“The land where the Ganges does not flow
is likened in a hymn to the sky without the sun,
a home without a lamp,
a Brahmin without the Vedas.”
So writes Jean Tavernie in Travel in India.
The Ganges, popularly known as 'Ganga’ occupies an integral and sacrosanct place in India’s history making her presence felt from the geopolitical to the socio-economic sphere. The river originates at Gaumukh in the Southern Himalayas flowing through Cities, Towns and quiet landscape before reaching theTriveni Sangam close to Varanasi (Banaras). There are innumerable sites all along the river which are legendary in Hindu history and mythology.
Endearingly, the river is often referred to as ‘Ganga-Ma’ [meaning, ‘mother Ganga’]. It is also the very soul of India where half the population directly or indirectly depends on the Ganges for drinking water and agricultural needs.
In her book “Banaras: City of Light,” Diana Eck articulately wrote:
“There are few things on which Hindu India, diverse as it is, might agree. But of the Ganges, India speaks with one voice. The Ganges carries an immense cultural and religious meaning for Hindus of every region and every sectarian persuasion.”
A sacred river revered by the Hindus and glorified in mythologies, stories, songs and poems, the Ganges is the very heart and soul of India. One would naturally expect that a river this dear to its own people would be cherished and protected with zeal. But alas, perhaps it is the very significance of the river in Hindu customs and belief that has and continues to push it to its nadir.
Today, the Ganges is threatened by the very divine prominence it has been accorded by its own people. Every year, thousands of worshippers congregate on the banks of the river to attend various festivals such as the Sangam, Sagar Mela and Kumbh Mela. This mass gathering of people that the river attracts has an environmentally adverse effect on it. Over the years the glaciers that the river emerges from have been decreasing by hundreds of feet and the decline in average snowfall in the region has prevented their replenishment.
According to a number of glaciologists, part of the problem facing the Ganges may lie in the burning of fossil fuels by pilgrims who assemble in tents near the glaciers. Sadly, the reverence given to the river seems to be limited to rituals wherein one takes away from it or ‘uses’ it, without any thought or consideration for what it does to Ganga-Ma. For example, the emersion of idols of deities and practices such as immersing ashes of the dead in the Ganges may have a divine impetus behind them, but have deadly effects on the river and environment.
The similar callousness is evident all along the Ganga basin, where it is estimated that almost 350 million people reside. As it flows through several towns and cities, untreated human, animal and industrial wastes are discharged into the river. In Kanpur, for example, chromium and other harmful chemicals from the nearby leather industries seep into the river unrestricted. The rise in contamination of ground water around the Ganga Basin areas is evident in the ever increasing cases of water borne disease such as cholera. According to the Sankat Mochan Foundation (SMF) that launched the Campaign for a Clean Ganga, fecal coliform pollution in several bathing areas is more than 3,000 times above the level acceptable and safe for human beings. Decomposed corpses that have not been cremated properly are left to float in the river, polluting the sacred waters but also threatens marine and human life.
The seriousness of the problem has been acknowledged by the Indian Authorities who realize that unless serious measures are taken, the water supply generated from the Ganges will dwindle over a period of time. In April 1985 The Ganga Action Plan (GAP) was established to clean the Ganges. Several waste treatment facilities were constructed with the help of British and Dutch companies to stop the sewage at a certain cut-off point and redirect the water for treatment. Many electrical crematoria were also built for this purpose. GAP seemed like a positive step when it was launched but could not live up to the expectations and the activities were shut down by the Government in 2000. Some environmentalists believe that more than $600 million spent to implement the GAP over the 15 year period failed to yield the desired results and benefit the Ganges. The core of the problem was an absence of a strong political will combined with erroneous technology and lack of vision to address the problem effectively and adequately. For instance, to operate the sewage treatment plants there was a need for a continuous supply of power which was unavailable and as a result the sewage treatment plants were rendered useless.
The perception of the Ganga itself as a purifying river reduces the sense of urgency as some view the problem as grossly exaggerated. The Ganga is said to contain bacteriophages that can overcome bacteria and so on as well as an unexplained ability to retain dissolved oxygen. However, whether these are seeped in age old beliefs or supported by scientific evidence is debatable.
The President of SMF, Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra, strongly believes the struggle to clean our river is ultimately a battle about information rather than technology. It is a battle to create much greater public awareness to break through the firewall of official indifference in India. There is also an urgent need to promote greater environmental consciousness and responsibility among people to manage our waters more efficiently.
The organization in 2001 launched an ambitious three-year "public awareness" project in Varanasi to better inform and encourage citizens to be part of the solution by adopting measures that would make a difference. Workers from the campaign patrol the 7 km stretch along the Varanasi ghats on a daily basis, removing human and animal corpses along with plastic bag and other litter from the river. Although it is an effort that does make a difference there remains a need for a more concrete long-term vision to save the Ganges.
The initiative by environmentalist and concerned citizens has propelled the Government to become more pro-active in their approach to clean the Ganga. In October, 2009 under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister the first meeting of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) was held. Initiatives such as the ‘Mission Clean Ganga’ to prevent untreated municipal sewage and industrial effluent to enter Ganga by 2020 and a comprehensive river basin management plan by December 2010 were put in place. In Februaray 2010, the government allocated substantial budget for the programmes to clean up the Ganges.
In the Ganges lies our future water resource and a failure to protect the Ganges could prove detrimental to our own lives, as water scarcity becomes one of the biggest crisis in the near future. India’s first Prime Minter, Late Jawaharlal Nehru famously said: “intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.”
Every evening as one sits at the river banks in Haridwar looking across the tranquil waters of the Ganges, one can witness the devotion and religious fervor of the worshippers. The skies darken and the chants of the holy priests grow louder at the culmination of the Ganga Aarti (prayers) creating an enchanting atmosphere. One needs to realize that it is not an option to save the life sustaining waters of the Ganges but a necessity for in her survival is interviewed our own salvation and century old traditions and religious beliefs.