Rajendra Singh, the respected Rajasthan-based water conservationist, may have offended some people by urging the government in June to ban bathing in the polluted Godavari during the forthcoming Kumbh Mela in Nashik.

Millions of devotees are expected to throng to this city in Maharashtra, 167 km north of Mumbai, between July 14 and September next year for the festival in which Hindus travel to holy towns to take a dip in a river they consider sacred. The Kumbh Mela takes place once in three years, by rotation, in Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain.

But Singh’s suggestion, which he made while delivering a lecture in Nashik in June, has merit. Studies show that the Godavari is already highly polluted, making its water unfit to bathe in, let alone consume. Indiscriminate disposal of industrial effluents and domestic waste have polluted its waters, according to Rajesh Pandit and Nishikant Pagare, environmental activists from Nashik who filed a petition in the Bombay High Court in 2012, urging it to direct the government to clean the river.

They spearhead the Godavari Gatarikaran Virodhi Manch,  a forum fighting pollution of the Godavari. Rajendra Singh has been delivering lectures in Nashik for the past six months at the forum's invitation. In March 2013, the court ordered the Mumbai-based National Environmental Engineering Research Institute to evaluate the claim and come up with a solution to clean it up if needed.

The institute released its report in December 2014. It found that the river's biochemical oxygen demand, a standard measure of organic pollutants in water, is 30 particles per million, much higher than the ideal level of five particles per million. This means that it is not safe to bathe in.

The institute also said that industries must stop letting their effluents flow into the river and called attention to the risk of further pollution during the Kumbh. If millions of people bathe in the Godavari, pollution levels might increase to an irreparable level, experts said.

Sanitation load

The responsibility for making arrangements for the visitors rests with the Nashik municipality and the state government, while the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board and the Maharashtra State Industrial Development Corporation are responsible for cleaning the river.

Eight crore people are expected to visit Nashik for the Kumbh Parva through the year. About one crore devotees are expected to bathe in the Godavari during the shahi snans, or royal baths, scheduled for August 29, September 13 and September 18. In addition, about three lakh sadhus, or Hindu holy men, who will probably stay in the city for the entire period.

But the sanitation facilities set up for the Kumbh are plainly insufficient for this load. Activists fear that waste generated during the festival will ultimately be swept in to the river.

Take toilets. The municipality has developed Sadhugram, a town to host the three lakh sadhus. But Sadhugram has just 9,000 toilet pits, which amounts to just one toilet for 33 sadhus.

Nashik has 5,000 toilet pits and Trimbakeshwar, 29 km away, which is also part of the festival, has 500. The municipality will arrange 10,000 mobile toilets at Nashik and 1,200 at Trimbakeshwar, said R K Gawade, district collector. Together, this adds up to 17,000 toilets for the one crore floating population on days of the shahi snan, or one pit for 588 people, a woefully inadequate ratio.

This means that people will defecate in the open along the river and this waste will be washed in to the water, says Nishikant Pagare. NEERI recommended eco-toilets, which are built so that the waste is disposed on the spot in the soil, but the Nashik municipality has not implemented it.

Devotees will stand in the water for at least 15 minutes on the day of the shahi snan. Standing in cold water increases the propensity to pass urine. Indeed, Pagare said that analysis of the river water during the previous Nashik Kumbh showed that the quantity of urine had increased after the festival.

Waste from rituals

The waste from puja rituals, such as garlands, flowers and coconuts, called nirmalya, also need to be disposed of properly. If not, they will inevitably cause pollution. On this front, the municipality seems to have done a better job. It has placed a nirmalya kalash (garbage bins in the form of pots) at all seven ghats along the river where devotees will bathe and has arranged for 30 ghanta-gadis, garbage vans with bells, to collect nirmalya in the disposal bins, said S A Bukane, the civic health officer.

“But there is a danger that people will not use the kalashes and will also throw other garbage, such as footwear and plastic, in the kalashes,” said Rajesh Pandit.

Moreover, NEERI had suggested that the civic body cast a wide net on river to collect the floating nirmalya, but this is not yet on the agenda.