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Pollution, Indifference Taint India's Sacred River

The Ganges River is 1,500 miles long from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The river's water is the lifeblood for more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh.
Lindsay Mangum, NPR /
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The Ganges River is 1,500 miles long from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The river's water is the lifeblood for more than 600 million people in India and Bangladesh.

The Indian city of Kanpur is an anomaly — an industrial city that lies on the banks of a river that is revered as a goddess.

Established in 1801 by the British to supply their army in India, Kanpur is the largest city in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and it sits on the higher, southern bank of the Ganges River.

But Kanpur's burgeoning industry pours pollution into the sacred river, making it dirty, unappetizing and synonymous with pollution in residents' eyes. Twenty years ago, the Indian government began a massive program to clean up the river, but for many, Kanpur is proof that those efforts failed.

In 1986, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced a massive Ganga Action Plan to clean up the river. The basic idea made sense: Intercept and treat pollution before it is discharged into the Ganges. Politicians and engineers in Delhi designed sewage treatment plants, but they then expected states and cities to find the money to operate and maintain them.

Myriad problems — from inconsistent electricity to indifferent local authorities and residents — stunted the plan. Today, the Ganges at Kanpur is besieged by pollution, including toxic chromium, from local tanneries.

The local sewage treatment plant sits idle, and residents suffer from various skin ailments, among other health problems. In the nearby village of Motipur, farm harvests have plunged, and livestock like buffaloes produce half their normal yield of milk.

In the second of a six-part series, independent producer Julian Crandall Hollick visited Kanpur to see how the polluted river affected residents.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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