Nov. 11 (UPI) — Thousands of worshippers plunged into India’s Yamuna River and waded through toxic foam as government leaders quarreled over how to clean the waterway.
Devotees made their way into the water as part of the four-day Hindu festival of Chhath Puja that ended Thursday, celebrating the sun deity Surya by fasting and making offerings while standing in water.
Worshipers in northern India traditionally take to the Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges that runs through the capital city of New Delhi, however this year the river was coated with thick foam resembling snow.
“It’s a sewer,” worshipper Ravi Shankar Gupta told The New York Times. “But the sun deity says: ‘Even if you stand in a gutter and make an offering, I will protect you for the rest of the year.'”
The foam bubbles are the result of organic matter decomposing as untreated sewage from Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh are dumped into the river leaving soap-detergent particles, industrial effluents, decomposing vegetation and filamentous bacteria.
Short-term exposure to the foam can cause skin irritation and allergies and if ingested it can lead to gastrointestinal issues and diseases such as typhoid. Long-term exposure to heavy metals found in industrial pollutants can cause neurological issues and hormonal imbalances.
New Delhi treats about two-thirds of its sewage but hundreds of millions of gallons are dumped into the Yamuna untreated as the city grapples with an expanding population.
The government of Delhi attempted to mitigate the impacts of the foam, sending out boats to attempt to sweep it away, laying down bamboo barricades to prevent it from spreading and sending workers to hose down the foam.
Government leaders also resorted to fingerpointing Thursday as Gopai Rai and Raghav Chanda of Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party said Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have released 155 million gallons of untreated waste water into the river while Delhi has worked to upgrade sewage treatment plants to meet Delhi Pollution Control committee standards.
However, Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament Manoj Tiwari accused the AAP government of not allowing the celebration to take place on its banks in order to cover up the pollution.