No river on our planet probably evokes the range of powerful religious as well as filial emotions in a whole population that the Ganga does. No river is probably more polluted and desecrated.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged during the elections to clean the Ganga, it was metaphorical and literal – the promise of good and clean governance and that of the gigantic task of cleaning not only the Ganga but all the rivers of India.
To clean the Ganga, not only must the work begin at Gaumukh and Gangotri at the source and all along the river’s path till it reaches the Bay of Bengal, but also along the length of the thousands of tributaries that join her in her long journey of roughly 3000 kilometres to the ocean.
The sheer complexity of this immense task is daunting. From the mouth of the river at the sea, till the upper reaches in Rishikesh, thousands of factories, villages, towns and big cities dot her banks and their effluents and sewers flow into the river along with mountains of non-degradable garbage.
To every Hindu there is a dear wish before he or she departs from this earth. To bathe in the Ganga either at Varanasi or Haridwar and take home with him an urn of Holy Ganga water. Or visit the “Char Dhams”‘ at Yamunotri, Gangotri, Badrinath and Kedarnath all situated near the source of four holy rivers, which eventually join the Ganga. The Uttarakhand government says a staggering 20 million people visit the four Dhams every year.
From time immemorial, a never-ending river of pilgrims have made the arduous journey covering about 1000 km. The impact of this on the ecosystem of the Ganga has been catastrophic and will continue into eternity, which implies, the cleaning has to be an unceasing effort.
All the roads that lead up to the shrines wind their way alongside the four sacred rivers. There are shops and eateries and hotels packed in rows, all along the roads and the rear of the buildings and hutments face the river and the valley. All the sewage and waste spills into the valley and the river.
I undertook a pilgrimage to the Char Dhams two years ago. The trekking routes are crammed with thousands of little stalls with piles of cola cans and juices, water bottles, packets of chips, instant noodles and a myriad other snacks and refreshments in a lot of colourful plastic.
The incessant flow of devotees intermingling with ponies, mules and porters, chanting in a frenzy and the animals as well as people defecating along the route; we pilgrims in a trance of religious fervour, leaving behind mountains of garbage after consuming ready-to-eat snacks or soft drinks, all of which is being swept down into the valley in the nullahs and ravines. The monsoon rains will in their floods take them down into the rivers. It was frightening.
The government under the Prime Minister’s direction will come out with a comprehensive plan that will hopefully be executed well, along with severe punitive measure for those who pollute. This must be accompanied by an education drive.
All of us have a stake in these rivers, our very survival depends on them. No government effort can be successful if we do not participate voluntarily with it.
We must face reality. We are all clean in our private lives – we bathe, chant Vedic hymns, sprinkle holy water and clean and decorate our porch daily, but we are filthy in public, with scant regard to sanitation outside our homes.
Mr Modi has a tough task of balancing development and preserving our Ganga, which is symbolic again for protecting our environment. Let us remember, when rivers perish so do civilisations.
(Captain GR Gopinath founded Air Deccan and is considered a pioneer in the low-cost airline sector. He quit Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party on May 24, five months after joining it)