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The holy, yet highly polluted Ganges river in Varanasi, India, which Modi has promised to clean up by October next year. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)
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Is Modi's plan to clean 'Mother Ganges' working?

Environmentalists say project is underfunded as pollution rises

VARANASI, India -- Amit Kumar, a 36-year-old tour guide, has been living in the holy city of Varanasi for over 30 years. For most of his life, the River Ganges reeked and was littered with tons of garbage -- including human waste and corpses, he recalls.

But in recent years Kumar has seen a "major" improvement along the river, which is considered holy by India's Hindus. The riverside steps called ghats in the old town -- long covered with piles of trash and excrement -- appear to be "completely clean" these days, he says.

On New Year's Day, the river water seemed relatively clear, apart from a small amount of litter drifting on its surface. There were none of the bad odors that used to rise from the river. Recently installed trash cans were being used, and some public toilet booths had also been introduced.

Along the ghats, boys played cricket as people sat on the steps or strolled by the river, despite the occasional smell of urine.

Such change is the goal of "Clean Ganges," the program launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he took office in 2014 as the symbolic heart of his Swachh Bharat mission.

To rejuvenate the river, the central government has set aside a war chest of roughly 200 billion rupees ($2.8 billion) for the four fiscal years starting in April 2015. It says it has since installed over 1 million household toilets in the villages along its banks, renovated or built over 20 sewage treatment plants and built over 50 electric crematoria.

Environmentalists say the budget is too small given the massive scale of pollution in the Ganges, and note a sizable gap between the money allocated for cleanup and the actual work that has been done.

Still, there have been some profound changes. Hindus believe spreading their loved ones' cremated ashes in the Ganges will release their souls from the endless cycle of reincarnations, or samsara. But because cremation can be either unaffordable or prohibited by Hindi tradition that forbids the rites for certain people -- those who died pregnant, or from a cobra bite, for instance -- corpses are often dumped into the river.

That is changing. "These days, at least inside the ghat area, we rarely see drifting corpses that have been 'river-buried' in recent years," said Kumar. "More people use affordable electric crematoriums on some ghat and throw ashes, not bodies, into the water."

Citizens' groups have also played a role in cleaning up the ghats, led by a now-celebrated woman named Temsutula Imsong, along with nongovernmental organizations and corporations such as Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services.

However, according to the Central Pollution Control Board, unsafe levels of biochemical oxygen demand, widely known as BOD, actually increased in some parts of the river in summer 2017. A separate CPCB report found that the populations of organisms living on the riverbed had declined in some checkpoints between 2014 and 2017 -- including the Varanasi area.

"People still dump things, including human bodies, into the river just a few kilometers away from the ghat area," Kumar noted.

Modi has promised that the Ganges will be clean by Oct. 2, 2020. The deadline for cleaning up the 2,500 km-long, 1 million km2-area river is ambitious and may require increased public funds, resources and planning.

The Swachh Bharat is such a large-scale ambitious project that it may be wrong to expect it to bear any dramatic results in just several years.

Mridula Ramesh, joint managing director of Sundaram Climate Institute, says the Swachh Bharat campaign has led to "a mental reset among citizens, companies and local governments.

"While I think the results will be slow and varied, directionally, I do believe that Swachh Bharat will bear results eventually," she said.

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