Slow murder

River of Life, River of Death: the Ganges & India’s future, Victor Mallet; Oxford University Press; Rs.550, Pages 344

Victor Mallet is the latest in a string of visitors over the centuries who have evocatively recorded their fascination for India’s life-giving River Ganges. They include Xuanzang in the 7th century, who was in raptures of its waters, “dark blue in colour with great waves rising”, J.A. Hodgson, the first outsider to reach the Gaumukh glacier, who saluted discovering the origin of the great river with a bugle march, and Fanny Parkes, the 19th century diarist, who was charmed by everything she saw as she sailed up river in a flotilla of vessels; to, more recently, Eric Newby, who meandered slowly down the Ganges on a makeshift craft, Sir Edmund Hillary who jet-boated up it, and Dennison Berwick who trudged from its mouth to its source. 

While retaining the enthrallment the river unfailingly asserts, Mallet’s is arguably the best-researched, and most perceptive and disquieting of all first-person accounts about the Ganges. After trekking up to Gaumukh, immersing himself in the river during the kumbh mela, participating in the annual gathering at Ganga Sagar, besides exploring the historic cities on its banks, Mallet cannot help venting his anguish and despondency at the present plight of this great river which, he warns, poses a threat to the wider Indian population. “The conclusions of official measurements, academic papers and the evidence of one’s own eyes, are alarming for anyone who cares about human health or the environment,” he writes. 

The Ganges is worshipped, celebrated and entwined with myth and legend as no other river has been. It provides for the agricultural, industrial and potable water needs of half a billion people, but what survives at its extremity is grievously tainted by faecal germs and infectious bacteria, industrial chemicals and pesticide residues. Standing at the junction where the river meets the sea, Mallet reflects: “The pure water melted from the glacier at Gaumukh has by this point been subjected to all the follies and wonders of India”. 

Given the status rivers are bestowed in our theological and cultural ethos, they should be purer in India, in terms of water quality, than elsewhere. Mallet’s investigation leads him to comment that “Indians are killing the Ganges with pollution and that the polluted Ganges, in turn, is killing Indians”.

But as he tracks the river downstream, in quiet wonderment of India and getting to understand how the country works, he believes the story is not without hope. There are examples of filthy rivers having been cleaned elsewhere, and he trusts that India can draw lessons to restore the Ganges.

The GAP (Ganga Action Plan) was launched in the 1980s with much fanfare, and followed up with YAP (Yamuna Action Plan), GAP II and YAP II. Millions of rupees have been spent, but the rivers remain as polluted as ever. 
The Centre for Science and Environment has referred to the clean-up as “the great sham”, undertaken “more to create drama than to serve any real purpose”. When prime minister Modi declared to the residents of Varanasi, who had elected him as their MP, that he believed he had been entrusted with the divine mission of saving the Ganges, his promise was greeted with huge enthusiasm. Visiting Varanasi later, Mallet encounters popular disillusionment about the lack of change in the intervening period alongside hope that Modi may still deliver, but comments there’s little evidence of the inhabitants’ own initiative. 

Mallet attributes the lack of headway in the clean-up to a combination of factors including the characteristic inability of a “flailing state” to operationalise well-intentioned policies, and a curious recalcitrance towards addressing what historian Sunil Khilnani describes as the “unworried marriage of religious purity and physical filth”. Growing wealth and commercialisation cause ever-increasing quantities of offerings to be dumped in the river at Varanasi and other religious sites. Reduction of flow on account of drawal of water for irrigation is conveniently blamed for the river’s pollution. Blind faith insists that the ‘self-cleansing properties of Ganga-water’ keep the river pure. 

‘Toxic River’ and ‘Superbug River’ are two highly informative chapters describing the devastating consequences of chemical and bacteriological contamination of the Ganges. Following the Ramganga downstream from its pristine reaches in the Himalayan foothills, Mallet finds it has turned into a “squalid mess” from untreated waste of paper mills, sugar plants, brass foundries, plastics factories and urban sewage at Moradabad. This story gets accentuated further as one proceeds downstream. Although only about one-tenth of the sewage produced by towns along the Ganges is treated, Mallet argues that it is easier to deal with sewage than to curb the toxic waste, pesticides and chemicals that enter the river. Kanpur’s infamous tanneries are but a small contributor to the overall pollution load of the Ganges. 

Even more deadly than the toxins poisoning the river, including groundwater of surrounding areas, and the river bed — on large tracts of which seasonal vegetables are cultivated — are bacteria that are threatening the health of people and proving resistant to modern antibiotics. It is reported that India already has the highest rate of resistance, among 41 countries studied, to the ‘last resort’ carbapenem class of antibiotics. The principal route for the spread of these bacterial genes is faecal contamination of India’s rivers, and thereby drinking water. 
Two interesting chapters on India’s water resources consider how a country that does not fall in the ‘dry’ category finds itself in a situation of acute stress. Mismanagement of rivers and profligate use of ground water — India reportedly pumps out more than any other country — raise the possibility of future ‘water wars’. 

However, the author’s anguished spirits lift when he discusses the abundance and rich biodiversity of the Ganges. He is thrilled to sight the Gangetic dolphin, which survives — incredibly — in the murky waters having adapted to be able to hunt by echo-location. The Chambal is pellucid and teeming with fish and birdlife when he visits, leading him to imagine that this may be because it is regarded as an ‘unholy’ river with few habitations and no temples on its banks till its confluence with the Yamuna. At the mouth of the Ganges, in the mangrove forests of the Sunderbans whose human inhabitants eke out a precarious existence among tigers and crocodiles in a unique habitat ruled by the tide, Mallet finds a fascinating range of wildlife beyond megafauna. 

River of Life provides a comprehensive portrait of the Ganges, from its origins in mythology through the centuries when it was the centre of Indian civilisation, nurturing magnificent cities and mega-ports, to the present day whence its future seems in jeopardy. The picture Mallet paints is dire but — perhaps coloured by his deep-rooted bias for India — he is optimistic that the river can be saved. 

Govindan Nair (The Book Review, April)