India’s Ganges river is the main source of water for half a billion people. It’s also holy to the country’s almost 1 billion Hindus, who bathe in the river to be cleansed of their sins and believe that if a body is cremated and released into the water at Varanasi it can escape the cycle of reincarnation.
But the river’s cleansing abilities are limited by the fact that the Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted waterways: A billion gallons of raw sewage and industrial waste currently pour into it every day. The Indian government’s most recent initiative to tackle the pollution problem, Namami Gange, was announced in 2014 and promised $3 billion in funding. So far, it has yielded very few results, and a 2017 investigation concluded that just $205 million had been spent.
Still, the government has launched some pretty outlandish plans, including breeding thousands of flesh-eating turtles to deal with the 200 tons of half-cremated, decomposing bodies that enter the river at Varanasi every year, and commissioning an official pop anthem for the river to rouse patriotic sentiment. With a growing scandal on its hands, Narendra Modi’s government is scrambling to finish planned Ganges projects before the 2019 general elections. But environmental scientist and campaigner Rakesh Jaiswal said he hasn’t seen any change so far.