needs to be preserved at this point of time.

THOMPSON: At a night ceremony in Varanasi, the Hindu faithful come together to make offerings to
the Mother Goddess Ganges. For thousands of years, Indians have looked to her for guidance, in life
and in death. But this great river may now be seeking life and death answers from them.