Saving the Ganges
The Ganges is one of the world’s most revered watercourses, a lifeline millions of Indians, but it is also the most polluted river in the world. Jyotsna Singh talks to the FT’s Victor Mallet about efforts to clean up the river and about his latest book, 'River Of Life, The River Of Death'.
Presented by Jyotsna Singh and produced by Fiona Symon
For the Financial Times in Delhi, this is FT News, and I'm Jyotsna Singh. The Ganges is Hinduism's holiest river, revered as a mother goddess. But this most famous watercourse, a lifeline to hundreds of millions of Indians, is also among the most polluted in the world. Several governments in the past have attempted to clean up the river, but without success.
So what is the future of this mighty river, and can it be saved? It's a question Victor Mallet, the FT's Asia news editor, has explored in his latest book, River of Life, River of Death, The Ganges and India's Future. And he joins me on the line from Hong Kong to discuss it.
Hello, Victor. You lived in Delhi for four years until 2016, during which time you watched closely the Modi government's efforts to reduce pollution in the Ganges. What drew you to the topic?
I've always been drawn to rivers, big or small, whether it's the Nile in Africa, where I lived in Khartoum as a child, or smaller rivers in Kent, where I lived in England. And when I first came to Delhi, I came across the Yamuna, this extremely polluted river that runs through the centre of Delhi. Well, it's polluted after it runs through Delhi, of course. And the Yamuna is a tributary of the Ganges.
And then when I went to different parts of the Ganges, I think it's fair to say I was captivated by different aspects of the river, whether it's the source of the river, which is in the wild foothills of the Himalayas, or indeed a city like Patna in Bihar, which is a pretty unremarkable town in some ways. And yet there are freshwater dolphins hundreds of kilometres upstream on the Ganges playing around in the city centre. All these things come together to make it a pretty remarkable river that is in danger but is still very much alive.
Give us a sense of how urgent the situation is.
I think it is urgent. The Ganges itself is not dead, but there are very severe problems of pollution, principally sewage, which flows untreated into the Ganges and creates problems for water quality downstream so that people get sick drinking the water or using the water for cooking and so on. And then there are industrial toxins that go into the water, including carcinogens, heavy metals, especially from tanneries, but also from other factories. And then there are poisons that we know very little about, pesticides, fertiliser runoff into the river.
And then lastly, there's a problem which is not so much pollution as overuse of water. So a lot of water is extracted from the river and used for agriculture. And that means that the river in some places and at some seasons has very little natural flow. And that, in a sense, intensifies the pollution, or the pollution cannot be diluted by the flowing water of the river.
What hope is there that the Ganges can be returned to its pristine glory, given the spectacular failure of all previous attempts to do so?
Well, it's true that there have been successive projects by various governments of all political stripes in India to clean the Ganges and save the Ganges for posterity. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent or at least allocated for cleaning the river. But I try not to be too pessimistic, because I look at other rivers around the world which have been equally dirty, and in the case of the Thames in central London completely dead through industrial pollution and sewage decades ago.
And when I was a child in London, they said that if you fell in the Thames, you would have to have your stomach pumped because it was so poisonous. You weren't supposed to do that. And the Thames is now a pretty clean river. It's muddy, of course, but that's natural mud, if you like.
And it's a tidal river. And it has fish, and it has cormorants, which you can actually even occasionally see fishing right under Southwark Bridge, where the Financial Times has its headquarters in central London. So the Thames has been rescued.
So has the Rhine in continental Europe, which runs through several countries in continental Europe. The Rhine was pretty dirty. It wasn't completely dead, but it suffered from sewage pollution, from industrial pollution. And the Chicago River. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, when he first met Barack Obama in the White House, that was one of the things they talked about.
And Obama told him that the Chicago River was so dirty that it used to catch fire, and now it was clean enough so that you could eat the fish that you caught in the river. And Modi said to Obama, that's exactly what I want for the Ganges. So there is hope it does need money, and it does need political will, but it's certainly not an impossible task to clean the Ganges.
Before my final question, I would like you to read an excerpt from your book for our listeners.
I'll read a very short extract just towards the end of the book, describing where the Ganges has been, if you like. And it starts at the mouth of the river.
At Gomukh in the highlands and at Sagar Island in the Bay of Bengal, at Gangotri, Haridwar, Allahabad, Bateshwar, Varanasi, Patna, Calcutta, and everywhere in between, the water has been worshipped as the goddess Ganja, or the goddess Yamuna, or both, garlanded with flowers, blessed with coconuts, and decorated with floating candles.
Pilgrims in their thousands, sometimes in their millions, have plunged themselves and their idols into the stream, raised the water in cupped hands towards the rising sun, and let it fall on their ecstatic faces. Grieving sons have scattered the ashes of their cremated parents in the river, while the less fortunate, unable to purchase enough firewood, have discreetly rolled the half-burnt corpses of their loved ones into the forgiving waters.
The main stream of the Ganges still teems with life along most of its length. It was from the villages and towns on the banks of the Ganges and its tributaries that millions of Indians, Bengalis, and Nepalis migrated to the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Middle East, and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was in boats and ships down at lower reaches that many sailed to fight for the British in the First and Second World Wars.
Before spending its waters in the sea, the Ganges has served a tenth of humanity in an area of more than a million square kilometres, passing on its way the monuments of the great civilizations and empires, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian, that have thrived on its bounty for thousands of years.
Your book is both a celebration of the spiritual and historical significance of the Ganges and a commentary on a resurgent nation eager to make its mark in the world. Tell us why the river has been and continues to be so important for India.
I think the amazing thing about the Ganges is that it's so much bound up into the lives, and indeed the daily lives of so many Indians. Even those who don't live on or near the river would be aware of the river's importance. So a lot of households will have gangajal, Ganges water, for religious ceremonies. People, if they possibly can, they like to send their ashes from as far away as America or Africa to Varanasi to be scattered on the waters of the Ganges after they die.
Bollywood movies refer often to the Ganges and the Yamuna because the rivers are so much interwoven with India's spiritual life and its social life, and, of course, its physical life. One of the reasons why I say it's arguably the world's most important river is that it doesn't just provide water, it provides agricultural fertility to the vast fertile plains of North India and Bangladesh.
Thanks, Victor. And thanks for listening. This is Jyotsna Singh, saying goodbye for now.