Green court raps government over corpses in India's sacred river

Published: January 19, 2016
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Hindu pilgrims walk back after taking a dip at the confluence of the Ganges River and the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India, on January 14, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Hindu pilgrims walk back after taking a dip at the confluence of the Ganges River and the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India, on January 14, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI: India’s special environmental court has criticised the government for its failure to curb river pollution after scores of dead bodies surfaced in the Ganges River, a lawyer petitioning the court said on Tuesday.

Last week, more than 80 dead bodies — mostly decomposed skeletons and half burnt corpses, surfaced in the river in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh after a drop in water levels.

Their emergence has re-ignited concerns by environmentalists over the uncontrolled practice of body disposal in the Ganges by majority Hindus, who consider the river to be sacred.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT), a court set up to look at environmental grievances, on Monday ordered both the water resources and environment ministries to explain who should be held responsible for the pollution in the Ganges.

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“The court said that it was really very unfortunate that the pollution levels are increasing and told the central government to do something about it,” said Gaurav Bansal, a lawyer representing a group of environmentalists petitioning the NGT.

“The government has to reply by January 27,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The 2,500 km (1,600 mile) Ganges River, which originates in the Himalayas and spills out into the Bay of Bengal, is a means of livelihood for over 400 million people, as well as being Hinduism’s holiest river.

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Millions visit the numerous spots along its banks, such as the sacred city of Varanasi, to cremate their dead and scatter their ashes in the river.

Others bathe in the Ganges in an act of ritual purification, believing the river cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of rebirth.

Authorities say the corpses in the Ganges are deceased from poor families who cannot afford to buy enough firewood for cremation and are forced to immerse the half burnt bodies of their loved ones into the river.

Unmarried women and children are often buried in shallow graves along the river bank, but their remains can be washed into the river when water levels increase.

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Bansal said at least 3,000 bodies are recovered annually from the Ganges, with unregulated disposal posing a serious health risk.

Yet the government had remained a “mute spectator” to the health risks of cremations and burials along its banks.

The Ganges is considered to be the country’s most polluted river — tainted by industrial effluents, sewage and waste from human settlements built on its shores.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who represents the constituency is Varanasi, has pledged to clean up the river, as part of a broader push to harness scarce water resources and improve public health.

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