The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

River in India sacred to Hindus blanketed in toxic white foam

Hindus in northern India celebrated the grand Chhath Puja festival on Nov. 11 by taking a dip in the Yamuna river despite the thick foam floating on the water. (Video: Reuters)
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The 855-mile Yamuna is one of India’s most sacred rivers. That’s why during the Hindu festival of Chhath Puja, many people dip, wade or immerse themselves in its waters.

But during this year’s celebrations, a stretch of the river is blanketed in a layer of cloudy white. It’s not snow — temperatures rise into the 80s in the day — but a toxic foam caused by industrial waste and untreated sewage, officials say.

Still, devotees took a holy dip, standing knee-deep in the river to pray and make offerings to the setting sun in honor of the sun god, to whom the four-day festival is dedicated. With an emphasis on purity, the festival involves a fast — no food or water — on the day devotees gather around bodies of water to pray and make their offerings.

Despite understanding the health risks, Rajesh Kumar Verma stood in the water Wednesday. “What fear? If we are scared, then how can we pray?” he told the Associated Press.

To keep the froth at bay, the Delhi government tried several tactics this year. It put up bamboo nets to act as a foam barrier, the Indian Express reported. It sent people out in 15 boats to “beat the foam with sticks.” It had the water sprayed with a hose to dissipate foam particles. The attempts became fodder for local jokes: “When you have to water a river,” one tweeted.

Delhi consistently ranks among the most polluted cities in the world, with “hazardous” air pollution levels 39 times what the World Health Organization sets out in its air-quality guidelines, according to Swiss air-quality technology company IQAir.

In India, bodies of water have actually burned because of heavy pollution. Bangalore’s largest lake, Bellandur Lake, has consistently erupted in flames. It froths up, too.

India is the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At COP26, the United Nations climate summit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Monday that India would aim to reach net-zero emissions by 2070.

The goal is two decades off what advocates had hoped for — and Indian officials are saying that for the country to accelerate its transition to clean energy, it would need financial and technological help from wealthy nations that spouted heavy pollution to ascend the development ladder.

“Delhi is full of pollution but still people’s lives are going on. Like that, we will also do our prayers,” Rajendra Mahto, also celebrating this year’s Chhath Puja at the Yamuna, told the AP.

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