Wednesday, 13 October 2010


Bearing the seeds of our proud origins, stimulating life from the times of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa all those centuries ago, Christened by the name it bears - we come from where the Indus flows. We are headed where the Ganges goes.

These great rivers, the Indus and the Ganges, of the abundantly fertile Indo-Gangetic planes carry the wealth of our civilization, transcending the boundaries that meddling politicians laid down. As the dust of separation settled, we had the geographical advantage to retain the Ganges, the largest river of the Indian subcontinent. It's might and divinity that we venerate for it's special cleansing powers actually even has some basis in science. An unusual ability to dissolve oxygen keeps the waters fresh for long periods of time. This, and the presence of Bacteriophage, viruses which kill bacteria, indeed empower it with an anti-bacterial, self-purifying nature. One that has helped a perpetually disease ridden nation like ours ward off water-bourn diseases like Dysentery and Cholera from turning into large-scale epidemics. While these rivers provide for life and preserve it, what do we, the devout, offer in return? Garlands of marigold and earthen lamps floating out in the setting sun as tokens of gratitude to the maker and keeper? Sadly, not only.

Our offerings to the most holy of all rivers also comprise of:
1.8 billion L (yes, that's a 'b'!) of untreated waste water. Every day. Downstream, in the holy city of Varanasi, the Ganges contains 60,000 faecal coliform bacteria per 100 millilitres, one hundred and twenty times the safe bathing — let alone drinking — limit. The reading goes some way to explain why 1,000 children die of diarrhoeal sickness a day in India. We are testing and trying the limits of her divinity, and we are winning. What are we proving?
Tanneries in the city of Kanpur, unscrupulously dump 30 million L of waste water contaminated with chemical byproducts and chromium. Every day.
Besides this systematic abuse, in seeking 'Moksha', Mother Ganga has been reduced to a liquid landfill to dump human and animal corpses. It is thought to save their souls and secure their passage to heaven. At whatever price.
We have obstructed and crippled her movement and flow. The Tehri dam, Jawaharlal Nehru's vision and hope of constructing 'temples of modern India' have only accentuated the 'troubles of modern India' in disrupting the underground sources of natural springs. Small towns and villages that were previously abundant in natural water resources are faced with severe shortage to the extent of now having to pump back the water that was channeled away from them.
The state and the fate of the Ganges is representative of numerous rivers in India.

So, what's plan B?
We increasingly rely on ground water for basic, household needs. In the last 50 years, 21 million wells have been dug, 30% of them in western India have been abandoned. The underground aquifers are drying out. We are already the largest users of ground water in the world, consuming 25% of the global total. We are successfully sucking the ground dry.

We had better have a plan C!
The prognosis is bleak. In the coming century, India risks to suffer the most from the lack of water and to a fair extent we have ourselves to blame. Modern middles-class India is plagued by avarice and a thirst for power and success, and I don't say this grudgingly. We are making the same mistakes that other countries did before us on their path to economic stardom, with perhaps one difference. The effects of our mistakes are catastrophically magnified by our numbers. Whilst there is undeniably a lot of pressure for India to develop its economic potential to raise incomes and living standards, these are proving to be inimical to the protection of it's environment and it doesn't come without limits or consequences. Arrogance and ignorance make us blissfully oblivious to the tangible ineffable consequences. For us the privileged ones, it should be easy enough to picture. How much longer will we let the water absentmindedly flow while we brush our teeth, or (have the maid) do the dishes? How much longer will we 'water jet' the outdoors clean?

...it was in autumn about a year ago in the milky grey water of the Ganges near the ancient city of Raja Karna in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Another splash confirmed the sighting of the Ganges River Dolphin. The shy, less famous and less graceful than it's marine cousins, almost blind, highly endangered beast is on course to suffer the fate of its favoured habitat. They are the apex species and indicative of the entire Ecosystem's health. The locals know, if you see a Dolphin you know the water is good enough to drink. They see one, there is hope. How far will it swim? Where is it headed?

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