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Veer Bhadra Mishra
AUGUST 16, 1999

Holy War for "My Mother"

Lifting folded palms to the rising sun, silver-haired Veer Bhadra Mishra steps into the Ganges to begin his ritual morning ablution. As the mahant, or spiritual and administrative head, of the second largest temple in Varanasi, the main destination for Hindu pilgrims in India, Mishra is a very important man. Since the 16th century, the job has passed from father to eldest son. Devotees scramble to touch his feet, traders whisper their business hopes, and students seek his blessing before final exams. As a child he learned the sacred chants and rites--including the importance of a daily dip in the Ganges, the river that Hindus worship for its purity. Mishra cups his hands to scoop up water and lifts it to his lips. But unlike the ancestors who began the ritual, he skips a step. He does not drink the water.

Mishra knows that while the Ganges may be holy, it is not pure. It is filled with chemical wastes, sewage and even the remains of human corpses. The priest knows this because he is also head of the civil-engineering department at the local university. A hydraulics engineer, he is as comfortable discussing water-pump designs as he is giving spiritual guidance. Ever since he learned about the level of pollution in "Mother," as he calls the Ganges, Mishra, 59, has been squabbling with government authorities and pleading with other temple chiefs to clean up the river. "When I talk to officials, I show them reports on fecal coliform, and when I talk to local people, I show them there is s___ in the holy Ganges," he laughs. "It is the same thing, but I say it in different languages."

Inheriting the family job at 14, when his father died, he wasn't content to dwell only in the spiritual world. His mother pushed him to finish school, and when the university said he could not wear priest's robes, she let him buy a forbidden pair of trousers. His education helped him understand threats to the Ganges, and since 1982 he has struggled to open the eyes of bureaucrats and the public. Supported in part by aid from the U.S. and Swedish governments, Mishra juggles his roles as priest and activist. As he takes a call from Washington inviting him to a waste-management conference, he silently raises his hand to bless an old man with a huge vermilion mark on his forehead who is bending over Mishra's feet. "I don't know how all this happened. No one in my family had even been to school," Mishra says. "I think it is because Mother Ganges knew she needed my help."

That she does--desperately. The Indian government launched a program to restore the river in 1986. In Varanasi--where 60,000 people gather daily, most for a holy dip--pumps were set up to divert sewage to a new treatment plant downstream. The pumps often stop because of electricity shortages, however, and the treatment facility is ineffective.

Then there are the corpses. Hindus believe that to die or be cremated in Varanasi is a shortcut to heaven. But the families of many pilgrims who come here to die are too poor to buy firewood for cremation. Even if they could afford the cheaper electric crematorium, the erratic power supply forces it to shut down for hours every day. Corpses are often dropped into the river and float to the surface, bobbing past chanting pilgrims. "These people," says Mishra bitterly, "are trying to kill my Mother." The people who live off the river are dying too. Drinking the water makes many sick with hepatitis, typhoid or cholera.

Motivated most of all by "respect and love for the river," Mishra, working with William Oswald, an engineering professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, proposed what is called an advanced integrated wastewater oxidation pond system. It would store sewage for 45 days, using bacteria and algae to eliminate waste and purify the water. Mishra expects the plan to be adopted but recalls past defeats. "My campaign has been like a game of snakes and ladders. When it has gained speed, a snake has swallowed it up," he says. "But one day I'll dodge all the snakes. Mother Ganges will help me to save her." That's another chant the followers of this modern mahant can truly believe in.

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