January 19, 2016


Environmentalists challenge government over uncontrolled practice of body disposal by Hindus, who consider the river sacred

Reuters in New Delhi

 Hindu pilgrims in Varanasi gather for prayers and ritual bathing in the Ganges river.
Photograph: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP
India’s special environmental court has criticised the government for its failure to curb river pollution, a lawyer petitioning the court has said, after scores of bodies surfaced in the Ganges river.

Last week more than 80 bodies – mostly decomposed skeletons and half-burned corpses – surfaced in the river in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh after a drop in water levels.

Their emergence has reignited concerns among environmentalists over the uncontrolled practice of body disposal in the Ganges by Hindus, who consider the river to be sacred.

On Monday the National Green Tribunal (NGT), a court set up to look at environmental grievances, ordered both the water resources and environment ministries to explain who should be held responsible for the pollution in the Ganges.

“The court said that it was really very unfortunate that the pollution levels are increasing and told the central government to do something about it,” said Gaurav Bansal, a lawyer representing a group of environmentalists petitioning the NGT. “The government has to reply by 27 January.”

The 1,600 mile (2,500km) Ganges river, which originates in the Himalayas and spills out into the Bay of Bengal, is a means of livelihood for more than 400 million people, as well as being Hinduism’s holiest river.

Millions visit places along its banks, such as the sacred city of Varanasi, to cremate their dead and scatter their ashes in the river.
Others bathe in the Ganges in an act of ritual purification, believing the river cleanses them of sin and frees them from the cycle of rebirth.

Authorities say the corpses in the Ganges are the deceased from poor families who cannot afford to buy enough firewood for cremation and are forced to immerse the half-burned bodies of their loved ones in the river.

Unmarried women and children are often buried in shallow graves along the riverbank, and their remains can be washed into the river when water levels rise.

Bansal said at least 3,000 bodies were recovered from the Ganges annually, yet the government had remained a “mute spectator” to the health risks of cremations and burials along its banks.

The Ganges is considered to be the country’s most polluted river, tainted by industrial effluents, sewage and waste from human settlements built on its shores.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who represents a constituency in Varanasi, has pledged to clean up the river as part of a broader push to harness scarce water resources and improve public health.



Photograph of disfigured 20-year-old provokes revulsion in country where violence against women is widespread

Associated Press in Kabul

Reza Gul lies on a bed with her baby in hospital after her nose was cut off. 
Photograph: Hasan Sirdash/AFP/Getty Images
A photograph of an Afghan woman whose nose was sliced off by her husband has sparked widespread revulsion across the country, with activists demanding strict punishment.

Reza Gul, 20, was taken to hospital after the attack, which took place in the Ghormach district of the north-western province of Faryab on Sunday. Her husband is said to have fled to a Taliban-controlled area.

The man, identified as Mohammad Khan, is said to have cut off Gul’s nose with a pocket knife, according to a spokesman for the governor of Faryab.

The incident highlights the endemic violence against women in Afghan society, despite reforms brought in since the Taliban’s Islamist regime was ousted in a 2001 US-led invasion.

“Such a brutal and barbaric act should be strongly condemned,” said Alema, a Kabul-based women’s rights activist, who goes by one name. “Such incidents would not happen if the judicial system severely punished attacks on women,” she told AFP.

A photograph of the disfigured woman was widely shared on social media, prompting calls for tough action against the husband. The governor’s spokesman said Gul would need reconstructive surgery, which was not possible at the local government-run hospital.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Khan to attack Gul, whom he married five years ago as a teenager, and who is the mother of a one-year-old child. Khan, who is unemployed, is believed to have recently returned from neighbouring Iran and may have joined the Taliban after fleeing in the wake of the attack.

The government has vowed to protect women’s rights but this has not prevented violent attacks.

“Horrifying cases like this one happen all too often in Afghanistan,” Heather Barr, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, told AFP. “The level of impunity for violence against women encourages some men to continue to feel that women are their property and violence is their right.”

In November a young woman was stoned to death after being accused of adultery in the central province of Ghor. And last March a woman named Farkhunda was savagely beaten and set ablaze in central Kabul after being falsely accused of burning a copy of the Qur’an.

The mob killing triggered angry nationwide protests and drew global attention to the treatment of Afghan women. In 2010, Time magazine put on its cover a photograph of 18-year-old Aisha Mohammadzai, whose nose was cut off by an abusive husband. The cover provoked a worldwide outpouring of sympathy for Aisha, who was taken to the US where she was given a prosthetic nose.