The devout Hindu worships her. Politicians invoke her with unenvied regularity. The 560 million men and women who live along her banks pledge their livelihood to her. She is ‘holy’. She is ‘pure’. She is the ‘mother goddess’, the ‘golden thread’ of Indian history. In fact, there is a little bit of her in most Indian households, quite literally. Yet, one of the world’s most revered rivers is also one of its filthiest. The Ganga is, indeed, a study in contrast. Victor Mallet’s book, River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future, dwells upon this perennial confluence of the splendour and the squalor and what it means to various stakeholders—across time, space and milieu. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi sat down to chat with Barack Obama over an informal dinner in the White House in September 2014, the then US President told him that the Chicago river was once so filthy that it would even catch fire. But then, through tremendous effort, it was restored to health and has now become a place from where fish are caught and eaten. “That’s exactly what I want for the Ganga,” Modi told him. A month before, Modi had discussed the clean-up of the Thames and possible lessons for India with a visiting senior British politician, Nick Clegg. “…cleaning up the Ganges, more sustainable waste disposal in cities, more efficient energy consumption by Indian households, rollout of small-scale renewable energy generation capacity in rural communities—if he does half of that, he will have met India’s global climate change obligation already,” Clegg said. More than three years on, the Ganga remains sullied as ever. Each day, 501 million litres of industrial waste and six billion litres of waste are pumped into the river, while the natural water flow is diverted for irrigation, as per an official with the Central Pollution Control Board. Bloated carcasses and untreated sewage make the situation even worse. At the Narora barrage, around 90% of the Ganga is diverted, leaving very little water downstream.
It’s true that Modi has sought to galvanise a lethargic bureaucracy on a clean-up mission that many in the past termed impossible. He launched Namami Gange, under which the Centre took control of the clean-up drive, quadrupled its budget and promised to spend `20,000 crore in five years through 2019-20, Mallet says. The programme has been split into three parts, starting with ‘quick wins’ for immediate, visible impact, including rural sanitation, to cut sewage flow. Over the medium term, the government intends to build sewage treatment plants with a capacity of 2.5 billion litres a day, plant 30,000 hectares of forest in the watershed to reduce erosion and install 113 water monitoring stations. In the long term (over a 10-year period), the government will ensure adequate water flow in the river and improve the efficiency of irrigation. Yet, some basics need to be worked out. How much money has been spent on the clean-up of the Ganga by successive governments and what specific result has been achieved? What is the level of pollution across states, especially where it’s most vulnerable to human abuse? Various data are thrown around on these critical issues by various agencies, none of them consistent. In fact, the government figures vary as much as 500% on funds spent, as per a journalist who has written articles for The New Yorker on the Ganga. This has reinforced scepticism that has always dogged the minds of environmentalists that the Ganga clean-up drive symbolises what is wrong with India—a corrupt administration, grossly inadequate waste management and pathetic civic sense of a majority of its population. This book evokes a range of emotions about the state of the Ganga with its fairly honest portrayal. Rage and sorrow, hope and despair pervade the sense with regularity. “The first glimpse of an Indian river these days is rarely a pretty sight,” Mallet says. The Ramganga river, a tributary of the Ganga, is littered with detritus of 23 drains. There are some 400 toxic tanneries in Kanpur that heap substantial garbage on the Ganga. While the upstream is a tad cleaner, the downstream that passes through some of the most populous states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, is downright ugly. Treatment plants are hardly working in many places. Rashes, pustules and numbness in the limbs are some of the perceived health hazards of the pollution in the Ganga, says one of the persons interviewed by Mallet.
While a burgeoning population is the root cause of the pollution, hydroelectric dams upstream and innumerable irrigation canals are starving the Ganga of water. However, while Mallet, a former India bureau chief with Financial Times, has been ruthless with his depiction of the sorry state of affairs, he never refrains from offering hope that things could improve—with better planning, a lot of hard work, adequate funds and tremendous sagacity. After all, the Thames, once infamously sullied, is now one of Europe’s cleanest rivers. Also, the way the Kumbh mela, arguably the largest religious gathering on earth, is organised in such a short period is indicative that the administration can do a massive job in turning around things if it so wants.
But what is remarkable about this book is its use of the Ganga as a metaphor for India, and what the river means to various sections of society. From the glacial beginnings in the Himalayas to its end in the Bay of Bengal, the Ganga’s journey has been depicted with all its religious and cultural significance. Even the celebration of the river by Bollywood forms a chapter in the book.
While Mallet is encouraged by the clean-up drive being looked into by the Prime Minister himself, he isn’t blind towards the enormity of challenges that the government faces, considering that efforts in the past hardly yielded results. But then, what other option does the government have but to clean up the Ganga? After all, as one of the holy men quoted by Mallet, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, suggests: “If Ganga dies, India dies. If Ganga thrives, India thrives.”