No one wor­ries about the Ganga

A telling sur­vey of the holi­est river of Hin­duism and how dirty it has be­come


If wa­ter had mem­ory, the ganga would tell a story that be­gins in pure joy in the Hi­malayas and ends in the tragedy of pol­lu­tion. it would re­mind us of its sim­ple and holy be­gin­nings in the hills, ir­ri­gat­ing in­nu­mer­able farms in the plains, be­ing the source of food and liveli­hood to mil­lions. it would not only re­mind us of the 43.78 crore peo­ple liv­ing on its banks, but also of the bio­di­ver­sity it sus­tains within it­self. it would tell us about art, cul­ture, mu­sic, rit­u­als, fes­ti­vals and food habits across the rich gangetic belt, where, at some places, 100 ml of wa­ter con­tains up to three lakh co­l­iform bac­te­ria!

Au­thor Vic­tor Mal­let, a se­nior jour­nal­ist with the Fi­nan­cial Times who was based in delhi from 2012 to 2016, has tried to de­ci­pher the ganga’s so­lil­o­quy and pre­sented it over 300 pages of jour­nal­is­tic writ­ing. He be­gins with an in­tro­duc­tion meant largely for an in­ter­na­tional au­di­ence. right from the very ba­sics, he builds a pic­ture of the ganga with all its mytho­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal con­nec­tions. There is, of course, a spir­i­tual as­pect to the ganga: the river is sa­cred to Hin­dus, and is a part of many of their rit­u­als. As a re­sult, there is po­lit­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance too, es­pe­cially in the time of Hin­dutva. Most im­por­tant, how­ever, is how the river – the holi­est of holy rivers though it be – is be­ing pol­luted, turn­ing into a flow­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal hazard.

He nar­rates how capt JA Hodg­son, a sol­dier-sur­veyor of the Bri­tish army, reached gau­mukh, the source of the ganga in 1817, and saluted the river with a bu­gle march. of his own visit, Mal­let writes: “We had no bu­gle to salute the ganges, so i merely ad­mired the glacier – a frac­tured cliff face of opaque blue, mixed with dirt and chunks of rock – and peered cau­tiously into the cave at its base from which gushed the be­gin­nings of the river.” He speaks of the flash-floods of 2013, the floods of 1978 and the 1991 earth­quake. Through his in­ter­ac­tions with the lo­cals of ut­tarak­hand, he tells us how cli­mate change is af­fect­ing birds, an­i­mals, river and hu­mans equally. in other chap­ters, he is re­port­ing from prom­i­nent cities on the banks of ganga in the other four states the river passes through – ut­tar Pradesh, Bihar, Jhark­hand and West Ben­gal – that bear the brunt of ganga pol­lu­tion. He de­votes a full chap­ter to the Kumbh Mela of 2013 which was held at sangam in Al­la­habad.

in later chap­ters, he fo­cusses on Varanasi, a fa­mous Hindu pilgrimage cen­tre and the Lok sabha con­stituency of prime min­is­ter naren­dra Modi. Mal­let writes how Varanasi at­tracted all the lime­light for a day in 2014 when PM Modi filed his nom­i­na­tion from the city and vowed to save ganga. in 2016, Mal­let vis­its Varanasi only to find out sev­eral bro­ken prom­ises and a dirty ganga. “now Modi’s sit­ting there and has painted these build­ings, but what else has changed? Peo­ple here, they shit, they crap, and piss and who can tell them to stop?” he quotes a boat­man as say­ing.

The book be­comes grip­ping in the pages where the plight of the river is be­ing dis­cussed based on facts and re­ports and not faith. The chap­ters ‘su­per­bug river’ and ‘Toxic river’ are most in­for­ma­tive. These deal with in­dus­trial tox­ins and waste from tan­ner­ies en­ter­ing the ganga, an­tibi­otic-re­sis­tant dis­eases and their pro­lif­er­a­tion in the river. “even if there is some bac­te­ria killing prop­erty in ganges wa­ter, it is clearly not 100 per­cent ef­fec­tive, and it may be the re­sult of the river’s abil­ity to rapidly re-oxy­genate it­self, or of mag­ne­sium or sul­phur or some­thing in the sili­carich salt car­ried down from the Hi­malayas rather than the bac­te­rio­phages that ex­ists in all rivers and seas... True, there are a lot of bac­te­rio­phages in the ganges, but, as Felix d’herelle quickly learned, bac­te­riaophages are found wher­ever bac­te­ria thrive: in sew­ers, in rivers that catch waste runoff from pipes, and in the stool of con­va­les­cent pa­tients,” he writes. d’herelle was a cana­dian sci­en­tist who, in 1916-17, wrote of the bac­te­ria-killing prop­er­ties of ganga wa­ter, and his find­ings were cited by

those who be­lieve ganga wa­ter has cu­ra­tive prop­er­ties.

The book has 20 pic­tures show­ing the gan­gotri glacier, sun­dar­bans, the 2013 floods in Ut­tarak­hand, Kumbh Mela of sangam, ganga sa­gar, pol­luted Ya­muna river and old paint­ings and lith­o­graphs which make the read­ing even more en­gag­ing. in later chap­ters, he dis­cusses flora and fauna in the chap­ter ‘Dol­phins, croc­o­diles, and Tigers’. He also de­votes another chap­ter to the grow­ing wa­ter cri­sis in the gangetic belt due to the de­ple­tion of ground wa­ter. Mal­let writes of his visit to the drought-hit Bun­delk­hand re­gion (to­wards the south of gangetic plains) in 2016. in the same chap­ter, he goes on to de­scribe the Mu­nak canal breach, wa­ter cri­sis in Haryana and Pun­jab and even delhi. He also touches upon the irony of the floods, flash floods, wa­ter log­ging, etc. The un­planned us­age of wa­ter and lack of a proper wa­ter man­age­ment is the fo­cus of this par­tic­u­lar chap­ter. “More than 60 per cent of in­dia’s ir­ri­gated agri­cul­ture, and 85 per cent of its drink­ing wa­ter, de­pend on this ground­wa­ter... gov­ern­ment data, al­ready more than five years out of date, show that 839 of in­dia’s 5,723 ad­min­is­tra­tive blocks were suf­fer­ing from over-ex­ploited ground­wa­ter in 2011,” he writes.

in the fol­low­ing chap­ters, Mal­let has dis­cussed river en­gi­neer­ing at length. While in one chap­ter, he has writ­ten a great deal about river en­gi­neer­ing, and hy­dropower projects in the up­per stretches, in another one he is com­ment­ing on the sand­banks and river hy­draulics in the plains. Mal­let il­lus­trates how the ganga was a prom­i­nent means of trans­porta­tion be­fore the ar­rival of rail­ways and de­vel­op­ment of roads. giv­ing anec­dotes of Lord Hast­ings’ voy­age down­stream in around 1814, Mal­let de­scribes that even dur­ing that time, nav­i­gat­ing the river was a com­plex and labou­ri­ous as ships and boats re­peat­edly ran aground. He also com­ments on the Modi gov­ern­ment’s am­bi­tious in­land waterways push when the au­thor’s ship jour­ney­ing in the Hoo­gly river north of Kolkata ran aground for the wa­ter was too shal­low. “it was fur­ther­more, midfe­bru­ary, be­fore the worst of the hot, dry sea­son ahead of the mon­soon, and there should still have been enough wa­ter in the river for a flat bot­tomed, shal­low-draft tourist ves­sel such as ours to pro­ceed to un­hin­dered,” he writes.

To­wards the end of the book, he writes how and why it is dif­fi­cult to clean up the ganga, and how pri­vate agen­cies are help­ing. He draws par­al­lels to the clean­ing projects of the rhine and the Thames. How­ever, he be­lieves that de­spite the ne­ces­sity to clean up the river, the sense of ur­gency is miss­ing among the peo­ple as well as the gov­ern­ment. The last chap­ter on the sun­dar­bans and the flora and fauna of the place is a mes­meris­ing ac­count of the river meet­ing the Bay of Ben­gal. over­all, the book is a beau­ti­ful voy­age on the river, a jour­ney that is full of pain­ful and happy mo­ments and a star­ing to­wards a sad fu­ture.

river of Life, river of death: the Ganges and In­dia’s fu­ture By Vic­tor Mal­let Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, 316 pages, ₹550

Swati chandra

The Ganga in Varanasi. The city is holy to Hin­dus and is the con­stituency of the PM.

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