“I thought how lovely and how strange a river is. A river is a river, always there, and yet the water flowing through it is never the same water and is never still. It’s always changing and is always on the move. And over time the river itself changes too. It widens and deepens as it rubs and scours, gnaws and kneads, eats and bores its way through the land. Even the greatest rivers—the Nile and the Ganges, the Yangtze and the Mississippi, the Amazon and the great grey-green greasy Limpopo all set about with fever trees—must have been no more than trickles and flickering streams before they grew into mighty rivers. Do I change like a river, widening and deepening, eddying back on myself sometimes, bursting my banks sometimes when there’s too much water, too much life in me, and sometimes dried up from lack of rain? Will the I that is me grow and widen and deepen? Or will I stagnate and become an arid riverbed? Will I allow people to dam me up and confine me to the wall so that I flow only where they want? Will I allow them to turn me into a canal to use for their own purposes? Or will I make sure I flow freely, coursing my way through the land and ploughing a valley of my own?” nly a writer of children’s books like Chambers can so appealingly conjure up the mystery, the majesty, the living force of a river and bring home with such dynamic brutality the reality of how each one of us dies a thousand deaths when we take part in the killing of a river. We do not even know it, but every Indian alive today, and those who lived a generation before us, is guilty of strangling and torturing the river Ganges to death. She is writhing in agony before our very eyes. We are spending money on keeping her lungs gurgling on life support systems, like ICU doctors who put a patient on whom they’ve given up, on a respirator and then wash their hands clean with a detergent.
But like Lady Macbeth we will have the smell of blood on our hands and “all the perfumes of Arabia” would not make our hands smell better. It is not my purpose here to go into the wondrous mythology of the Ganges, the endless verses composed by our rishis, the ecological havoc which hangs over our heads as Maa Ganga dies and dies, choked and poisoned by the effluents of man’s greed and the instinct to plunder. If you are unaware of this, go study it. Ponder it. If you don’t care, maybe you need to read this cover story. Or maybe you don’t.
Awareness of the poisoning of the artery that flows through India’s heart and provides succor to the inhabitants of the Indo-Gangetic plain, as she journeys tortuously to the Bay of Bengal to merge into the Indian Ocean, is nothing new. She shares her bounty with 40 percent of India’s population—about 500 million souls living in 11 states. Her decline was first noticed in 1854 when the British first built the Haridwar Dam and hastened as we poisoned, despoiled and raped her with the kind of banality that is the ultimate root of all evil.
The issue of the environmental desecration of the Ganga, hastened by climate change in which the Gangotri Glacier has been receding for the last 30 years, cannot be repeated often enough for the sad and simple reason that the civilization which she nurtured—and civilizations are known to be born and disappear as rivers vanish or change course—does not see this as an issue. Notwithstanding all the Ganga Bachao movements—Ganga Seva Abhiyanam, Pune-based National Women’s Organization (NWO) and Ganga Calling-Save Ganga, supported by Indian Council for Enviro-Legal Action (ICELA)—saving the Ganges is not a national issue.
I repeat, I cannot repeat this often enough. As a newsperson, I hold my own profession guilty for not raising the issue ad nauseam, ad infinitum. Ignoring it and, instead, ostrich-like burying our heads into repeat stories on Bebo’s Bollywood love affairs, is not going to make the problem disappear. The subject is on par with drilling climate change problems into our minds—starting with our toddlers, just as we brainwash them on subjects like caste and superstitious bafflegab—or the necessity of combating Aids or the campaign to eliminate smallpox, malaria or TB. We should repeat the Clean Ganga Mantra, as we do the Gayatri Mantra, or Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Rahim till our heads swim.
As penitence, as would probably be decreed by a vengeful god, we should be punished by having our heads dunked into the filthy waters of the Ganges until we choke and gurgle for mercy and be given a breather only under the condition that we will repeatedly be similarly submerged or water boarded (in the lingo of American torturers) unless we join in the awareness campaign to liberate our life-giving river.
I admit I indulge in passionate hyperbole. But this is because the only formula for change is revolution, when all reason has fled or been sacrificed at the altar of corruption, waste, fraud and neglect. All these have played a major role in the plunder of the Ganges by the combined forces of the government and industry.
The formula for change is simple: Either you’re part of the Ganga problem or you’re part of the solution. There’s no miracle involved here. It requires a tectonic attitudinal mind change; the kind that occurred when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring awakened the world to environmental issues, or the political will backed by people power that ultimately led America to clean up the mighty Hudson river, and England, the Thames. Both waters, which had turned into sewers, now bubble with marine life.
That is why candidate Narendra Modi was such an attractive choice as PM for many Indians. He elevated reviving and cleaning the Ganges to a national political platform. It was also the demand of his voters in Banaras, the city of the gods, now gone stale with the stench of the river as evening falls on a hot summer afternoon. The disgusting odor drives out the redolence of incense and deafens us to the gently resonant tinkling of the evening aarti.
So, Mr Modi allocates another `2,000 crore in his first budget for the Ganga cleanup. Fine! But where’s the passion? Where’s the grand design? Where’s the potent face of the Ganga cleanup as Khanduri was the visage of Vajpayee’s Golden Quadrilateral highway scheme, and the no-nonsense, goal-oriented Sree-dharan was the face of Delhi’s proudest achievement since construction of the Red Fort—the Metro—for which he should have been given the Bharat Ratna?
Even if Modi does nothing else in his first term but simply cleans up the Ganges or even a part of it, India will reward him not just with a Bharat Ratna, but the world will see him not only as a great but also grand leader. And he will be able to put the shadow of the 2002 riots behind him. In America, in the 1930s during the Great Depression, President Franklin Roose-velt created brigades of workers nationwide, who were given regular wages to create parks, restore monuments and perform public works. Through these projects, the alienated American youth became stakeholders in the American dream and were able to make a living in a shattered economy.
Modi’s thinking on the Ganga is correct. But he must think out-of-the-box. Why can’t he take a page out of Roosevelt’s book and create paid brigades of youth workers, including unemployed Muslim youths (Governor Jagmohan did this successfully in Kash-mir’s Srinagar when he cleaned up the dying Dal Lake) and create Clean Ganga Brigades under a special dispensation headed by a honest figure?
As a measure of demonstrating the new regime’s commitment to accountability, Modi should also set up a special inquiry commission with a time-bound period to investigate why the `20,000 crore already spent by previous regimes on the Ganga Action Plan produced no result, who siphoned off the money, and track down the fraud and mismanagement and recommend prosecution of the guilty.
That’s what leadership is all about, and the people expect nothing less than that from Modi and they will back him as he brings the Ganges back into national focus. Cleaning up the Ganges symbolizes everything to be destroyed: Poverty, filth, human degradation, sloth, corruption, communal passions. And there is a lot to be preserved: poetry, philosophy, universities, artists, singers, loud raucous laughter, rock-hewn temples, countless masjids, from where muezzins call out above the ring of rickshaw bells, and the morning and evening aartis—cling-cling-ding-ding-clap-clap.