VARANASI, India - To clean up the cesspool the Ganges River has become, India has used sewage-treatment farms, pumping stations, purification plants and 25,000 turtles.
From this holy city on the banks of India's holiest river, thousands of the rapacious reptiles are released every year. Their mission: to eat the thousands of human and animal corpses also released into the river every year.
"They eat everything - everything except the bones," said Indra Prakash Yadav, a deputy range officer at the government's turtle-breeding farm outside Varanasi.
In Varanasi alone, at least 100 human bodies a day, some fully cremated, many not, are released into the river as part of a ritual to carry the spirit to a higher life.
Dozens more animal carcasses are tossed in, along with an estimated 50 tons of ashes a day.
The result is what environmentalists call "necrotic pollutants."
Enter the omnivorous turtles, which swim up and down the river in search of dead prey.
"They bite off what they can chew and then chase after the body," Yadav said with a note of pride. "For 10 adult turtles, it takes about two or three days to consume an entire body."
A MULTI-FRONTED ATTACK
The soft-shelled turtles are part of India's massive Ganga Action Plan, designed in 1986 to clean up one of the world's most polluted river systems.
Every day, about 260 million gallons of waste is dumped into the Ganga basin, home to nearly 300 million people. One result is diarrhea, which kills an average of one person a minute in the basin.
Since the plan's inception, the Indian government, with aid from the World Bank and Dutch government, has spent about $150 million on dozens of projects from the base of the Himalayas down to the Bay of Bengal.
Sewage-treatment and water-purification plants have been built. In Calcutta, fish are bred to eat industrial pollution. In the city of Kanpur, where the main sewer can handle only two-thirds of the incoming waste, a 5,000-acre sewage farm was built.
For the carcass problem, a little more imagination was required.
USED TO DEAD MEAT
The Indian government says that turtles swam freely in the Ganges centuries ago, eating cremated remains at will. But hunters eventually wiped them out of the area. Before trying to bring the return of the turtles, the government tried a more voracious creature, crocodiles, but they did not bite - at least, they did not bite corpses.
"The crocodiles ate too many live fish," Yadav said. "The turtles stick to dead things."
Now, Yadav's only complaint is that he cannot get enough turtles. "We can't keep up with the human population," he said.
The government collects turtle eggs, about the size of table tennis balls, from other rivers and incubates them in warm sand. Once they hatch, the turtles are raised in a horseshoe-shaped pond for about a year, and fed nothing more than freshly killed fish before they are released into the river.
"We want to get them used to dead meat," Yadav said. "Otherwise they may go after swimmers." The typical adult turtle is 32 inches long and weighs 44 pounds.
Besides, he said, most turtles are afraid of moving objects.
Kanta Prasad, a gentle man who wades every day into the pond of 5,400 baby turtles to feed them, disagrees. He has been bitten a dozen times.
"The pain is there for at least eight hours, but I get used to it," he said.
From Varanasi, about 10,000 turtles patrol a 12 mile stretch of river. Another farm at Lucknow has supplied 15,000 more turtles for sections farther upriver.
SAFE AGAIN FOR BATHING
This being India, myth and mystique have come naturally to the turtles' side. Yadav said he once saw several turtles on a river bank in a tug-of-war with a pack of dogs over the remains of a human corpse. Others say they have seen turtles pull corpses from burning pyres.
Even if the stories are not true, Yadav insisted that his turtles are a success. "It's been smooth sailing," he said. "We don't see many dead bodies in the river any more."
At Varanasi, where up to 80,000 Hindu pilgrims a day dip themselves in the Ganges, water samples taken by the state government indicate that the river is once again safe for bathing, although drinking the water remains out of the question.
Despite small successes, though, the Ganga basin remains clogged with monumental problems, the biggest of which may be the human population.
With 8 to 10 million new people a year to support, the river flow has dropped so sharply in the dry season that at some points it cannot carry waste. Traditions die hard, too. Some roads in Varanasi can be a veritable train of funeral processions, as families carry their loved ones to the Ganges, which remains a symbol of purity.
The age-old tradition of funeral pyres not only pollutes the river, it has ravaged many of India's forests.
To reduce deforestation and ensure that bodies are completely burned, the Ganga Action Plan financed the construction of several electric crematoriums along the river. They have seen little success.
At Varanasi, an electric crematorium with two ovens draws an average of two funerals a day.
"The electric furnaces have not made any difference for us. Only the very poor go there," said Shatrugham Chowdhury, a great burly man who, with an intimidating entourage, controls the burning ghats.
At a cost of $27, wood-burning cremations are beyond the reach of many Indians, but their families manage to find the money. Chowdhury's competitor, Bhairav Nath Chowdhury, who runs the electric crematorium, admitted that only the truly desperate use his service, which costs a mere $2.
Even the local police, he said, dump unclaimed bodies in the river and pocket the government-paid cremation fee.
"Nobody comes here for the sake of the environment," he said, looking forlornly out a small window at the long row of pyres and heavy clouds of smoke and flying ash along the river bank.