India's holy river 'Mother Ganga' succumbs to pollution

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India's Mother Ganga destroyed from pollution
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India's Mother Ganga destroyed from pollution
Layers of foam float in a sewage drain flowing into the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, April 2, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Dyed leather pieces dry near the banks of the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Fruit and vegetables are seen on a boat in the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Untreated sewage from a residential area flows into the river Ganges in Mirzapur, India, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A Hindu devotee holds up his clothes after taking a dip in the river Ganges in Devprayag, India, March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A Hindu devotee baths at the confluence of the Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers which form the Ganges in Devprayag, India, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man sits next to a damaged idol of Hindu goddess Kali which was taken out after its immersion in the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Hindu priests sit inside a cave as they perform evening prayers on the banks of the river Ganges in Devprayag, India, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Lokesh Sharma, 19, a Hindu priest, performs evening prayers on the banks of the river Ganges in Devprayag, India, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
The confluence of Alaknanda and Bhagirathi rivers form the river Ganges at Devprayag, India, March 28, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man dries his trousers after washing them on the banks of the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Offerings by Hindu devotees float in the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Untreated sewage flows from an open drain into the river Ganges in Mirzapur, India, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A woman herds her goats through a drain flowing into the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
An employee works inside a leather tannery at an industrial area in Kanpur, India, April 1, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A damaged idol of Hindu goddess Kali is seen in the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, March 29, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Untreated sewage flows from an open drain into the river Ganges in Kanpur, India, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Polluted water in the river Ganges is seen in Kanpur, India, April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Hindu devotees offer evening prayers on the banks of the river Ganges in Haridwar, India, March 30, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Relatives immerse a body in the river Ganges prior to cremation in Varanasi, India, April 6, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Students from a Hindu religious school practice yoga on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Labourers work at brick kilns along the river Ganges in Raytala, south of Kolkata, India, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A boy runs past a pile of garbage along the river Ganges in Mirzapur, India, April 19, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A portrait of Hindu god Ganesh, the deity of prosperity, is seen on a boat on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A Hindu devotee carries his daughter after a religious ceremony on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man washes himself on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Hindu devotees cross the river Ganges on a boat in Varanasi, India, April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A man cleans garbage along the banks of the river Ganges in Kolkata, India, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A Hindu devotee carries water from the river Ganges in Kolkata, India, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
People ride a ferry on the river Ganges in Kolkata, India, April 9, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
People sleep on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 7, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Temples and residential buildings are seen on the banks of the river Ganges in Varanasi, India, April 8, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
People get a massage from a traditional masseuse under a bridge on the banks of the river Ganges in Kolkata, India, April 10, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Hindu pilgrims visit the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A lamp lit by a Hindu pilgrim is seen at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
Workers repair a boat along the river Ganges in Hanra, south of Kolkata, India, April 11, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui 
A Hindu pilgrim leaves after taking a dip at the confluence of the river Ganges and the Bay of Bengal, at Sagar Island, south of Kolkata, India, April 12, 2017. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui SEARCH "SIDDIQUI GANGES" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY.
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DEVPRAYAG/VARANASI/SAGAR ISLAND, India (Reuters) - India's holy Ganges begins as a crystal clear river high in the icy Himalayas but pollution and excessive usage transforms it into toxic sludge on its journey through burgeoning cities, industrial hubs and past millions of devotees.

Worshipped by a billion Hindus and a water source for 400 million, "Mother Ganga" is dying, despite decades of government efforts to save it.

Lokesh Sharma, a 19-year-old priest in Devprayag, a small hill town where two rivers converge to form the Ganges, is his family's fourth generation to lead riverbank prayers.

"I never thought of going somewhere else and settling. Devprayag is a heaven for me. I feel blessed to be born next to Mother Ganges," Sharma said, as chanting priests and devotees, some bottling the water, dunk themselves in the fast-flowing river.

Thousands of Indians immerse themselves and idols of their gods every day, believing a dip in the Ganges absolves a lifetime of sins. People drink the water and use it for crops.

But the pristine waters soon becomes a distant memory as the 2,525 km-long (1,570 mile) Ganges snakes its way down to the densely populated plains of north India, where too much water is sucked out to maintain a healthy flow.

Sliding under bridges in the industrial city of Kanpur, the water's color turns dark gray.

Industrial waste and sewage pour in from open drains, as clouds of foam float on its surface.

At one stretch, the river turns red.

Nearby, tannery workers haul chemical-soaked buffalo hides into huge drums. The filthy run-off is dumped in the river.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government has pledged to build more treatment plants and move more than 400 tanneries away from the river, but his $3 billion clean-up plan is badly behind schedule.

Less than a quarter of an estimated 4,800 million liters of sewage that flow daily into the river from main towns and cities is treated.

POLLUTION-FREE PRAYERS

The sorry state of the Ganges is most keenly felt in Varanasi, the ancient and most holy of cities for Hindus.

Religious students practise yoga, pilgrims seek spiritual purification and families cremate their dead by the water's edge, scattering ashes so that souls go to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth.

Along the bathing ghats, prayers invoking followers to keep the Ganges clean fill the hot evening air.

"I remember earlier the water was very clean and we could drink it," said 58-year-old boatman Anil Sahni. "Now you can't even bathe in it."

As the river widens it curves southwards, towards the Bay of Bengal, passing thousands more villages and swelling cities.

In the 14-million strong metropolis of Kolkata, people bathe and brush their teeth next to towering mounds of rubbish. On the outskirts, brick kilns and factories line the river banks.

Downstream, a packed ferry sets off for Sagar Island, or Ganga Sagar, a magnet for Hindu pilgrims that marks the point where the Ganges meets the sea.

"I feel sad about what's happening around us. The Ganges is getting dirty day by day but nobody cares. Not even its children," said 66-year-old priest Ashok Kumar in Mirzapur, a riverside carpet and brass ware hub.

"The Ganges is our mother. There won't be any future if she dies."

(Writing by Tommy Wilkes; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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