11/19/2009 04:19 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Land of Holy Rivers Getting Rid of Pollution May Have Low Priority

NEW DELHI--Bhola Nishad spends his days on a dusty bluff overlooking the Yamuna River. Like so many Indians, Mr. Nishad regards the river as a holy place. It is also his place of business.

All along the river as it winds through New Delhi, the capital of India, devout Hindus stop to toss into the dark, slowly moving water, bouquets and garlands of flowers, money and sometimes statues and framed pictures of Hindu gods.

When they want their offerings taken to the middle of the river, they come to Mr. Nishad. In exchange for a few coins or a plate of food, he swims out to mid-river with the offerings. The hope is that they will stay in the river and not immediately wash up on shore as do so many gifts thrown in from the banks.

Mr. Nishad's work is dangerous business. The Yamuna, especially as it drifts past New Delhi, is polluted beyond belief. Most of the city's raw sewage pours into the river. Factories dump chemicals and garbage into the water. When it rains, fertilizer and pesticides used on farms north of New Delhi get washed into the river. The water is thick with bacteria.

Many of India's rivers are like this. So are many rivers around the world. But this is a holy river.

How could it be, you might ask, that a river is an object of worship, yet permitted to get dirtier and dirtier, to become a threat to the health of the very people who revere it, who, as part of their ritual, often bathe in the water and drink it?

The answer, according to experts who have studied the dichotomy, is that many of the faithful take the river as it is and as it has evolved in the last few decades from a healthy stream to an abomination of sewage. They regard the pollution and the holiness of the river as separate issues and don't necessarily see intervention as desirable.

David L. Haberman is a professor of religious studies at Indiana University. He has written about the Yamuna in his book, River of Love in an Age of Pollution: The Yamuna River of Northern India.

"To see a river as a goddess," he said in an interview, "can lead to a kind of inhibiting of the efforts to clean up the river because one sees it as an all-powerful god who couldn't possibly be polluted."

Others among the faithful, he said, acknowledge the pollution and that it can be harmful to people. But, he said, they believe that the filth does not diminish the goddess - and therefore is not a critical issue. Yet others say that because of the pollution, the goddess is sick and dying. That minority has been pushing for a cleanup of the river.

Those who would restore the Yamuna have not made much progress. When I was there not long ago, it was an ugly viscous soup of garbage and disease. I walked along the Yamuna on a damp, gray day. The river smelled of burnt wood, tinged with acid. I saw men squatting to relieve themselves at the water's edge.

The Yamuna begins in the foothills of the Himalayas and flows more than 800 miles through New Delhi, past Agra, the place of the Taj Mahal, and eventually joins the Ganges River.

Shyam Sunder, who is 20, had come by to pay homage to the Yamuna. He had a regular job as a janitor at an open market and was dressed in white trousers and a leather jacket. He likes to swim in the river, he said. He takes jars of the water home to sip with his family, and he shrugs off the health concerns.

"The Yamuna is a very holy river," he told me. "It is like our mother. We trust the river and we don't care" about the other things. As far as he can recall, the river has never made him sick.

There has been little public pressure to improve the condition of the river. One group circulated a petition urging the government to get to work on the river. In a country of a billion people, the organizers of the drive said they got 451 signatures.

"Somehow, religion provides a cover for industrial abuses and government inaction," said Dr. Kelly D. Alley, an anthropology professor at Auburn University in Alabama in an interview. She has spent years studying the Ganges River in India. The Ganges, often referred to as the Ganga, is another unspeakably polluted holy river and in some ways is similar to the Yamuna.

When Dr. Alley was researching her book, On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River, she drank a cup of tea made from water from the Ganges. She came down with hepatitis. "Many blamed me," she wrote in her book. "Because I had no immunity, they argued that it was my fault."

Dr. Alley said it was hard, at first, to understand the attitude toward the rivers. "You would think that they would protect the river, stand up for it," she said. "But the cosmology is different. The Ganga is more powerful than humans. That kind of prevents activists from doing anything."

Still, she said, "There are some activists who will take the strong parts of their faith and combine that with modern day views."

Mr. Nishad, who depends on the Yamuna for a living, is a religious man. But he is also a practical man. He has found a way to increase his earnings as a deliverer of religious offerings. When the prayers are over and his patrons have gone, Mr. Nishad dives back into the Yamuna and retrieves whatever he can of the carvings and paintings and money.

"I don't consider it wrong," Mr. Nishad told me. "I pray to the Yamuna River. Because of the Yamuna River I am given food--given by people and given by the Yamuna."

Mr. Nishad manages with one leg and a wooden crutch. He lost his right leg to the river. A boil became infected and doctors amputated. But, he says, his devotion to the river has not faded. "It was destiny," Mr. Nishad said. "I won't blame it on the river. The river is holy and it will always be holy." #