On a recent morning in Rishikesh, India, hundreds gathered on yoga mats to pray, meditate and stretch along the banks of the Ganges River (or Ganga, as locals call it). Barefoot, clad in yoga pants, breezy blouses, and wide smiles, they bowed toward the river, long a sacred source of inspiration and life for millions who live along its banks. "Bathe in the spirituality of Ganga," the website for the International Yoga Festival beckons.
That festival, hosted in March by Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh's largest ashram, drew some 1,200 tourists from 85 countries around the world. It is the crown jewel event in a town that is banking on yoga tourism. In recent years, millions of dollars have flowed into the region as benevolent souls seek to thicken their auras. The schlep that has become something of a trope in Western media—for better or worse connected to Elizabeth Gilbert's massive bestseller Eat, Pray, Love or the Beatles writing their White Album—but its roots go far deeper. The Ganges, many say, is to yoga what Cooperstown is to baseball, and the area has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries.
But as more tourists than ever make their way to Rishikesh in search of physical and spiritual cleanliness, pollution in and along the Ganges has never been worse. Locals complain that the ashrams are dumping sewage and litter into the Ganges, the same river whose water they bathe in, drink, and cook with daily. Solutions are scant, with many locals at a loss of what to do and frustrated with what they see as a lack of accountability.
"People come here to figure out their shit," one Rishikesh resident, who did not want to be identified by name, told me. "But where is their shit going?"
Pollution and sanitation concerns aren't new in India. The country has tried to clean up the Ganges for decades, including the government's high-profile Ganga Action Plan in the mid-1980s, but it remains one of the five most polluted rivers in the world. At the same time, its basin is the world's most populated, home to more than 600 million people, according to the World Bank, many of whom lack access to plumbing. With billions of tons of partially or untreated sewage going into the river each day, the Ganges' "waters today are unfit for bathing, let alone for drinking." But for many people in the region, which is one also one of the world's poorest, river water is the only option.
Even on the streets of Rishikesh, nestled near the upper reaches of the Ganges, in the mountains of the northern state of Uttarakhand, trash, animal feces, and mysterious liquids are common. This stands in stark contrast to the region's yoga industry, a subset of what marketers are now dubbing "wellness tourism," which has ballooned into a "rapidly-growing" $438.6 billion market, according to Global Wellness Institute, an industry think tank. Those travelers are considered to be "high-yield" tourists, spending $2,000 or more, about 130 percent more than the average visitor, according to the group. No continent's wellness tourism industry is growing as fast as Asia's, with India alone boasting 32.7 million trips in 2013, and some $9.2 billion in receipts.
As more people visit Rishikesh, however, and as development rises, sanitation infrastructure hasn't kept pace. "Many of these smaller towns are not responsible fiscally and the most cost-effective thing is to just run a pipe and dump into the water," Ujjayant Chakravorty, an economics professor with Tufts University who is focused on environmental development, said. "You can see that the quality of the water is still not improving."
Ashrams appear to follow this tendency, too. A survey submitted to India's National Green Tribunal earlier this year found at least 1,500 hotels and ashrams in the region dumping sewage directly into the river, according to the Hindustan Times. In other words, the majority of visitors in the area are defecating directly into the river that they claim to praise, and locals complain that they are left to deal with the consequences, such as the smell, a lack of access to sanitation themselves, and a litany of diseases, to name a few.
Parmarth Niketan, the International Yoga Festival host, claims to be different. "The government and all other official bodies know that Parmarth is the place that is leading the clean-up movement, not contributing to the pollution!" Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, who lives and teaches at the ashram, said. Parmarth's sewage "goes directly into the municipal sewage line," she added. "Not one drop goes into Ganga."
But Rishikesh has just one municipal sewage treatment plant, which was commissioned in 1984 and has a capacity of six million liters a day—and which the country's Central Pollution Control Board calls "insufficient for present population." The area is estimated to generate at least twice that amount of sewage. Of the 22 major ashrams surveyed by the Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board in Rishikesh and nearby Haridwar last year, only five had sewage treatment plants, according to the Hindustan Times.
Several locals during my recent stay in Rishikesh told me about the simple economics of sewage disposal there. Although some regulations regarding waste have been put into place in recent years, enforcement can be inconsistent and anemic. Often it's cheaper and easier to pay a bribe to local officials and get out of a possible fine rather than pay for a new sewage treatment center, which can cost thousands of dollars.
Some ashrams, like Parmarth, do maintain close relationships with local officials. The festival is co-sponsored by the government and on more than one occasion government officials, in suits and complete security detail, made their way through the crowds of yogis for public appearances. Having the government involved, Saraswati said, "is a great benefit to the participants," citing the enhanced security and additional events in places like Hardiwar. She pointed to many of the economic developments in the area that have increased deforestation and pollution, such as factories, and pointed to yoga and meditation tourism as a potential source of development that aids the region without destroying it.
"Their agenda, of course, is to increase income to the state and employ people," Saraswati said. "If we can show them what a huge draw yoga is, and how much hunger and thirst there is for it, then hopefully they will create more and more centers for training yoga teachers, ayurvedic experts, etc., rather than creating more and more factories."
While industrial waste continues to be a problem on the Ganges, experts and the CPCB estimate that at least 70 percent of the pollution is due to sewage. The growth in yoga tourism may be more earth-friendly to the region than the construction of factories, but sewage will remain a problem without the investment in waste treatment facilities.
"They're on an ego and power trip," Anupam Mukerji said of the International Yoga Festival organizers. Mukerji founded Yogastra, an organic yoga mat company based in Bangalore, as an alternative to the toxic manufacturing of many mats on the market. This year marked his first at the festival as a vendor and fourth time in Rishikesh. "The participants here are taken for a bit of a ride."
Mukerji thought his all-natural, locally made product would find an environmentally conscious customer base at Rishikesh. But he says he was surprised to find that there weren't even trashcans located on the festival premises, which faced the Ganges. Considering exhibitors pay an up-front fee of 30,000 rupees (roughly $450) to be at the festival, he said that litter control should have fit well within the budget of organizers. He does not plan to return to the festival next year.
Saraswati said that Parmarth is committed to working with local officials to clean the region, noting that pollution and trash is a turn off to foreign visitors. The "ashram and festival grounds were lined with trash cans," she said. "They are permanent and have been here for decades." (During my visit to Rishikesh earlier this year, I noticed many trashcans on the ashram grounds, but fewer on the surrounding streets or adjacent areas where other yoga festival events were taking place.)
The dismal headlines, images, and research coming out of the Ganga has sparked some action—some meaningful, some less so. In many cases, the increase of non-governmental organizations in the area has been helpful, Chakravorty, the Tufts professor, said, particularly in curbing the construction of additional factories, power plants, or dams that may dump industrial waste.
Among the more prominent NGOs in Rishikesh is the Ganga Action Parivar, Parmarth's environmental concern. Photos from a river cleanup day it hosted a few years ago, as well as other Ganga-related events, line the walls of the ashram and are posted online. Images of local leaders and festival attendees with trash bags and rubber gloves, working tirelessly to clean up the banks, inspire donations and good cheer from visitors who may feel especially spiritually cleansed and generous after weeks of yoga and meditation. But according to interviews with three different year-round residents of Rishikesh, they may be precisely that—photo-ops. After the bags were collected, these people said, they were dumped back into the Ganges, further downstream.
Saraswati denied this was the case. "I can assure you that no trash was ever dumped into the Ganga," she said. She said that for many years, there was not an official site for dumping on Parmarth's side of the river, and so the ashram would pack trash up and drive it across the bridge. "Perhaps someone saw the trash being driven away, downstream, and assumed it would be dumped in Ganga when actually it was being taken to the nearest dumping site," she said.
Either way, smaller efforts like litter pick-up are more akin to a Band-Aid for a gushing wound. "Many of them fizzle out because the challenges are so enormous," Chakravorty said. "Sure, you're picking up litter or little things by the river, but it's the path of least resistance. The bigger problem is dealing with the actors who could stop the pollution." That, he added, includes not just the private sector but municipalities, and entails rethinking basic infrastructure. (Neither the National Green Tribunal, the CPCB, nor the UKPCB responded to VICE Sports' request for comment.)
While a host of countrywide efforts have been proposed over the years to try and clean the Ganges, most have been deemed failures. The government formed a National Green Tribunal in 2010 to rebut criticism that it wasn't doing enough to combat pollution on the river, but results have been virtually nonexistent. Some hotels and ashrams are closed for noncompliance, according to local news reports, but enforcement has been inconsistent.
The next generation of Rishikesh residents is watching this unfold, even after yoga tourists roll up their mats and head home. At Ramana's Garden, a children's home and school that has been perched on the Ganges since the 1970s, organizers said that they once could drink directly from the river, but now the water has proved so toxic that if conditions don't improve, the facility, which is home to 70 children, may be forced to close altogether.
Last month, local children performed a play criticizing the growing pollution and the ineffective response of bureaucrats. Their audience included government officials and developers. The lead character was a well-intended but ineffective National Green Tribunal worker. Among the play's repeated, satirical lines: "Tell someone who cares" and "I'm filing a report!"
Not far from where the children put on their play, a large statue of Shiva once stood, before it fell into the river and got washed downstream. Locals joke that he, too, got tired of it all. But unlike Shiva, and unlike the thousands of tourists that pass through each year, most people in Rishikesh don't have the luxury of leaving these problems behind them.