India's holy men to advise on Modi's Ganges river cleanup

NEW DELHI, June 12 Thu Jun 12, 2014 7:50pm IST

NEW DELHI, June 12 (Reuters) - India's new government will seek the advice of holy men on how best to carry out an ambitious plan by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to clean up the Ganges, a river that is sacred to the majority Hindu population.

Hindus bathe in the Ganges in an act of ritual purification, yet the 2,500 km (1,600 mile) river stretching from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal is full of industrial effluent and untreated sewage, its banks strewn with garbage.

Previous attempts to clean up the river, including introducing flesh-eating turtles to devour the charred remains of the dead cremated on its banks, have failed due to a lack of planning or coordination.

Modi, elected last month to represent the 3,000-year-old riverside city of Varanasi, has taken personal responsibility for restoring Maa Ganga, or "Mother Ganges", as part of a broader push to husband India's scarce water resources and improve standards of public health and hygiene.

Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power on his campaign promises to boost economic development in the world's largest democracy. The 63-year-old leader has also stressed Hindu values that he believes have been undermined by modern secularism.

"We will make cleaning up Ganga a people's movement, in keeping with the vision of the prime minister," Uma Bharti, minister for water resources, river development and Ganges rejuvenation in Modi's cabinet, told reporters on Thursday.

Consultations would be held with non-governmental groups, sadhus, or Hindu holy men, living near the river, "priests carrying out various rituals around it", scientists and politicians, she said.

"We are seeking the help of everybody. We are looking for a huge mass movement," added Bharti, who stoked sectarian controversy in the 1990s over her part in the demolition of a mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya.

She promised to come up with detailed proposals in a month and a half for the project, dubbed "Ganga Manthan". In the Hindi lexicon, manthan signifies a deep contemplation and churning of facts that leads to enlightenment.

A day after his election victory last month Modi traveled to Varanasi to observe a fire ritual in honour of the sacred river.

"Now it is time to do my bit for Maa Ganga," he said in a speech from one of the ghats where riverside ceremonies are held: "Maa Ganga is waiting for her son to free her from pollution."

He vowed to clean up India, starting with Varanasi, widely considered Hinduism's holiest city, in time for the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi's birth in 2019.

Environmental experts have expressed cautious hope that a basin-wide approach advocated by Modi, involving India's northern states and neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh, would help address issues like reduced meltwater flows into the river caused by the progressive retreat of Himalayan glaciers.

Bharti, 55, dismissed media reports that the government would ban spitting in the Ganges as an "attempt to belittle our serious initiative". (Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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