The (Deadly) Holy River


Imagine you are swimming in a river or just boating in the waters of a beautiful river, and all of a sudden the oar hits something, something big. It’s a dead body; a rotting human dead body.  It may sound abominable, but it is the unfortunate reality of the river Ganga; not just Ganga, but many other rivers of the country. On Tuesday, more than hundred decaying dead bodies surfaced in Ganga near Pariyar between Kanpur and Unnao. This incident, yet again, has brought to light the longstanding demand of some environmental organisations against human immersion in the river.

If these many dead bodies are found floating between Kanpur and Unnao, one can easily imagine the state of Varanasi, the holiest of all cities in India. Bodies are burned daily in cremation ceremonies near the banks of the river in Varanasi— sometimes as many as 200 cremations a day are performed. Everything is considered holy in Varanasi, so much so, that  if a dead body floats by, which it does quite often, it seldom bothers anyone . This can perhaps be described as the “dawn of the dead reality show” turned real.

What’s worse is, in a city where only 28 percent of the residents are employed, very few can afford an elaborate cremation ceremony. As a result, when extremely poor people cremate their family members, they do not have enough wood to burn the body. Therefore, when the body is only half burnt or has just turned black on the surface, they slide it into the river for salvation. At times, they eliminate the burning of body altogether, and simply release it into the river. This is a horrifying example of destitution at its desperate peak.

Furthermore, several police officials too have been accused of sliding unclaimed bodies left in the station morgues, into the river; subsequently keeping the money given by the government to cremate the bodies, themselves.

The disastrous environmental effect of subjecting a river to this kind of defilement requires little elaboration. And frankly, even the logic of how a river fraught with decaying bodies, cancerous industrial effluents and domestic waste can lead to salvation, completely eludes me. Moreover, the effects of drinking the water from such a river, which many do, are anybody’s guess.

The National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) which had its first meeting in 2009, decided that the aim of the Mission Clean Ganga, would be to ensure that by 2020, no untreated municipal sewage and industrial effluents flow into Ganga and the necessary investments required to clean the river would be shared between the central and state government. For now, hardy any signs of the mission can really be seen. However, Ganga occupies a dear spot in the Modi government’s heart, something that is evident in the government’s repeated espousal of Hindu sentiments in its name. So, under the present regime at least, one sincerely hopes that the river gets the much needed cleaning, as did the Sabarmati.

While the government’s efforts in this direction are indeed crucial, it can by no means achieve the desired results all by itself. People’s willingness and proactive participation in this endeavour is imperative. We have seen the neglect of rationality in the face of religion and tradition far too often. What piousness are we to talk about when what we regard holy has in fact become deadly? To worship is to revere. We need to revere and guard what we consider holy. At the risk of hurting a few people’s sentiments, but for the sake of appealing to many more, one would like to state that no object, no matter how sacrosanct we may consider it, is pure enough to imbibe the kind of impurity we expect the holy Ganges to imbibe.

Ratanpriya Sharma

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