When Sumit Suman discovered he would have to go to Varanasi for a job interview, he was thrilled to finally be able to visit the Hindu holy city and the Ganges river that flows through it.
But when Mr Suman reached the banks of the river he found it to be full of all sorts of waste, leaving him disheartened.
“It is not a sight I was expecting. It doesn’t even feel like the river we grew up hearing about,” Mr Suman, 24, said of the river considered most sacred by India’s Hindu majority population.
“The amount of plastic thrown in it is shocking.”
The Ganges, also called the Ganga, is highly polluted despite a long campaign to clean up the river that provides a lifeline for almost 40 per cent of India’s 1.4 billion people as it flows about 2,500km from the western Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal through the country’s hot and humid northern and eastern plains.
Decades of rapid industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth have all contributed to severe contamination of the river’s water with dangerous chemicals, rubbish and untreated sewage.
Residents of the river basin generate 12,000 million litres of sewage a day, of which only one third is treated, according to the government.
Another source of pollution is the more than 80 stepped riverfronts in Varanasi, known as "ghats", that Hindus use for ritual bathing, prayer ceremonies and cremations.
In 2015, the government launched Namami Gange, an integrated conservation mission to curb pollution and revive the river, with a budget of 200 billion rupees ($2.45 billion).
The initial target was to clean up the river by 2019, but this was extended to 2022 with an additional budget of 100 billion rupees.
The government in February said that of the 363 projects focusing on wastewater treatment, solid waste management, management of the ghats, building eco-friendly crematoriums and biodiversity conservation, among others, 177 projects were completed and operational.
Some indicators, such as biological oxygen demand (BOD) — the level of oxygen available to bacteria and other micro-organisms to break down organic matter in the water, which is considered an indicator of the health of a river — show that there has been progress.
The BOD in the section of the Ganges flowing through Varanasi improved vastly, from 3-6mg per litre in 2015 to 16.9mg per litre in 2021, an official from the National Mission for Clean Ganga told media in March this year.
However, the same section of river was also found to be the most polluted in a study last year by Toxics Link, an environmental group in New Delhi.
More worrying was the group’s finding that among the pollutants was a high level of microplastics ― fragments of plastic 5mm in size or smaller that can enter the human body through food and drinking water.
The study found 40 different types of plastic polymers in the river's water, including resins such as polyacetylene and PVC.
“River Ganga is at a risk of endangering levels of pollution not only from sewage or as a result of a large number of cremations every day, but also as a result of the huge microplastic pollution, which is generally unnoticed or lesser known due to the lack of studies and public awareness,” the study said.
The effects of microplastics on human health are still not clear, but studies so far suggest it could lead to DNA damage, inflammation, oxidative stress that causes an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body, and even cancer.
Priti Mahesh, the chief programme co-ordinator at Toxics Link, said one of the sources of the microplastics was items released into the river during religious rituals, such as flowers and incense sticks placed in polythene bags and polystyrene containers.
“While it is difficult to pinpoint the actual cause, a lot of single-use plastic is also thrown into the river, which is also likely from the [religious] activities,” Ms Mahesh told The National.
Saurabh Singh, a Varanasi-based activist for clean groundwater and a healthy Ganges, blamed the microplastic pollution on a lack of awareness among people and a lack of zeal from the government.
India imposed a ban on single-use plastic in July in an attempt to tackle a leading source of environmental pollution, but experts say enforcement remains a challenge.
“We have Namami Gange but it has become more of a lip service. The government is trying to please villagers living along the Ganga on communal and religious lines by asking them to worship it, but they are not appealing to them from the public health perspective or from the river management perspective,” Mr Singh said.
“The use of plastic and its links with the riverine system is posing health concerns. We are virtually sitting on a volcano,” he said.
Dr Manoj Pandey, professor of surgical oncology at the city's Banaras Hindu University, said Varanasi has recorded an increase of about 10 per cent in the incidence of breast cancer over the past decade.
While the exact cause is not known, the rise coincides with an increase in environmental pollution, he said.
"Microplastics and POPs [persistent organic pollutants] are oestrogen mimics. When a chemical mimics oestrogen, it is going to increase the possibility of cancers which are oestrogen-dependent, like breast cancer,” Dr Pandey told The National.
Varanasi and the Gangetic plains also have a higher number of cases of gall bladder cancer than other parts of India, he said.
"In the area of the Ganges, the incidence is very high and is unique; we don’t see it anywhere else," Dr Pandey said.