Haridwar: "My daughter and husband had an upset stomach and not even once did we find a toilet to use," said Annu Devi, a resident of Meerut who was one of the 40 million Kanwar pilgrims who came to Haridwar this year in July. "All of us have no other option than defecating in the open."

With the 12-day long Kanwar Yatra (journey), when devotees of Lord Shiva from across the country, especially north India, take a trip to the Ganges, Haridwar becomes home to several million Kanwariyas, as the pilgrims on the journey are known. The number of pilgrims is higher on Mondays, the day considered the most pious by devotees of Shiva. The Kanwar Yatra took place this year from July 14 to July 26.

Because of a lack of infrastructure to handle the excess waste generated by the visitors, festivals such as these cause what is known as 'episodic pollution'. This usually happens because of mass gatherings that end up creating untreated waste, which pollutes the land, air or water, and impacts people's health, and the area's ecology.

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

Better planning, management and facilities in the city for waste disposal can help in coping with episodic pollution, say experts.

4,200 toilets for 3 million pilgrims

The 2,525 km long Ganga rises in the western Himalayas in Uttarakhand, flowing southeast through the gangetic plains of north India into Bangladesh, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Following the Amazon and the Congo, Ganga is the third largest river of the world, by discharge.

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

As of 2019, 122 million litres of sewage a day was produced from the district of Hardiwar, including Roorkee, and all sewage treatment plants were working at full capacity, as per a report by the G.B. Pant National Institute of Himalayan Environment.

During the Kanwar Yatra, with the river Ganga at its centre, people, mainly from the north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, travel to Haridwar to bathe in the river. They also take the Ganga Jal, the river's water--considered holy--back home, filled in plastic containers, which come in all sizes from 250 ml to 5 litres. This happens through the Hindi month of Saawan which is believed to bring the monsoon, overlapping with July and August.

Haridwar witnesses episodic pollution every year due to 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, the director of Haridwar-based JP Health and Research Institute that researches on Ayurveda, allopathy and the environment.

"Apart from 1,360 permanent (Nagar Nigam and Sulabh) toilets, we had installed 2,840 mobile toilets this year which came with two tankers each from the sewer department so that the waste could be sucked constantly," said Haridwar's District Magistrate, Vinay Shankar Pandey.

Pandey put the number of pilgrims at 40 million or, an average of 3 million a day. That means 3 million pilgrims had just 4,200 toilets between them.

As a result, all of the 10 pilgrims IndiaSpend spoke to said they had to defecate in the open as they were not able to find any toilet.

"2019 recorded 3 crore (30 million) pilgrims during the Kanwar yatra in Haridwar who stayed in a very compact area of around 5 kilometres radius of the city," said Verma. "The entire area is used not just to be lived in but also defecation and urination around Ganga."

The presence of chemicals and microorganisms in Ganga river water varied at different sampling sites. A study, published in the Archives of Agriculture and Environmental Science in 2018, looked at samples from Har ki Pauri, Vishnu Ghat, Daksh Mandir, Pul Jatwara and the Bhimgoda Barra after the celebration of the Kanwar Mela in 2017. It concluded: "mass bathing and religious activities greatly influenced the water quality of River Ganga."

This study adds that the pH of river water increases, likely due to the usage of detergents used by the pilgrims to bathe and wash clothes in the river as bathrooms are not usually accessible. There is a larger presence of faecal coliform or bacteria present in human excreta, in the water during the Kanwar Yatra, the study said.

Verma has been observing the Kanwar Yatra in the city for over three decades. He says, "most of the visitors are between the ages of 20 and 35, who go all the way to Gomukh [source of the Bhagirathi, one of the main streams of the Ganga] resulting in its pollution as well." The Pathri power house [where the waste is filtered and treated] in Haridwar sees tons of waste in the river post the Kanwar Yatra which includes submerged plastic and religious waste. This not only harms aquatic animals but also impacts Rajaji National Park, home to many endangered birds, Verma said.

Because of the waste, the Ph level of water fluctuates, and its temperature changes, which impacts aquatic life.

Plastic containers of all sizes being sold at the ghat in Haridwar for pilgrims to carry back the water of the Ganga, July 20.

Pollutants after mass gatherings include anti-inflammatory and common antibiotics, caffeine and antibacterial medicines. 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.

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

Episodic pollution worsens the situation. Take for instance, the Prayagraj Kumbh in 2019, which had over 122,000 eco-toilets, as per a paper by Delhi Technical University, published in April 2020. In 2019, the waste generated during the 55-day long Kumbh was about 18 times more than what the district produces daily. The existing sewage treatment capacity of the district at about 254 million litres per day was not able to treat even half of the generated waste at that time, the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment had said.

Overburdening an already inadequate waste management system

One Monday morning, there was a knock at the door and when I went to open it, a group of four men insisted that I let them in so that they could use the toilet, says Anil Chauhan, a resident in the Paudi area of Haridwar. "I got scared at first, then let them in to avoid any sort of violence or ruckus."

Due to a lack of public toilets, pilgrims either need to knock on doors or urinate and defecate in the open. And this in the backdrop of a sewage treatment system that is inadequate for even the city's regular population.

Even on a usual day, without the influx of pilgrims, nearly 19% of the plastic waste generated in Haridwar is mismanaged, which means it is either leaked on land, water or burnt, as per a 2020 report from the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iFOREST).

"Episodic pollution could be managed only by limiting the daily arrival of pilgrims in the city and ensuring a proper arrangement and management for the waste they leave behind," said Ravi Chopda, director of People's Science Institute, Dehradun.

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