About five years ago, when Financial Times journalist and author Victor Mallet began living in Delhi, he was shocked to discover that the Yamuna — “this beautiful river of Indian legend and art” — was chocked with untreated sewage and industrial waste after it had passed through the city on its way to Mathura, Agra and on to join the Ganga at Allahabad. He wondered “how a river so sacred to so many Indians could also be so polluted and neglected” and then set out to record the plight of the Ganga.
His exhaustive journey led him to various key locations on the river, including its source at Gaumukh and Sagar Island and the Sunderbans at its mouth in the Bay of Bengal. This culminated in the publication of “River of Life, River of Death” (Oxford University Press/Rs 550/316 pages).
“Clearly, the Ganga has enormous problems of physical pollution from sewage, industrial toxins and pesticide run-off. Too much of the water is diverted for irrigation in the dry season, which can leave parts of the river without water before the monsoon. But with political will and public support — I don’t think anyone in India objects to saving the river — it can be done,” Mallet told IANS in an email interview from Hong Kong.
The important thing, he maintained, is to change mindsets and he noted in this context that it is quite common among devout Hindus to say: “Ma Ganga is so spiritually pure that nothing we throw in the river will sully her or make a difference.”
The author said that sensible holy men and environmentalists who care for the Ganga term this as nonsense — and the reason it’s not true is that the Ganga’s very spiritual power arises from its physical properties as a life-giver, as a provider of water and fertility.
“That’s why rivers have always been worshipped in ancient times, including in England. So if you destroy the river’s life-giving qualities through pollution, you destroy the source of her spiritual importance,” he added.
In the book, he also states that it is not impossible to clean the Ganges, “as river clean-ups in Europe and America have shown”.
Elaborating on this, he said: “When I was a child living in London, my mother always told me not to fall in the Thames because the river was so filthy that if I fell in I would have to go to hospital and have my stomach pumped! Yet today the Thames is clean — muddy, but virtually free of industrial pollution and untreated sewage — because successive governments and water and sanitation companies have stopped the pollution.
“The same is true of the Rhine in continental Europe and the Chicago river in the United States. The great thing about rivers is that you don’t have to scrub them clean — you just have to stop polluting them and the natural flow of the river does the rest.”
Mallet maintained that the record on the Ganga has so far been disappointing in terms of implementation, but hoped that there will be a change now that there is a new minister in charge.
“If you clean the Ganga by improving sanitation, you not only save the goddess, you also create thousands of jobs in infrastructure development, and save the lives of thousands of children who die each year because of bad water, poor hygiene and stomach bugs. Likewise, if India curbs its greenhouse gases — and this seems to be happening anyway because alternative energy such as solar power is now very competitive on price — then that will also help it to reduce the kind of air pollution that has recently been afflicting Delhi and the whole of North India,” he maintained.
Mallet went on to add that he learnt a lot about the mythology and the history of the river — and the history of India — in the course of his research for the book.
“In a way, India is so rich in civilisations and stories that you can never say you have completed your work as a researcher and writer. You can at least make a start, and also explain the contemporary political, social, religious and environmental issues that affect the river and the country as a whole,” Mallet said.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)