How mass gatherings like the Kanwar Yatra cause episodic pollution

“My daughter and my husband had stomach aches and not once did we find a toilet to use,” said Annu Devi, a resident of Meerut who was one of 40 million Kanwar pilgrims who are came to Haridwar this year in July. “We all have no choice but to defecate in the open.”

With the 12-day Kanwar Yatra, when devotees of Lord Shiva from all over the country, especially from northern India, take a journey through the Ganges, Haridwar becomes the home of several million Kanwariyas, like the pilgrims on the journey are known. The number of pilgrims is highest on Monday, which is considered the most pious day by devotees of Shiva. The Kanwar Yatra took place this year from July 14 to July 26.

Due to a lack of infrastructure to handle the excess waste generated by visitors, such festivals cause what is known as “episodic pollution”.

This usually happens due to mass gatherings which end up creating untreated waste, which pollutes the land, air or water, and impacts people’s healthand the ecology of the region.

There is evidence of episodic pollution from mass gatherings like the Kumbh Mela in Prayagraj and Nashik in 2003the pollution of rivers and land, and the excessive bursting of firecrackers during Diwali polluting air.

Experts say better planning, management and facilities in the city for waste disposal can help deal with episodic pollution.

Few toilets for thousands of pilgrims

The 2,525 km long Ganga originates in the western Himalayas in Uttarakhand, flows southeast through the Gangetic plains of northern India to Bangladesh, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. After the Amazon and the Congo, the Ganges is the third largest river of the world, by discharge.

More 450 million people live in the Ganges basin and human waste is the cause of most of the pollution in the river.

In 2019, 122 million liters of sewage per day was produced in Hardiwar district, including Roorkee, and all sewage treatment plants were operating at full capacity, in accordance with a report by the GB Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment.

During the Kanwar Yatra, with the River Ganga at its center, people mainly from the northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar travel to Haridwar to bathe in the river. They also bring home the Ganga Jal, the water from the river considered sacred, in plastic canisters of all sizes ranging from 250ml to 5 litres.

This happens during the Hindi month of Saawan which is believed to bring the monsoon, straddling July and August.

Haridwar witnesses episodic pollution every year from the Kanwar Yatra with the arrival of around 20-30 million pilgrims who stay in the city for at least 24 hours, said Vijay Verma, director of the JP Health Institute. and Research based in Haridwar which researches Ayurveda, allopathy and environment.

“In addition to 1,360 permanent toilets (Nagar Nigam and Sulabh), we have installed 2,840 mobile toilets this year, which are each accompanied by two tankers from the sewerage department so that waste can be vacuumed continuously,” said the Haridwar District Magistrate, Vinay Shankar Pandey.

Pandey estimated the number of pilgrims at 40 million, an average of 3 million per day. This means that 3 million pilgrims had only 4,200 toilets between them.

Accordingly, every 10 pilgrims IndiaSpending said they had to defecate in the open because they couldn’t find a toilet.

“2019 recorded 3 crore (30 million) pilgrims during the Kanwar yatra in Haridwar who stayed in a very compact area about 5 kilometers radius around the city,” Verma said. “The whole area is used not only for living, but also for defecation and urination around Ganga.”

The presence of chemicals and microorganisms in the Ganges water varied among different sampling sites.

A studypublished in the Archives of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 2018 examined samples from Har ki Pauri, Vishnu Ghat, Daksh Mandir, Pul Jatwara and the Bhimgoda Barra after the Kanwar Mela celebration in 2017. He concluded: “Mass baths and religious activities greatly influenced the water quality of river Ganga.”

This study adds that the pH of the river water increases, probably due to the use of detergents used by pilgrims to bathe and wash clothes in the river because bathrooms are generally not accessible. There is a higher presence of faecal coliforms or bacteria present in human feces, in water during Kanwar Yatra, according to the study.

Verma has observed the Kanwar Yatra in the city for over three decades. He says, “Most visitors are between the ages of 20 and 35, which ranges up to Gomukh [source of the Bhagirathi, one of the main streams of the Ganga] which also leads to its pollution.

Pathri power plant [where the waste is filtered and treated] in Haridwar sees tons of rubbish in the river after the Kanwar Yatra which includes submerged plastic and religious waste. This not only harms aquatic animals but also impacts Rajaji National Park which is home to many endangered birds, Verma said.

Because of the waste Ph level water fluctuates and its temperature changes, which has an impact on aquatic life.

Plastic containers of all sizes are sold at the Haridwar ghat for pilgrims to bring back water from the Ganges on July 20. Credit: Jigyasa Mishra via

Pollutants after mass gatherings include anti-inflammatory and common antibiotics, caffeine, and antibacterial medications. Once pharmaceutical residues enter water and soil, they also become incorporated into plants grown in these soils or waters. This has been reported in cabbage, cucumber, corn, carrot, lettuce, and green onion in experimental studies.

Among other pollutants, overall focus polypropylene copolymer (PPCP), a plastic, has also increased. This could be the result of mass baths, urban waste, effluent from domestic sewage treatment plants and sewage treatment plants from the nearby industrial area, the researchers wrote.

Episodic pollution aggravates the situation. Take for example the Prayagraj Kumbh in 2019, which had more than 122,000 eco-friendly toilets, according to a paper by Delhi Technical University, published in April 2020.

In 2019, the waste generated during the 55 days of Kumbh was approximately 18 times more than what the district produces daily. The district’s existing sewage treatment capacity of around 254 million liters per day was unable to handle even half of the waste generated at that time, the Delhi-based think tank for science and environment had said.

Waste management system overloaded

There was a knock on the door one Monday morning and when I went to open it, a group of four men insisted that I let them in so they could use the toilet, said Anil Chauhan, a resident of the Paudi neighborhood. of Haridwar. “I was scared at first, then let them in to avoid any form of violence or rowdiness.”

Due to the lack of public restrooms, pilgrims must either knock on doors or urinate and defecate in the open. This is against the backdrop of a sewage treatment system that is inadequate even for the city’s regular population.

Even on a typical day, without the influx of pilgrims, almost 19% of the plastic waste generated in Haridwar is mismanaged, meaning it is either spilled on land, in water or burned, according to a 2020 report of the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology.

“The episodic pollution can only be managed by limiting the daily arrival of pilgrims into the city and ensuring proper planning and management of the waste they leave behind,” said Ravi Chopda, director of the People’s Science Institute. , Dehradun.

This article was first published on IndiaSpend, a data-driven, public interest journalism nonprofit.

Sara H. Byrd