Ganga: The Soul of India

A Hindu firmly believes that a sip of Ganges water with his last breath will straight away take him to heaven. With the bogey of Global Warming doing rounds and the panic about news of shrinking glaciers, will Ganga continue to flow and cleanse the souls as popularly believed or will it dry up is a question that bogs the mind. We have polluted Ganga to the best of our ability and even now we are not leaving any stone unturned in polluting it further. Are we entitled to still call it our mother, our soul?

Earlier in the mythological times the Ganga was a treated like a goddess. Contemporarily it is a big, wide drain which we are using to dispose our muck. It is time to have a look at what is Ganga, what it was and what have we done with it.

Ganga is an age old river. One finds mention of Ganga at several places in the ancient Hindu scriptures, the Rig Veda. Hindu Puranas mention Ganga as a goddess who lived in the heavens. King Bhagirath worshipped Ganga and she obliged by descending to this earth as a river. It is said that so powerful was the onslaught of Ganga that Lord Shiva had to be requested to take it on the matted hair on his head.

Thereafter Ganga continued to flow through the Himalayas and descended down to the plains carving its valley. Ganga is supposed to wash all the sins and sanctify the individuals who take a dip in the River. Ganga is also mentioned in the Mahabharath. She is the mother of Bhishma.

In short the River is deeply ingrained in the Hindu culture. So deep is the faith that as many as 70 million people take dip in the Ganga during the Kumbh at the ‘Triveni sangam’ (confluence of Ganga and Yamuna and Saraswati rivers) at Prayag (Allahabad) in Uttar Pradesh. It may be added here that in the ancient times the River Saraswati used to meet Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag but later vanished.

Ganga has seen the rise of the civilization along its course, it has been witness to the history and today it is witnessing the plunder of the river and environs.

The might of the River can be adjudged from what Professor I.B. Singh a teacher of repute and an eminent expert on Ganga plains says about the Ganga (‘Large Rivers: Geomorphology and Management’, edited by A. Gupta (2007, John Wiley & Sons Ltd)-‘From its source to the sea the river is intimately related to the civilization and culture of India. The 2525 km long Ganga drains a 1060000 km2 basin that covers 26.2% of India’s total surface area between the southern slopes of Himalayan Mountains and the northern Indian Peninsula’. Ganga basin is extensive and extends beyond Indian Territory in Nepal, China (Tibet) and Bangladesh. Thus 80% of the basin lies in India and the remainder in the aforesaid countries.

The collision of Indian Plate with the Tibetan Plate some 20 million years ago gave rise to the Himalayas and the slopes making the rivers flow towards the plains of Ganga-Yamuna. The plate tectonics still controls the sediment quantity of the Ganges system. The huge load of sediment the river carries has formed the vast alluvial plains, the large Brahmaputra and Ganga delta system and also largest submarine fan in the world-the Bengal Fan says Professor I.B. Singh. Major part of the sediment load Ganga and its tributaries carry is from the Himalayas and a part from the rivers like Chambal and its tributaries and also a part of the recycled alluvium is carried too by the river.

The sediment carrying capacity of a river depends upon its discharge and also how it can ‘offload’ part of the sediments en-route to the sea. The vast Ganga-Yamuna plains are a result of this process only. Ganga and its tributaries have been swaying through these plains and flooding them every year. This process of flooding is a river’s natural requirement to ‘offload’ the excess sediments.

Ganga starts as Bhagirathi from Gangotri Glacier at Gaumukh in Uttarakhand at an altitude of 3800 m. It is known as Ganga only after Alaknanda joins Bhagirathi at Devprayag. Bhagirathi and Alaknanda have a large drainage network in Uttarakhand and after covering a distance of about 300 km, Ganga enters plains at Haridwar at an altitude of 290 m. It is strange that no significant river meets Ganga in plains for a distance of 410 km till Kannauj in U.P. where Ramganga joins from the north. A number of rivers from south U.P. join Yamuna on the other hand. And the combined flow of Ganga and Yamuna after confluence at Allahabad is 130 billion meter cube.

Ganga is a seasonal river says Prof I.B. Singh. The annual hydrograph at Farakka shows that during most of the year the River flow remains low. But during the months from July to October it peaks with very high discharges. The discharge of the Ganga varies not only from season to season but often from day to day. This pattern of the river discharge needs careful monitoring for pollution management and water utilization.

A suddenly reduced discharge causes concentration of pollutants. A river which we revered and considered the very soul of our culture and religion is polluted to the brim. A report of experts states that though the total fecal coliform (FC) count has come down 81714 MPN/100 ml (down stream of Malvia Bridge at Varanasi, 2007), it is still much higher than less than 500 MPN/100 ml permissible for bathing.

Water quality data collected from 16 stations right from Rishikesh (now in Uttarakhand) to Uluberia in West Bengal shows that after implementation of Ganga Action Plan (GAP I) in 1985 the quality of water has improved. However, an analytical report of water samples from 1986 to 2008 has revealed that the quality of water in terms of Dissolved Oxygen, Biological Oxygen Demand and Coliform bacteria is still not fit even for bathing. In fact total coliform content has increased from 400(2002/2003) to 1600 MPN/100 ml (2008) at Haridwar. Downstream of Sangam at Allahabad it has increased from 1607 (2002/2003) to 17000 MPN/100 ml (2008). By the time these waters reach Uluberia the coliform content increased to 500000 MPN/100 ml (2008). Ganga water at these places is not even worth touching what to think of bathing.

The root cause of this problem is our own doing. We have willingly/forcibly/ignorantly enlarged our townships on banks of Ganga. For example Allahabad, where apart from normal population, millions throng during the Kumbh. The sewage treatment facilities are inadequate. By the time capacity is increased the population trebles.

Our Earth system is a great recycler, but it has its limitations. A simple example will explain the point. A certain number and size of fishes with natural plants in an aquarium may manage to maintain a balance between the ammonia produced by the fecal matter and the oxygen available to keep the fishes alive. The moment the number of fishes is increased the balance goes haywire and the fishes begin to die. Likewise the habitations on the river banks have caused the nature’s balancing cart to topple. A number of projects are coming up and sewage treatment plants too are being made. But the types of plants being established consume lots of electricity. In future the plants may come up but remain dormant for want of power! Ganga will remain polluted.

The society has failed to control the industries from polluting the river and the government has remained a mute spectator. 

Ganga is not just a river. It is the soul of India and it requires a bit of soul searching about how to bring back its glory? We have heavily polluted the river. It is time to think of ways and means of cleansing the river, cleansing our soul. Read more about Ganga in the next column.   


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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