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Cleaning Ganges, India's polluted symbol of purity, no easy task

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Hindu high priest Veerbhadra Mishra carefully pushes aside large pieces of floating filth before beginning his daily religious ritual - immersion in India's holiest river, the mighty Ganges. ``The Ganges is the symbol of our prosperity, our culture, our civilization,'' Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi has said. ``But perhaps most of all, it is the holder of our spirituality and our tradition.''

The Ganges is also the holder of massive amounts of municipal and industrial waste. Scientists say that pollution level has reached such catastrophic proportions it threatens the ecological balance of the river basin, the livelihood of farmers, and the health of millions.

Every day, some 234 million gallons of untreated municipal sewage is discharged into the river, accounting for three-fourths of the river's pollution and turning the holy waters of the Ganges into a floating sewer.

Now, the Indian government is pushing ahead with a multimillion dollar campaign to clean up the 1,565-mile river by 1990 - a project whose scale boggles the mind of believers and nonbelievers alike.

Central Ganga Authority director K.C. Sivaramkrishnan said last month that a special effort would be made to clean up the river near Allahabad by 1989, when 7 million pilgrims are expected to attend a Hindu ceremony. He also said that in 140 projects in 27 cities, existing sewage plants would be repaired.

``It is the most challenging task we've undertaken since independence [1947],'' says project information officer S.S. Bagchi. ``But it can, and will, be done.''

The plan, much of it still on the drawing board 18 months after launch, is to divert sewage now flowing into the river to other locations for treatment, converting some of it into biogas to operate the treatment plants.

As a start, the Indian government has allocated 2.92 billion rupees ($242 million) to the project. But further investments could boost total spending on the plan by several million dollars, says Vikram V. Nanda, a scientist at the US Embassy here who follows the project.

Project technical director Dr. H.R. Ranganathan admits the task is daunting. ``We know the technology exists to solve it,'' he says. But ``it's the will of the people that will determine the project's success or failure.''

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