Small cradles of chrysanthemums, illuminated by a single candle, flicker in the moonlight, bobbing along the fast-flowing Ganges River.
They are offerings. For hundreds of millions of Hindus around the world, the river is the goddess Ganga, or Mother Ganga, who descended to Earth from her home in the Milky Way.
Devotees murmur prayers and chant her praises in riverside cities along their ghats, the cement embankments that lead into the river.
But if the Ganges is India’s most worshipped body of water, it’s also the dirtiest.
Flowing through five populous states that make up the Ganges basin, it traverses tanneries spewing heavy metals, factories spilling industrial effluents, and cities discharging urban waste. All of that, before dumping into the Bay of Bengal.
The headwaters lie in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand where there’s an unusual bid to clean up the river underway.
The state’s high court has declared the Ganges to be a “living entity.”
Environmental lawyer Raj Panjwani says that includes all the “aquatic biodiversity that would depend on the river.”
The court reasoned that the Ganges is a “juristic person,” a concept in law whereby an entity “is not a human being, yet it has certain rights,” Panjwani explains, including the right to sue.
Indian law accepts that a deity embodied in a stone carving is a juristic person. Panjwani notes the court drew the analogy: “If a stone which is a deity can be conferred with rights, then water which has all the attributes of a deity can also be conferred with rights.”
With the power to reach millions, Indian religious leaders of many faiths have united to raise the dangers of polluting the Ganges and the need to revitalize it. They’ve joined hands under the group Global Interfaith WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) Alliance.
Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji, who’s been a leading voice in raising awareness about the pollution, agrees with giving the Ganges rights. In June, he led a congregation of leaders of all faiths working to provide access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene at his ashram, in the riverside city of Rishikesh.
At the assembly, the swami presided over aartis, or fire ceremonies, meant to show humility and respect to the deity Ganga. Indians worship up and down the course of the 1,500-mile-long river, and Pujya Swamiji says that’s as it should be. But, he says, cremating the dead in the river is harmful and should stop. The Ganges is the lifeline for the lives of 500 million people.
“If Ganga dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives. No Ganga, no India,” the swami says.
The slate gray river is relatively clean in Rishikesh. Its flow is fast and the river’s velocity helps increase its capacity to dilute pollution. But downstream, the Delhi-based Center for Science and Environment’s Susmita Sengupta says the river is clotted with pollutants.
“You have flowers, you have plastics, you have dead bodies, you have construction debris, so much filth coming in from the cities,” Sengupta says.
But the biggest contaminator is the millions of gallons of untreated sewage discharged into the river daily. Sengupta’s center found fast-growing cities on the Ganges to be hotspots of the bacteria fecal coliform. She says government data shows certain places are 230 times the acceptable level for human health.
“It’s not even suitable for outdoor bathing, leave apart drinking,” Sengupta says.
Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, an American and prominent figure at Pujya Swami’s ashram, says many believe the Ganges is indestructible, which helps explain how Indians can consider the river holy and still pollute it.
“When you say to people things like, ‘Don’t put that plastic bag in the river, don’t pollute the river,’ they actually turn around and say to you, ‘That has no connection to her power. Pollution in the river has no impact on the divinity of the mother goddess,'” Saraswati says.
The faith leaders who gathered last month at her ashram seek to challenge those very attitudes. Pujya Sant Rameshbhai Ozaji, a Hindu sadhu or saint from Gujarat told me he welcomed the Uttarakhand Court’s decision granting the river the right to not be polluted.
“From the spiritual perspective, we say [polluting the river] is a sin,” Ozaji said. “But, of course, there are some people who aren’t convinced by that. And for them, we have to come in with strong court orders, with strong laws.”
Environmentalists meanwhile say the Ganges’ water is so dirty because sewage treatment plants can’t take the load.
Attorney Ray Panjwani says poor planning made them obsolete before they were even built. Panjwani says he was shocked to hear authorities tell the National Green Tribunal, the body tasked with safeguarding India’s environment, that when they laid out the blueprint for one of the treatment plants the sewage outflow was 2 million liters per day, and by the time it was constructed, it was 4 million. It’s now 8 million.
“The government says there’s no difficulty where funds are concerned,” there’s more than enough money Panjwani says, quoting authorities. The environmental lawyers say what’s needed are “the right projections, the right technology and the right people who should undertake the sheer magnitude of the work.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi may have underestimated that work when he promised three years ago that the Ganges would be well on its way to be cleaned by now.
Thirty years of his predecessors’ schemes failed to improve the water.
In its ruling, the Uttarakhand High Court borrowed a precedent from New Zealand where the Maori tribe won recognition for the revered Whanganui River to be treated as a human being.
The Uttarakhand judges designated state officials to be “the human face” that would “protect and preserve” the Ganges. Legal experts say if they don’t, they could face fines and jail under existing laws, though it’s rare a polluter is penalized in India.
Still, Raj Panjwani says the court order represents a radical bid to change attitudes toward the Ganges.
“All these things take time,” he says, but Panjwani considers it “to be a first step in the right direction.”