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At the core of 'irregular' plastic pollution in Ganga basin: Irresponsible tourist behaviour

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava* 

These are some initial thoughts, ideas and approach of applied research on tracking plastic pollution for tackling plastic pollution. An all-women research team has started this endeavor to join the global movement on #beatplasticpollution. This writeup is meant to seek more support for peer learning and sharing and simultaneously encourage youth enviropreneurs and hydropreneurs to take up the burning issue of plastic polluting our land, water and all creatures.
All land and water animals including us humans have ingested substantial plastic by now for it to be part of our bodies. Same is the state of the land and water pollution. If climate crisis is a sustainability issue, plastic crisis is now a serious liveability issue for the planet. Since the problem is created by us humans, we have to find ways and work to solve it. 
Our research was a small effort towards understanding the tenets of plastic, places (waterbodies) and people in order to measure the gravity besides identifying grounded and collaborative approach to manage the issue.
The focus was on studying the Ganga basin for six months. Intensive fieldwork was planned for studying (through samples and surveys) at cities namely, Rishikesh-Haridwar, Prayagraj, Varanasi, Sundarbans Kolkata. If time and fund permit, then also include Kanpur, and Patna. The applied research used research methods based on land, water and community to identify, qualify and quantify presence of plastic in the habitable areas along the mighty river. 
We started in April 2023 with the first leg of fieldwork at Rishikesh-Haridwar. This writeup is based on the experience of that fieldwork. The key learning from here is that pollution has solution that lies in each of our homes which calls for serious outreach and education program as a way forward.

Waste and waterbodies

All wastes (solid and liquid) generated by we humans (only) land up in all forms of water bodies such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, tanks, wells, seas, oceans, etc. Plastic among them is the biggest concern as it constitutes the majority of the waste and is a difficult material to naturally decompose back into nature. Though recycle of plastic is promoted, the plastic management in its entire value chain is yet to be properly organized to attain the desired recycle output besides the near impossible recyclable plastics and the micro plastic and nano-plastic which are also recycling byproducts. Dealing with the presence of micro plastic and nano-plastic wastes all around us seems like a clueless battle.
Every river (small and big) when passing through habitable areas faces serious plastic pollution. Small streams are so badly choked with plastic, only to be either unfortunately redefined as (unwanted) nalas/drains or filled to reclaim as land parcels. For example, during our fieldwork at Rishikesh, we found that an important stream feeding the river Ganga is being reclaimed around the mouth at Muni ki Reti for accommodating public parking and solid waste management site. 
Large rivers are the ultimate recipients of all waste and when allowed to flow, they flush the pollution from the cities to the next downstream and eventually to the sea. So, when we talk about the mighty river like Ganga, the transboundary river originating from Gangotri, traversing 2500+ kilometers, inhabiting several cities, towns, villages on its banks, dumps everything locally which eventually reaches its destination at Ganga Sagar before merging with the Bay of Bengal. Thus, if we backtrace the plastic from the sea to the source, it actually points to our houses/ buildings that we inhabit for various uses.
Globally, from the local streams and rivers plastics get transported into the ocean/sea contributing to nearly 80% of the marine litter/debris causing serious harm to the aquatic life on land and water at all scales. It matters more than ever as what, where, when, and who do we address the plastic pollution and the threats caused to the wellbeing of humans and the biodiversity of land, water and air.
Keeping these queries in mind, the project, ‘Tackling Plastic Pollution in the Ganga Basin’ aimed at addressing the problem of plastic waste in the Ganga Basin as a starting point of action against plastic pollution of the overall environment. The project was initiated by the Centre for Global Affairs and Public Policy, CGAPP, a non-profit independent organization instituted in 2021. The project objectives were:
  1. Invite Start-Ups/Businesses to connect with investors, communities, and government representatives and facilitate agreements for projects/scaling up promising business interventions that can tackle plastic pollution.
  2. Generate research on plastic pollution in the Ganga Basin (Categories, Quantity & sites of plastic waste as well as qualitative research on community attitudes to plastic alternatives).
  3. Build a platform for continuous engagement between stakeholders to address the issue of plastic pollution and gradually expand this into other geographies like Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America.
To take up the objective 2, which was the research part, an all-women team was constituted to conduct the fieldwork for tracking alias mapping of presence of plastic across the identified sites followed by analyzing the social-ecological impact of plastic pollution in the river Ganga and in our lives. The objective 2 was further developed as an applied research focused on, ‘tracking plastic presence on land, in water, at the land-water interface, and among the stakeholders’.

Plastics we must know?

Among the many pollutants in the river Ganga (and all waterbodies), a serious source of pollution is the plastics in various forms from general plastic, to microplastic, and to nano-plastic. Plastic pollution in/on land and water are interlinked. The invention of plastic brought a major civilizational change from its versatile use to longevity. It is so much part of our living that its misuse and abuse is internalized which is causing havoc to the people and the planet.
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry defines plastic as a “polymeric material that may contain other substances to improve performance and/or reduce costs” (Vert et. al., 2012). There is a plethora of plastic types of which products are made of and there are codes to help the identification of the type of plastic; particularly of interest here is that these codes are to facilitate the recycling process according to international standards. 
The Resin Identification Code (RIC) system divides plastic resins into 7 different categories namely, Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), High Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), and Other types of plastics. The following table shows their common use in the society.
Types of plastics and their common use. Click here for source 
It is important that, as consumers, we know about the types of plastic and their recycling characteristics in order to make informed choices. We carried a pamphlet of this information during the fieldwork and shared with as many people as possible as an implicit awareness program. For example, with the support of startup namely, Switcheko we also distributed bamboo toothbrushes to the survey respondents to share with people an available alternative to plastic toothbrush. Since, in the process of tracking and tackling plastic pollution, the project intends to sensitize people about plastic in order to bring behavioral change.

Ganga river basin and site selection

Since antiquity, the river ‘Ganga’ means more than a river in India; it is life-giver, problem solver, a mother, and a Goddess. The holy river referred as ‘Ma Ganga’ has been everybody’s matter in India, be it philosophy, perception, and/or pollution. Different people/ communities/ religions revere it in different ways throughout the year. Being India’s longest basin, Ganga and her tributaries called the Ganga Basin, traverse eleven states covering one-third of India's surface water and includes the country's largest irrigated area. 
The basin provides shelter to 40 percent of country’s population and livelihood to nearly 43 percent people yet, ironically it also has country's two-third of the poor, co-living in the 100+ cities, 50+ towns, and thousands of villages. Over 40 percent of India's GDP is generated in the Ganga Basin.
Being so exclusive has led to more exploitation of Ganga for urban development. It has pushed the mighty holy river to serious level of pollution with its ecology and flow endangered. It is among the world’s topmost polluted rivers sitting alongside Citarum River in Indonesia and Yangtze River in China. 
Being a crucial social-ecological-economic resource besides being philosophically, morally, religiously connected to the millions of people of the country (as well as the world), Ganga could not escape the negative consequences of rapid urbanization, industrialization, and rising water demand. Unsustainable infrastructures along its vast flow and anthropological activities along every bank, nook and corner have polluted the river’s water beyond the tolerable measures, making it unsuitable for many uses and for its ecosystem.
Ganga basin. Source: Namami Gange, NMCG, GoI
The Ganga River basin was studied at the following transects -- Rishikesh-Haridwar, Prayagraj-Varanasi, and Sundarbans India-Bangladesh as representative sites, to understand the nature of plastic pollution and seek solution with the respective stakeholders of the region. Each location involved a week-long fieldwork termed as expedition by the all-women team followed by a two days Expo inviting start-ups from across the country and the local stakeholders to initiate a dialogue between them for continuous engagements on solution to pollution.

Research approach

The applied research started with operationalizing the rapid assessment of plastic pollution through laying out the aim and objectives, methodology and methods besides the schedule and structure of the research.
The aim was to understand the nuances of plastic pollution in the Ganga Basin. The major areas where the plastic pollution was to be assessed are, land, water, land-water interface, community and governance. Accordingly, the objectives were as below:
  1. To characterize the nature of plastic pollution on the land in terms of identification, verification, quantification, and contamination ability.
  2. To characterize the nature of plastic pollution in the river and on the riverbed in terms of identification, verification, quantification, and contamination ability.
  3. To understand community’s opportunities and challenges in plastic consumption and disposal in terms of identification, verification, quantification, and contamination ability.
  4. To get community perception on the possibilities on reducing plastic pollution from individual and to institutional levels.
The research was inspired by a national geographic society project conducted in 2019 namely, ‘Plastic: Sea to Source, researching solutions to prevent plastic from reaching the ocean’. The all-women expedition team of S2S, led by Dr Heather Koldewey and Dr Jenna Jambeck, traversed the Ganga Basin before and after the monsoon season conducting rapid assessment methods based on the land, in the water, at the land-water interface, and among the different stakeholders. 
Besides the firsthand experience of context and the number of publications from the S2S, the major outcomes of the project came up with a report on, ‘Quantification of Plastic Waste in the Ganga Basin’ and a ‘Methods Toolkit’ to research plastic pollution in the river system.
The Methods Toolkit of the S2S laid the foundation for the research we had started. The detailed methods guidelines on the physical quantification and classification of the plastic typology guided our research to be able build upon the existing knowledge with detailed social-institutional-technical engagements to understand the problems and seek solutions to the pollution. The research methods thus applied in the research from the S2S project included:
  • Land-Based Systems (namely, Litter Transects, Input and Output use of Plastic Packaging, Collection and Management of Solid Waste, Municipal Solid Waste Characterization, Photo Quadrat Litter Data Collection);
  • Aquatic Systems (namely, Water Sampling for Microplastics, Sediment Sampling for Microplastics, Riverbank Surveys for Fishing Debris); and
  • Knowledge, Attitudes and Perceptions (namely, Key Informant Interviews, Focus Group Discussions, Survey-Household, Survey-Industry, Survey-Shopkeeper/Commercial, Survey-Restaurant/Café, Survey-Pilgrim/Tourist, World Café Workshop, Youth Outreach and Education).
  • In addition, participant observations, physiographic mapping, and water narratives are integrated.
The Debris Tracker app was used to carry out the Litter Transect method in order to collect representative sampling of the plastic quantification and qualification. The Litter Transect method was carried out at 100 meters stretches at 15 locations between Devprayag and Kangdi. The method was substantiated with Photo Quadrat method that requires zooming into the selected transect and dividing it into multiple parts (20) and quantify and qualify the plastic presence in detail.
The first leg of the expedition and expo were conducted between 24 and 30 April. The expedition took place along 101 kilometers between Devprayag traversing through Kaudiyala, Tapovan, Rishikesh Muni ki Reti, Rishikesh Triveni Ghat, Gohri Mafi, Haridwar Har ki Pauri, Haridwar main, Kankhal, and closing at Kangri. The essay is a glimpse of the experiences from these places using the research methods apart from this introduction of the project.
Map generated for study areas and methods
In the stretch of the Haridwar-Rishikesh expedition spanning one week following activities were carried out: 20 water samples and 20 sediment samples collected at 7 transects for microplastic, minerals and microbes identified; 20 litter transect and equivalent 400 photo quadrat conducted; 69 household surveys, 2 industrial surveys, 56 shopkeeper surveys, 40 restaurant/café surveys and 22 tourist/pilgrim surveys; 30 key informant alias expert interviews; 6 focus group discussions; and 4 spots and 15 specifics identified for water narratives. 
In addition, municipal solid waste characterization through tracking collection and management of solid waste at various locations and 2 solid waste management sites (one each at Haridwar-Rishikesh) were documented.


A two-days expo was hosted at Parmarth Nikentan Ashram Rishikesh with the blessings of HH Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji. It started with a clean drive at Goa Beach Rishkesh with the young Brahmacharis of the Ashram joined by the young environmentalist Licypriya Kangujam, the young brahmacharis of the ashram, the local citizens and the research team. 
The sessions were attended by several local stakeholders including Rishikesh Mayor, Mrs. Anita Mamgain, well-known environmentalists including Padma Bhushan Dr. Anil Prakash Joshi, Dr. Sara Ahmed, Dr. Muruganandam Muthiah, etc. Exhibition was organized at the ghat of the ashram where several startups like, Switcheko, Nirmalaya, etc. had exhibits on the alternate lifestyle products. Sandhya Aarti was held at the ashram ghat as a concluding activity.

Initial findings, thoughts and way forward

The first leg of the fieldwork at Haridwar-Rishikesh brought several insights. The team members returned to their respective base carrying back some great experiences and learning. We organised the data collected and analysed the phase one to infer initial findings and learning. All the methods data and analyses were organized in a detailed report to share further.
We found that the changing identity of Haridwar-Rishikesh from pilgrimage to tourism has had a deep impact on the social-ecological environment of the two places. The changing nature of the visitors have changed the socio-economic transactions with the local residents. The commodification of the spiritual and religious activities has added to the tourism activity, which is a commercial activity.
In the peak days, like during our fieldwork, there is more floating population than resident population. While, the municipal services are provided based on resident density and population, the resources (human-technical-financial) at the disposal of the urban local bodies fall short of the required to manage solid waste. This was echoed by the local officials during the expo talks. 
We realized that the local residents can be managed by the urban local bodies, however, the irresponsible tourist behavioural is at the core of the irregular plastic pollution. For example, the pet bottles, and the packaging of all kinds of food, shopping, travel constitute the major pollution.
Unless we work on a cap to tourism activities and behavioural change of the tourists, the plastic pollution problem is here to stay. The pollution from microplastic and nano plastics almost looks a failed battle. There is a lot that requires doing and undoing at the two towns from the local policy, to action, to restriction first towards prevention and then towards solution to plastic pollution.
Some initial learning from the experience of Rishikesh-Haridwar are, pollution has solution, tracking alias measuring is first step towards managing, plastic management is people management, individual actions and institutional decisions at the core, and children, youth and women have crucial role in tackling plastic pollution. It is therefore, we have started a structured Outreach and Education programs for other cities and so far, conducted at, Lucknow, Agartala, Ahmedabad with a hope to touch more cities and citizens for plastic awareness.
The team is grateful to CGAPP for this opportunity and is looking forward to next fieldwork which is a joint-leg of Prayagraj and Varanasi followed by Sundarbans.


A 12-member research team (including me) was formed, by inviting (most of) the fellows from WforW Foundation and members of the Water Resources Council of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry
The multi-disciplinary team had girls coming from all over the country as, Anubhuti Shekhar (Mathura), Harshita Sehgal (Delhi), Jasmine Kaur (Delhi), Kalpana Patel (Jabalpur), Kirti Makhija (Ahmedabad), Moksha Mehta (Vijayawada), Monami Bhattacharya (Kolkata), Monica Tewari (Jaipur), Preeti Chouhan (Ladakh), Priyanka Mukherjee (Bhubaneshwar), and Proshakha Maitra (Kolkata). Through the all-women team, the WforW Foundation and the Water Resources Council of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce & Industry, (WICCI-WRC) joined CGAPP as knowledge partners. 
Three students from TISS Hyderabad Campus namely, RamGopal P, Albin Thomas, and Vishal Verma besides six students of IIT Roorkee assisted in the fieldwork activities. People from CGAPP administration, communication and logistics are also integral part of the team to make the fieldwork possible.
*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor and a political observer. Environmental Design Consultants, Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. www.edc/org/in,



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