VARANASI:The dead bodies arrive one after another. It’s business as usual for the priests, surrounded by bodies. They chant hymns as bells cling rhythmically. Smoke billows from five pyres that burn simultaneously as logs of wood and garlands lay scattered.
“My relative just passed away,” says Rajan Tiwari. “She was 89 years old. It was her last wish to be cremated on the banks of Maa Ganga,” she says as she tries to shoo away the dogs that are trying to get close to the body. “She is really lucky that she got to be cremated here,” says Tiwari standing on the banks of the Manikarnika ghat, Varanasi’s hub for cremations. For Hindus across the country, being cremated on the banks of the Ganga and having their ashes immersed in the river is the highway to heaven. It is considered the way to attain “moksha” and escape rebirth. However, the Manikarnika ghat is an unsettling sight for most visitors.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his team, who are busy preparing the Rs 20,000 crore ‘Namami Gange’ programme, the biggest challenge would be to regulate, if not ban, this ancient Hindu custom. The cremation of bodies on the banks of River Ganga has become a major source of pollution. The entire Clean Ganga campaign will be a hogwash if this trend cannot be controlled, warn experts. A whopping 350 tonnes of partially burnt human flesh and bones are being dumped into the Ganga every year, says BD Tripathi, an expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority. Another 10,000 tonnes of ash and other cremation-related material also get discarded in the ‘holy’ river. What’s more, the numbers are seeing an upward trend with each passing day as more and more bodies arrive at Varanasi. ‘’The lower portion of the torso does not burn properly. It is just tossed into the river and this happens everyday,” says BD Tripathi. “This is a matter of serious concern and I have written to the Prime Minister stating the facts. This trend is increasing with each passing day,” he says.
Not far away from Manikarnika ghat is Lanka, a locality bustling with activity. For Rohit Tiwari, one of the shopkeepers here, more deaths means more business.
“We sell everything that is required for cremation. We have been in this business for a few decades now,” he says. In fact, more shops have sprung up in Lanka over the last few years as the business is flourishing.
“We see more and more number of cremations. Increasingly, people are coming with bodies from other states as well,’’ he says. Rohit’s shop in Lanka cannot be missed due to its unique name - Funeral Parlour.
“On an average, around 300 bodies are cremated everyday in both the ghats,” says Rohit. “We have a lot of variety. But not all can afford the expensive stuff. But there are cheaper options available too,” he says. “I make anything between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000 a day,” he adds.
No scientific study is needed for a common man to understand the pollution levels of the RIver Ganga. A dip is all it takes.
A dip at the Assi ghat, which is flocked by thousands of people everyday, will leave you with a foul smell that lingers for the rest of the day. “I stopped bathing here many years ago, though I visit the Assi ghat everyday,” says Pandit Ramdas, a local priest. “I just pray standing on the ghat.”
Ramdas, now in his mid-70s, recalls his childhood days when he used to swim in the holy river Ganga for hours.
“Dead bodies used to be cremated even then. But the numbers were very less and there wasn’t much pollution. Now thousands of dead bodies are cremated. Industrial waste is drained into the river. And there are so many cows, buffaloes, goats and donkeys that die, which get tossed into the river,” he says.
When contacted, District Magistrate Vijay Kiran Anand refused to comment on the issue.
“Every year, about 35,000 bodies are burnt at Manikarnika and Harishchandra ghats in Varanasi. Nearly 18,000 tonnes of wood is required for these many cremations. Can someone even think of cleaning the Ganga at this stage?” asks BD Tirpathi, an expert member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority.
According to the National Ganga River Basin Authority, the amount of toxins, chemicals and dangerous bacteria found in the river water is almost 3,000 times higher than the safety limits prescribed by the WHO.
Though there is no official number on how many people take a dip in the holy river, it is estimated that about 80,000 to one lakh of people bathe at different ghats in Varanasi everyday.
If it’s festival season, the number rises significantly. About 450 million people live along the river’s 2,500 km length. That is, about 6 per cent of the world’s population are dependent on the river for water.
Instances of people tossing dead bodies directly into Ganga, for lack of money for cremation, have always been reported from different parts of Uttar Pradesh including Varanasi. Though the authorities in the state claim that these incidents have come down, experts insist it is still prevalent.