As a French water construction engineer, graduated from France and Germany, I have worked on the construction of two dams, the first in the south of France, the second in the Gabonese jungle (central Africa), both very rich human and technical experiences. But if school and work are definitely sources of knowledge and experience, I still felt that I needed to gain another kind of experience as well as to achieve some of the dreams running in my mind. After two years of preparation on various levels, I have started a two years journey across Asia and areas where water has a specific influence on people’s life. Besides adapting myself in those environments, getting into the life and culture of locals, I meet scientists, engineers, technicians involved in water regarding those areas.
This journey has started the on first of July, with the beginning of the Monsoon season, at Gaumukh (Tapoban), a long beautiful Gangotri glacier. A visit of the Tehri hydropower complex- technology opposed to nature before I could find my Atlas cycle at the foot of the Himalayas in order to follow the holy river at its rhythm and get deeper into the culture and life surrounding it. And indeed, once I jumped happily on my new cycle, the attitude of Indians changed: smile, thumbs up, klaxon, surprise, staring look, exclamation… and often a gathering whenever I stop! But most people have been willing to help and even protect me and very soon I found myself spending some time with families, in farm, temple, next to an affectionate baba or the retire chief engineer who supervised the construction of all pilgrimage roads in Uttaranchal
During the day, I cycle on little roads avoiding as much as I can the crazy circulation of the duty roads. Along canals, railways, mango trees, fields of sugar cane, rice, across little villages, bazaars or crazy cities, on little boats or modern bridges, I have been pedaling like so many others under the killing sun or the beloved rain, flirting with the holy Ganga.
Is it because I sometimes suffer for Her, because Hindus so deeply worship Her, for Her beauty, quietness or holiness that I feel so full of joy and energy each time I get to see the Ganga? Somehow, I feel happy when I sleep on Her bank and finally, after having got to know Her a little more, took my first bath in Bithoor!
But one cannot avoid the sad reality of pollution, weather it is in cities or in the river. Since the Ganga is at its highest flow during the monsoon, the visual pollution is very much reduced to its muddy aspect, but if I had no knowledge about Hinduism before discovering this river, I had the strong idea, like many westerners, that it is a much polluted one. Throwing garbage wherever you are, the easiest way to get rid of any trash and inconvenience, has been difficult to accept, and I find having a hard time to worship peacefully something that looks like a garbage: “but this is India, no problem” have I been told!
- The journey will continue in the plains of Bangladesh, where monsoon affects life of people probably more than in any other place.
- I will then go downstream the Mekong River on local boats, from China to the ocean, using this river as a water road.
Bangkok will be the final stage before sailing back to France. This capital has to face many problems related to water, some specific to its quick and huge expansion, some occurred since many water canals have been dried in favor of streets and some are related to the monsoon.
Sailing back to my family and friends shall give me some time and back up (again close to water) to transit from this amazing nomad life to the modern settled world. I shall then try to transfer this experience from mind and heart to paper and make sure that my future will consider human and nature with a little more respect and simplicity.
Ganga: a paradox of holiness and pollution
Interviews based on the following meetings:
- Rajesh Kumar Mishra et Rohit Joshi, SANKAT MOCHAN FOUNDATION, VARANASI, 22 juillet 2005
- Rakesh Jaiswal, ECO FRIENDS, Kanpur, 23 et 24 juillet 2005
What need of expensive sacrifices or of difficult penances?
Worship Ganga, asking for happiness and good fortune,
And she will bring you heaven and salvation
Padma Purana, V60.39
1. Why is the Ganga so holy and beautiful for Hindu people?
RK. This river is the holiest for Hindus and more than 50% of Indians’ population lives in the Ganga basin.
RJ. Heaven surely looks like Gaumukh and beauty does come from heaven! Ganga is not like any other ordinary river and definitely belongs to the Hindus.
2. For what reasons?
RJ. For its mythology first. The Ganga is 2525 km long and a story probably that long. It is also a pilgrim center in many places along the Ganga. Every year, millions of people follow the trails to the 3 main sources of the Ganga. No other river gathers as many persons as the Ganga does during the Kumbh Mela and half Kumbh festivals, held every 12 and 6 years. This river is associated to so many saints and spiritual persons.
From the place where the lotus foot of the Lord, where Bhagirath did great tapasya (ritual austerities), Ganga poured out from Brahma’s jug into the locks of Siv Sankar.
She then descended to earth on a mountain of countless sins.
Tulsi Das says open your two eyes and see how naturally she flows as a stream of nectar
Those who take her name in memory will get the mukti (liberation), those who do pranam (prayer) will arrive at God’s place.
Those who come to the bank of Ganga will find heaven, those who see the waves of emotion will get moksa (the transcendent).
Tarangini (Ganga), your nature is this, what God has given to you.
Bahagirathi (Ganga), I am full of sin and dirtiness. I believe you will give me mukti and a place at your feet.
Ganga Stutti, eulogy song to Ganga
3. Is there something special about the water of the Ganga?
RK. The Ganga contains some bacteriophage virus and I have indeed heard of radioactivity.
RJ. Some tests have been done 1 century ago proving that the Ganga water kills all cholera germs within hours. But actually no scientific data are available. No real study of the ecosystem has been done.
4. Why is it so?
RJ. People don’t want to know the reality.
5. Since how long and in which ways is the Ganga worshiped?
RK. Since the times of Rama, 5000, maybe 6000 years ago. There are four ways to show respect to the Ganga:
- To watch it, davas
- To touch it, pavas
- To take a bath, madjjan
- To drink it (dip, full mouth), pana
RJ. Ganga has surely been worshiped over the last 2000 years, maybe more, but we don’t exactly know. There are 2 ways to consider the Ganga:
- The first is spiritual, religious and has remained intact all over the years: water gives salvation, water is pure, which statement is irrevocable!
- The second aspect is the physical Ganga, highly polluted in some parts. The spiritual side of the Ganga has actually contributed, in some ways, to pollute the physical Ganga!
The valley was a large jungle that attracted agriculturists looking to colonize the resource base of hunter gathered populations
Buddhist records – 6th BC
6. How is that?
RK. Poor people can not always afford to pay 60 to 80 euros for cremation. And according to religious scripts, lepers, snake bitten persons, sadhus and animals cannot be burned. Moreover, some people still believe that the Ganga water, no matter what, can not be polluted!
RJ. Hindu scripts actually forbid spitting, urinating, defecating or using detergent soap and oil in the Ganga, but people do not care about it!
7. How is it possible that such a holy river, can be treated the way it is?
RJ. Population, urbanization, industrialization… The modern use of the river, which aims to control it, assumes today the role once mastered by Lord Shiva, and not for the best! Beside, people do not feel concerned, they have simply learned to live with garbage and a polluted Ganga.
8. What pollution affects the Ganga?
RK. In Varanasi, there is only one major industry, so pollution is mainly the result of domestic sewage and body immersion. On average, 100 ml of the water at the banks of Varanasi contains 45 thousands of fecal bacteria. This can reach 90 thousands during the dry season. Daily, we see 1 or 2 bodies floating by. In the 70’s, you would even take your bath and have excrements floating by your nose!
RJ. Kanpur is the most populated city in UP and the second largest city after Delhi in North India. It is a major industrial center for textile, leather and fertilizer. As a consequence, organic pollution as well as heavy metal is affecting the water in Kanpur. Moreover, this part of the Ganga is very vulnerable since no important river flows into it between Narora and Allahabad. The two major intakes for irrigation, the upper Ganga canal in Haridwar and the lower Ganga canal in Aligarh divert most of the river water.
Today, Ganga is the natural home of half burnt dead bodies, unclaimed bodies, animal carcasses, washer men’s points, dairies and cattle bathing points, garbage from the slums, open defecation along the river and domestic and industrial effluents of all kinds.
The eternal Ganga, our vision for Ganga, Ecofriends’ website
9. What is the total intake for irrigation?
RJ. It can reach the summer flow of the Ganga. Sometimes, all flow is diverted for some days, even months. The Ganga in Kanpur is then reduced to a sewage drain. In the early 60’s, the Ganga also shifted up to 9 km away from the bank of the city leaving only a black and smelly drain. A barrage, started in 1995 was completed this year in order to restore the original course of the Ganga and create a reservoir of 1600 million litre of drinking water per day by 2030. But because of political hurry and bureaucratic battle, the inauguration was precipitated, forgetting safety precautions. The current monsoon flooding may have damaged the left bank, which could lead to a 100 million euros project washed in heaven!
10. Is there any life left in the Ganga?
RK. Turtles and Gangetic dolphins, endemic to the Ganga are still living in the river.
RJ. But the population is definitely decreasing. I believe the gangetic dolphin is now on the list of endangered species. A family of 6-7 dolphins can be seen near Kanpur during the monsoon though.
11. What about the GAP?
RJ. The Ganga Action Plan was initiated by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and started by Rajiv Gandhi in 1986 with a budget of 70 million euros. Phase 1 was completed in 1995 and Gap 2 abandoned half-way, funding having been stopped by the Dutch last year. GAP’s purpose was to depollute the Ganga by treating domestic and industrial sewage and wastewater, construction of water treatment plants, pump houses, crematoria etc.. Kanpur generates about 400 million liters of sewage per day and the Gap 1 was supposed to treat 160 million out of it.
12. Any results?
RK. GAP is a total failure, technical failure. 9 million euros were invested in Varanasi for basically 0% of results.
RJ. In 1995, the government evaluation report of the GAP phase 1 claimed that the Ganga pollution had been reduced by 70%. Treatment plants were indeed built in Kanpur, but none of them are functioning satisfactorily and the water quality has consistently decreased (Biological Oxygen Demand having increased). GAP 2 is in stand still.
13. Why such a failure?
RK. The technology chosen is not adapted to the reality. All facilities rely on electricity, but Varanasi has electricity shortage for 6 to 12 hours daily. Without electricity, the water is simply let into the Ganga as it arrives! Moreover, during the monsoon, the plants are flooded and unusable. All facilities officially close their doors during the 3 months of the Monsoon season, plus 2 months to clean everything.
RJ. GAP was initiated by the government. The population did not ask for it. It is only based on curative treatment, not on prevention.
But what theoretically appeared a sincere effort on part of the Government did not turn out to be practically feasible due to problems of implementation, enforcement gaps, red tapism, corruption, cultural values and inadequate water regulations for small, medium and large scale industrial pollution…. a lack of coordination among agencies even at local and state levels, as well as lack of public awareness to promote active participation of people in the pollution control programs
Dr Vandaana Asthana responding to Rakesh jaiswal
14. What actions have your associations conducted?
RK. SMF has suggested installing gravity sewers in Varanasi. Our proposal was submitted in 1997 and accepted by the local government. But the central government refused it. We also try to sensitize the population, organize school program... But the financial resources are short and the government doesn’t support us since we are fighting and embarrassing it!
RJ. In 1997, we cleaned the river on a stretch of 10 km and removed 180 bodies in 3 days. This action started to sensitize people. Now, they know about pollution, about the GAP, about its reality. We run school programs, a court case was filed, we campaign against the use of plastic bags … The immersion of bodies has decreased, and people do bury their deads, but it is hard, for 1 step forward, we go 2 steps backward!
15. Is there any hope for the Ganga?
RK. I stay optimistic, but it will take time, generations to change the mentalities.
RJ. Well, Japan is willing to invest in Varanasi, Lucknow, Kanpur and Allahabad. 400 million euros should be lent for Kanpur in order to get the city and the Ganga cleaned. We are also trying to get one existing holiday, the day of remembrance for Gandhi, as a national cleaning day of the country. 20000 post cards have been sent by students to the government in order to get one day declared as National Cleanliness Day. Everyone is responsible! Let people think about it, about pollution. They should be asking for a clean country and a clean Ganga!
16. Will it be possible to sail again on the Ganga as it used to be in the past?
RK. The government wants to develop the channel from Allahabad to Calcutta. Dredging have already started since the existing channel is not deep enough. But it is all in an initial state.
RJ. British had constructed a canal crossing Kanpur as the Seine in Paris. But Kanpurites then used it as a pollution drain and it has been filled up. And 50-60 years ago there were still boats on the Ganga. Then agriculture became the top priority of the country. Downstream people have lost their rights on the Ganga.
It took hundreds of years of penance by Sage Bhagirath to bring the celestial river to earth and it would not be an exaggeration to say that today Ganga requires many Bhagiraths to revive and reclaim its sacred nature.