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The Ganges: India’s river of life & death

Victor Mallet effortlessly bares India’s complex relationship with the Ganga river, whom it reveres as a goddess, yet dumps its waste in her bosom.


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Updated: July 23, 2018

India’s famed Ganga river may not be the world’s longest, but it could easily qualify as the world’s most sacred. Ganga is a “goddess” whose fame is not limited to India’s north, where it originates, or the subcontinent which benefits from it, but in faraway lands up to West Indies where Indians were taken as indentured labourers a few centuries ago.

The Ganges – 2,525 km long and a source of water for at least 700 million people – is known by many names. In Sanskrit texts the river has been called “eternally pure”, “a light amid the darkness of ignorance”, and “daughter of the Lord of Himalaya”. Most of these names the reader would learn in Victor Mallet’s “River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and Modern India” (Oxford University Press).

The main premise of Mallet’s book is “India is killing the Ganges, and the Ganges is killing India”. “The waterway that has nourished more people than any on earth for millennia is now so polluted it is a menace to public health,” he writes.

He quotes Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva to indicate the significance of the river for Indians. “If the Ganga lives, India lives. If the Ganga dies, India dies”. This perhaps explains the lengths that Mallet, an award-winning journalist decided to go to, to document its magnificence, and the urgent need to save it.

Mallet, who covered India for Financial Times, heard Narendra Modi in Varanasi where the latter was campaigning to be prime minister. “When I said that Ma Ganga [Mother Ganges] has called me, these words spontaneously emerged from within. Perhaps these were not even words, they were the manifestation of a spiritual stream flowing within me,” Modi said.

In that little speech, Mallet saw hope for the Ganga, as did the staunchest of Modi’s critics, who had seen billions of dollars being wasted in clean-up operations during the previous regimes.

Modi is nearing the end of his term and there has been little progress in the clean-up of the holy river. There are reasons for the no-show which Mallet elaborates in his book, but he is not the one to see this as an impossible task.

“It will in any case be a huge and costly task. But it is not impossible, as river clean-ups in Europe and America have shown,” Mallet writes.

Mallet effortlessly bares India’s complex relationship with the Ganga, whom it reveres as a goddess, and yet dumps its waste in her bosom certain that this will not pollute her, certain that this waste will not kill her.

The book includes chapters on the history of the Ganga, the fate of the river in Varanasi, the extent of the toxicity of its waters, as well as its significance in the country’s water crisis. There is also a chapter titled “Superbug River” – where Mallet writes about a bacterial gene, resistant to antibiotics, and named by The Lancet as NDM-1, or New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, much to the chagrin of Indian officials.

In an email interview with Asia News Network, Mallet talks about his book, the social and religious significance of Ganga and why he thinks it is not impossible to “purify” this holy river.

As you point out in your book Ganga is much more than a river to Indians. She is their goddess. She may be the world’s most polluted river, yet she retains the ability to wash away their sins. What does it take to clean-up a river which the faithful refuse to see as unclean?

It’s a big problem when people who love and worship Ma Ganga believe that she is so spiritually pure that no physical pollution can affect her. I quote the environmentalists and wise Hindu scholars who point out that her spiritual power of purification comes from her physical qualities, her ability to bring life. In ancient Britain, too, people used to revere rivers and river confluences and river spirits, precisely because rivers are life-givers, providing water and fertility to humankind. After all, that’s why almost all civilisations and great cities are built on rivers, river deltas or river confluences. It’s not just Delhi on the Yamuna, or Varanasi on the Ganga, but also Paris on the Seine, London on the Thames, Cairo on the Nile and Washington DC on the Potomac.

As for the clean-up, the great thing about rivers is that you don’t really need to scrub them clean. The moment you stop polluting a river, it pretty much cleans itself.

What got you interested in the Ganga?

I guess I’ve always been interested in rivers and the oceans – and in sailing boats – and every time I go to a new city I try to find the river and walk along it or across it. In the case of Delhi, I was intrigued to find a sailing club marked on my map-book of the city, so I wanted to know how anyone could sail on such a highly polluted river. I found my way down to the Defence Services Sailing Club at Okhla and was sad to see that it is barely used any more because the Yamuna is so filthy after it has collected all the raw sewage and industrial pollution from Delhi. The Yamuna of course is a tributary of the Ganga and I wanted to find out more about this magical river. Around the world, the Ganges is a famous name, but people know surprisingly little about the river or its history or its natural history – or even its cultural and religious significance.

You write that Ganges is a virtual sewer with 3,000 million litres of raw sewage entering the river every day. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had unveiled a mega plan to clean-up the river, his term is nearing an end – has anything changed for the river?

I and many others – even people who are political enemies of Narendra Modi – thought he would really be able to achieve something in improving sanitation and in cleaning the Ganga. After all, from the 2014 election onwards he made those two connected issues a centrepiece of his government’s policy making. I’m very disappointed that so little seems to have been achieved given the amount of money available from Indian and international sources, and given the amount of political will that seemed to be there for the programme. Of course the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government is not the first Indian administration to have announced these kind of projects and failed to produce results, but it’s still depressing. Why have more sewage treatment plants not been built and connected? Why has more progress not been made in cleaning industrial effluents?

India has failed to clean-up the Ganga over the decades even though millions of dollars were pumped in. Yet, you are optimistic and think this is doable. How and why?

Well I am hopeful that something can be done, despite the lack of progress so far, because India is not the first country, nor is the Ganga the first river, to face these kind of challenges. When I was a child growing up in London, my mother warned me not to fall into the Thames, because if I did I would have to be taken to hospital and have my stomach pumped because the river was so polluted. And yet the Thames is now a clean river (albeit a muddy, tidal one in London), with thriving fish populations in the estuary and relatively unpolluted water flowing through the capital. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a poem about the stench coming from the Rhine in Cologne back in the 19th century, and yet this continental European river has now been restored to health. And when Modi first met Barack Obama back in 2014, they talked about climate change and environmental matters and Obama pointed out that the river in his native Chicago had once been disgusting, and was now so clean that you could catch fish in it and eat them. “That’s exactly what I want for the Ganga,” Modi said.

What is that one thing that India lacks or needs to clean-up the Ganga?

Good government, and swift policy implementation, at the municipal, state and national levels.

Anything else you would like to add.

Two things. First, it’s not just what we put into rivers, it’s also what we take out. One of the problems for the Ganga, as for other rivers around the world, is that so much water is extracted from the river and the water table – mainly for farming – that the river dries up in some places in the dry season and there is not enough flow of water for communities further down the river or to flush out the pollution. Second, the state of our rivers and our fresh water supplies is of fundamental importance to humanity, and we have all neglected this issue for far too long. We all know what we have to do – stop wasting water, and stop polluting our water sources – but we have so far not done it.



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Lamat R Hasan
About the Author: Lamat is an Associate Editor at Asia News Network.

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