Chanda Manjhi rows his boat to the confluence of the Ganga. Not the epic site in Prayagraj where the Ganga meets the Yamuna, but the point where the Assi nullah, formerly the Assi river that gave Varanasi its name along with the river Varuna, flows into the Ganga, about 100 metres from the iconic Assi ghat.
“Can you smell the dirt? Idhar aate barabar hawa bhaari ho jaata hain (the air feels thick the moment you come this side)," says the 55-year-old boatman, who has been on the historic river since he was a child. He’s on point. As the boat sails upstream past the Assi ghat, which is a confluence of historiography, faith, selfie culture and instagrammable scenes, the peaceful coexistence of centuries seems to dissolve into the grotesque.
Pigs, stray cattle and humans have appropriated the banks. The brown, putrid sewer of the Assi nullah, abundant with torn clothes and rotting vegetable and fruits, enters the quiet Ganga.
It flows downstream along the kaleidoscopic ghats where people pray, bathe, cremate their dead, and even take sips of the holy water.
Manjhi’s outlook is grim when asked about the Namami Gange programme of Prime Minister and Varanasi MP Narendra Modi: “The Ganga can never be cleaned. It has no fresh water flow of its own that could flush the dirt away."
“How you treat the Ganga depends on your point of view. If you revere it as the eternal river, as the symbol of the continuity of this civilization, you wouldn’t pollute it. But, if you consider it as just another flow of water, the sense of belonging is gone, and what follows is unabated pollution of this flow of water," says Ratnesh Verma, former director of the department of culture, the government of Uttar Pradesh. Verma is at the Assi ghat every morning at 4.45 to take part in live performances that celebrate the vitality of the Ganga.
Since November 2014, Verma and his friends have been organizing Subah-e-Banaras, pujas replete with chants of Har Har Mahadev, Hindustani classical music and yoga. He says the ghats are cleaner now, but a lot needs to be done to revive the river.
Outside Uttar Pradesh, which holds the key to power for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in the 2019 elections, the Namami Gange and National Clean Ganga Mission continue to make headlines for their “unprecedented success".
The real picture on the site is, however, different. Even members of the Ganga Mahasabha, ideologically close to the BJP’s mentor Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are sceptical.
In Varanasi, Govind Sharma, general secretary of the Mahasabha, says Madan Mohan Malviya, who founded the organization in 1905, had two objectives.
“He was fighting for nirmal Ganga and aviral Ganga (pure Ganga and flowing Ganga). Now, the Modi government has done a lot for Nirmal Ganga, like setting up new sewage treatment plants (STP) with newer technologies. But little has been done to ensure that the river draws its own source of fresh water. That has always been the difficult part and little progress has been made. The water that you see in Gangaji in Varanasi is a mix of Yamuna water and sewage," Sharma says. He cites the flow of river in Mirzapur, some 62km from Varanasi. “See the flow getting severely hindered by large hillocks of sand. They are created because there is no verve in the flow and because the water is polluted. This is not aviral Ganga."
Devendra Tiwari, the Mahasabha general secretary in Prayagraj and an intervener in a 2006 Ganga pollution versus Uttar Pradesh government public interest litigation, says the STPs are not working to capacity.
At the temporary geosynthetic technology STP set up at Naini on the outskirts of Prayagraj, he says: “As compared to the expensive and inefficient STPs, this is a better technology because it costs much less and is more effective in treating sewage and ensuring that treated water flows into the river." But a government official at the STP, who requested anonymity, said these technologies were used specifically for the Kumbh Mela and that the government is not yet sure whether it wants to make them permanent.