Kumbh Mela 2013: The Water’s Dirty but Nobody’s Sick

The latest figures on water quality in the Ganges, straight from the Central Pollution Control Board—a government organisation charged with monitoring it daily during the Kumbh Mela—suggest that contrary to earlier reports, it’s neither drinkable nor batheable. Given that 80-odd million people are expected to bathe in the river during the festival, I asked head of medical services B.P. Singh to give us an update on the kinds of cases he’s been seeing in recent days at the Kumbh’s central hospital.

Protesters at the Kumbh Mela marching to draw attention to the state of the Ganges. Photo: Ravinder Bawa.

Upper respiratory tract infections and asthma still dominate the list, due to the cold and high levels of particulate matter in the air. The flow of gastro-intestinal infections remains steady but low, and the incidence of more serious waterborne diseases such as typhoid negligible. One of the more persistent problems has been holy men presenting with urinary infections due to enlarged prostate glands (four or five a day), and slightly less frequently, with fatty livers or cirrhosis—a reflection of their relatively advanced average age, penchant for smoking ganja and general lifestyle. Two people have suffered heart attacks while bathing in the icy Ganges, there have been two fires—one of which injured 20 people, some of them badly—and two babies have been born, that the doctors know of.

So the health profile of the world’s largest crowd is surprisingly ordinary. A handful of people wrote in response to an earlier post of mine that pilgrims don’t drink Ganges water, they only use it to perform puja, ritual offerings to the gods. Puja is definitely an important use of the river water, but they also drink it—as confirmed by the head of medicine and sanitation for the Kumbh Mela, Suresh Dwivedi, the inspector general of police for Allahabad Alok Sharma, and a sample of holy men and pilgrims themselves.

The skyline is getting higher at the Kumbh Mela. Photo: Laura Spinney.

The Kumbh still has two thirds left to run, but I leave it here, so here are a few last observations. The skyline is rising, as akharas or sects of holy men compete to outdo each other in the size of their portals. It’s still relatively litter-free, and 40 to 50 tonnes of solid waste are being removed from the grounds each day. Today saw an initiation ceremony of hundreds of novices into sadhu or holy man status. Having reported that there were no snake charmers at the fair, we came across a pair today. The police wouldn’t let them put on a show, they told us, so they were reduced to surreptitiously offering peeks at their snakes to anyone who asked, since seeing a snake is good luck. Finally, for those who have been paying attention, Shiv Kumari has left the Tiwaris’ lost and found camp and been reunited with her family.

Anything could happen between now and the end of the festival on March 10, but the authorities’ preparations have so far proved more than equal to the task.


Two surreptitious snake charmers at the Kumbh Mela. Photo: Laura Spinney.


Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Laura Spinney is a science journalist based in Lausanne, Switzerland who writes for The Economist, Nature and National Geographic, among others. She is also the author of two novels in English, as well as a human portrait of a European city, Rue Centrale, which is out this month in French (publisher: Editions L'Age d'Homme). Visit Laura Spinney's website for more information and contact details.