Lit for Life

Ganga, possibly the world’s most worshipped river and the most polluted river: Victor Mallet

Victor Mallet at The Hindu Lit For Life in Chennai.   | Photo Credit: K. Pichumani

India’s most sacred river is also the best example of its swachh paradox, of clean houses and filthy commons. Journalist Victor Mallet set out to look at the strange disconnect between official policy that commits over a billion dollars for a clean-up of the Ganga but a devotion-filled population thinks nothing of tossing mountains of waste into it. The result is his book, River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future.

“I wish I didn’t have to say this. Unfortunately, surprisingly little has been achieved despite the amount of money and time allocated,” Mr. Mallet said at The Hindu Lit for Life on day two, on the action plans rolled out by governments to cleanse the river.

But why did he choose this subject for his book? To a journalist, India is full of stories, and for Mr. Mallet, the Ganga became the thread. He said at the interaction moderated by Suhasini Haidar, that it was striking for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to choose to talk about toilets and cleanliness in his 2014 Independence Day address. But three years later, as the audit of the Ganga clean-up plan showed, only 260 million dollars were spent out of over a billion dollars equivalent that was allocated.

Mr. Mallet, Asia News Editor of the Financial Times, found the long course of the Ganga, which he describes as “possibly the world’s most worshipped river and the most polluted river,” an amazing journey. The foothills where it originates present a wonderful, moving vista, with clean skies, cold air and rushing torrents. Much later downstream come the Sundarbans, with their mangroves and tigers. In the middle are Varanasi, other cities, sights and wildlife, he said.

What marks many reaches of the river, though, is pollution, which has killed some of its tributaries. Yet, extraordinary wealth exists in the Ganga system, in the midst of the most densely populated part of the planet.

Mr. Mallet discovered gharials, small fish-eating critically endangered crocodiles, and freshwater dolphins, and inevitably, the Chambal. It surprised him that few knew of the sanctuary along the banks of the Chambal river, although it was close to Delhi. “You never read about the Chambal in the media, only about the Ganga and the Yamuna,” he said, extolling its virtues.

Dismantling a city

It is another of India’s paradoxes that governments can build an entire city for a festival such as the Kumbh Mela, housing two million people with electricity, roads, telecommunications, sanitation, law and order and health facilities, but not be able to do the same on a permanent basis.

Someone explained to Mr. Mallet that this was the Indian Wedding Syndrome, where everyone in the family comes together to conduct a big wedding. “This means it can be done all the time,” he argued.

More such contradictions can be found. The Ganga Sagar festival in Bengal has strict rules on littering, and the message is embellished with Baul songs at the venue asking people to use toilets and wash their hands afterwards. But there is no long-term focus on such behaviour change or infrastructure building.

There is no deficit of intent, though. Prime Minister Modi talked to Barack Obama when he was President about river clean-ups, and listened to how the Chicago river became good enough to do fishing. He said he wanted to do the same for the Ganga. The Thames in London offers an example of a filthy river that was transformed, and it today attracts cormorants with fish. “The Ganga is a much more important river to India, than the Thames is to London,” he pointed out.

Travelling superbugs

But there other challenges too. The depressing reality is that lack of sanitation is helping disease travel along the course of the Ganga. India is, Mr. Mallet said, unfortunately a place where the mutation of superbugs (drug resistant bacteria) can take place easily, and they exist in Delhi and other cities. When people foul up a river, the bacteria travel far beyond their origins. They kill thousands of children.

The audience at his talk then asked him about the long periods over which European rivers were brought back to life. It took three decades for the Rhine to be revived, for instance. Moreover, does India have to get rich before it can cleanse the Ganga?

Mr. Mallet’s response was that the people of Europe too worshipped their rivers and confluences. When the rivers were rendered lifeless, people realised that their spiritual quality - as the providers of life and fertility - could survive only if they were physically alive.

Many in India too see this, and want a genuine clean-up. What stands in the way is the inability of governments and officials, often corrupt and inefficient, to deliver, he said. Moreover, a good plan to revive the Ganga and its tributaries would create hundreds of thousands of jobs, which is something the country needs badly.

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Printable version | Jun 10, 2021 7:48:18 AM |

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