Every 12 years, on the banks of India’s holy River Ganges outside Allahabad, a city of more than 10 million people springs up. Picture the whole of New York landing on the doorstep, followed by all of Philadelphia.
And then there are the day-trippers. In all, about 100 million Hindu pilgrims and tens of thousands of tourists had flocked to the 55-day Kumbh Mela festival by the time it ended yesterday, the biggest gathering of humanity on the planet. Billionaires and film stars, soot-encrusted naked sadhu mystics and tens of millions of rural laborers, all taking a dunk -- and occasional sip -- to escape the cycle of reincarnation.
Like much else involving India’s 1.2 billion people, the Kumbh Mela is mind-boggling: new roads are laid to connect festival grounds the size of Manhattan; power substations are wired up; 200,000 government ration cards were issued to feed the poor; gaudily lit bazaars and restaurants keep residents entertained and fed. And 14 free public hospitals try to hold germs at bay.
In a microcosm of India’s permanent cities, the wealthy lounge in luxury tents; the poor crowd into ramshackle slums. All are united when it comes to shortages of basic sanitation that make the festival a giant laboratory for the study of infectious disease.
“They constructed this whole tent city over a few months, and just as quickly it will all be gone,” said Richard Cash, a senior lecturer on public health at Harvard University, who is part of a 50-strong team that set up camp to study the festival. “How do you do that, and limit damage to people?”
More than 30 million arrived for their ritual dip in the same half-mile (800-meter) stretch of water on Feb. 10, the festival’s busiest day, or about 10 times more than make the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Nectar of Immortality
The Kumbh Mela is held every three years at one of four sites where Hindu scriptures say Lord Vishnu spilled drops of amrita, the nectar of immortality. This year’s festival, where the Ganges meets the Yamuna and the mythical underground Saraswati, is known as the Maha Kumbh Mela and takes place once every 144 years, according to the festival website.
The devout believe bathing on the most auspicious days cleanses sins, with some holding that it releases the spirit from being reborn and the suffering that follows. Billionaire Anil Ambani and Bollywood starlet Preity Zinta were among the wealthy devotees this year, according to the Times of India.
The banks of the Yamuna were thronged hundreds thick on a recent visit. The river, dammed upstream to keep the water shallow and minimize the risk of drowning, churned as devotees, chest deep, dunked their heads or splashed their chests.
Middle-class Indians, shirtless or partly covered by saris, scrubbed away their sins with bars of soap and tossed flowers into the water to seek blessing. They mingled with the masses of poor. Some pilgrims took sips from the muddy brown river, among the world’s most polluted even without the addition from millions of grimy bodies.
Sewage seeping from latrines and rolling into the river from waterside shantytowns adds to the mix.
As early as Jan. 21, samples from the river showed pollution from organic matter -- including feces and urine --was already more than double the acceptable limit for safe bathing, according to R.M. Bhardwaj, a New Delhi-based scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board.
It’s too early to gauge the fallout from this year’s Kumbh, though in general “there’s a massive impact on the environment from these events,” said Gregg Greenough, an assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. “A few months later, the monsoons begin, and you have the river widening again into the flood plain. With all the fecal contamination, what will happen? It’s got to leach out and go downstream.”
At the last gathering in Allahabad in 2001, the total discharge from major sewers was 210 million liters (55 million gallons) a day, of which 44.6 million liters flowed into the rivers, a study by the pollution board showed.
For centuries, gatherings like the Kumbh have been linked to disease outbreaks thousands of miles away as pilgrims shared germs before taking their newly acquired pathogens home. Cholera from the 1867 Kumbh spread through Persia to Turkey and Kiev, from where it was carried to the rest of Europe, killing more than a million people, the Harvard team’s website shows.
This year, the government of Uttar Pradesh state constructed 40,000 toilets, said Suresh Dwivedi, the festival’s chief medical officer. The vast majority feature a 40-foot (12- meter) long, 4-foot deep pit to collect human waste, which drops from ceramic “squat” style floor plates.
After the festival, these will be removed and the pits disinfected and covered with soil. “It just takes about three to four months for the fecal matter to be converted into a harmless sludge,” Dwivedi said. “In fact, it adds to the quality of the soil.”
While trench toilets help prevent open defecation, they risk contaminating the water table as sewage seeps out or overflows, said Rajeev Kher, managing director of Saraplast Pvt., a portable toilet supply company in Pune, western India.
“If used in high volume, definitely they will impact the groundwater,” Kher said. “I don’t know how that waste is not going to go into the river.”
Kher said he pitched to supply his high-density polyethylene toilets to the Kumbh organizers. He didn’t hear back.
The company’s Shramik 3S-branded loos were prominently visible at a $55-a-head Mumbai concert by U.S. singer Norah Jones last week. Portable sinks supplied with soap were also laid on. Saraplast provided 50 units for the 4,000 people at the venue, a racecourse with 16 toilets built in.
By contrast, there were 630 mobile toilets installed on the 62-square kilometer (24-square mile) Kumbh Mela grounds, according to Dwivedi, the medical officer. These included “zero-discharge” toilets, where sewage is sucked from a tank and sent to a treatment facility, and “bio toilets” that convert solid waste into liquid that can be safely released into the ground or used as fertilizer.
Just after dawn on the day of Vasant Panchami, when more than 19 million pilgrims were expected to bathe in the Ganges and pray to the goddess of wisdom, a long queue snaked outside one bank of portable toilets. A brown rivulet seeped from the corner of a zero-discharge unit, meandering downhill into a ditch filled with water.
“I can’t go to the bathroom outside, otherwise I would,” said Ritu Tiwari, a 22-year-old Allahabad resident, as she exited a portable loo to rejoin her two friends. “There are just not enough toilets for this many people.”
Many festival-goers weren’t so shy: shallow pits dug for urine were fouled with feces. In the shantytown on the river bank, 6-foot-tall poles wrapped with tarp provided a shelter inside which people washed and defecated on the ground. A slurry of stools flowed toward the river.
“I don’t know if you can pollute the Ganges or the Yamuna any more than they are already,” Harvard’s Cash said. “That water is sewage. And God knows what else is in it -- chemicals to destroy the bacteria as well.”
Meanwhile, the festival area is sprayed daily with the insecticide DDT, said Dinesh Gupta, a Kumbh Mela spokesman. DDT is a carcinogen whose lingering toxic effect on the environment led to a worldwide treaty restricting its use.
After two decades of record economic growth, India and neighboring Nepal have the greatest proportion of people in Asia without access to improved sanitation, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund. Half of all Indians defecate in the open, the agency estimates. Only 1 percent of Chinese do.
Illness, lost productivity and other consequences of inadequate sanitation cut India’s gross domestic product by 6.4 percent in 2006, according to a study by the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program.
“The crowd which is coming, about 70 percent is from a rural background,” Dwivedi said. “It’s a bigger challenge with them.”
Accustomed to defecating in the open, rural dwellers often transfer the habit to more crowded conditions at festivals -- or when migrating to India’s teeming cities for work.
In a country where the World Bank estimates more than two- thirds of the population live on less than $2 a day, the use of soap and basic hygiene is often lacking too. The U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta describes handwashing as “the single most important prevention step for reducing disease transmission.”
At the Kumbh, pilgrims would fill an empty soda bottle with water at a communal tap and go into a stall, squatting to use one of the trench toilets. They used the water to clean themselves with their hand. Afterward, they would rinse their hands at the tap. There was no soap provided at any facilities visited by Bloomberg News -- including the portable toilets.
Most people also used their fingers to eat, and most of the food vendors making sweet treats, fried kachoris and daal, worked and served food with their bare hands.
“Part of this is a huge public education piece,” Harvard’s Greenough said. “When you bring people together pretty tightly, a huge number of people, people who don’t know how to use the facilities, you need lots of surveillance.”
Gopal Singh, a rural laborer from Madhya Pradesh who had been living for nine days in the shantytown by the Yamuna, said sanitation was worse at the festival than in his village.
“There is such filth here -- both inside,” he said, pointing at the tarp-wrapped enclosures inside which men were urinating on the ground, “and outside. They didn’t build enough toilets.”
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