Your Ganges, Our Ganga

India is known for its culture, cultural diversity and religious plurality. And what unites these different cultures are the physical manifestations of the stories enshrined in different epics of cultures and religions. For Muslims, Mecca is the place about which all their cultural activities and religious beliefs revolve. The same way for Hindus, the great river Ganga or Ganges is what symbolizes the perennial flow of their rituals and beliefs running through the same courses for thousands of years without much change or reform.

But in the twenty-first century, Ganga has differentiated itself much from its colonial or foreign name Ganges. The explanation of the name Ganga is much more sacred and warm, while the explanation of Ganges seems plain, straight to the facts and painful. Ganges is a major river of the Indian subcontinent flowing east through the eponymous plains of northern India into Bangladesh. The 2,510 km (1,557 mi) river begins at the Gangotri Glacier in the Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the central Himalayas, and drains into the Bay of Bengal through its vast delta in the Sunderbans. The largest Indian river is quite sacred to the Hindu community of this country (and around the world) and because of this religious status, this river has turned into partial sewer and is termed as B to C in terms of pollution standards according to the Environment department. This means that this river is not fit for human consumption and animals should also be restrained from consuming its water at some places. Once, while on a visit to Rishikesh, I heard a British saying, “I wouldn’t put my big toe into this river, it is so polluted.” As an observer, I began to think about this western tourist interpretation in light of the Hindu practice of bathing in sacred rivers!

Nonetheless, the much-hallowed Ganga Action Plan (GAP, 1985) that was installed for the purification of Ganges met no or very little results. The indicators that reflect the water quality and bio diversity status of a river are very poor for Ganges. The first and most important indicator is Dissolved Oxygen (DO) in the river water. This is considered to be the lung scan for a river and how good is the river for the aqua life within. In Ganges, dissolved Oxygen was found to be 3.5 mg/litre in place of the minimum prescribed 5mg/litre. The second indicator that governs the number of pathogens or disease causing bacteria in the river is Bio-Chemical Oxygen Demand (BOD). This must not exceed 3 mg/litre but is found mostly above 5, indicating the presence of many pathogens in the river water. A very richly found pathogen is also considered as the indicator of the fitness levels of the river water and that is Faecal Coliform, whose number should not exceed 2500 per 100ml. However,, its presence is much above the prescribed level in the Ganges. PH value, which is an indicator of acidity or base (7 being neutral value), is 6.5 to 8.5 for Ganges indicating medium to highly acidic water.

Now, there is altogether a different river Ganga or Maa Ganga as it is popularly called, giving it the most respected status of a mother. Here are some facts from the other side of the story. Almost 70 per cent of sugarcane, 60 per cent of wheat and 40 per cent of rice is produced in the planes of Ganga and its tributaries. Ganga is the source of portable water for thousands of villages and hundreds of towns of north India. Apart from this, Ganga is the river that came down from heaven on request of Bhagirath and it is the same river that finds its place on Lord Shiva’s head. In his book, Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru writes, “Ganga, above all is the river of India, which has held India’s heart captive and drawn uncounted millions to her banks since the dawn of history. The story of the Ganga, from her source to the sea, from old times to new, is the story of India’s civilization and culture, of the rise and fall of empires, of great and proud cities, of adventures of man…”. This thought from a visionary leader of a sinewy country brings to light the importance of Ganga in India.

But is the view of ours that ‘Ganga is sacred and it cannot be polluted’ true? How long can it sustain the pollutants which we put either through our industries, households or religious activities into it? I wonder if it has dawned on us, that we are actually polluting something, which has been given the status of our mother. Kindly think over it.

Saurabh Sharma