“If you take out all the water from the Ganga, there is no river left. And if you pollute it, it becomes an open sewer. What will you worship?” asks Rakesh Jaiswal.

Thousands of people assemble to bathe in the Ganga. No rituals are complete without water from the Ganga—from birth to death. This river is not just a river—it is a deity, a Goddess, lauded for her purity, and her ability to purify.

Not without reason, apparently—a study conducted by environmental engineer D.S. Bhargava of the University of Roorkee, along with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, found that the Ganga decomposes organic waste 15 to 25 times faster than other rivers. This is what the Ganga gives us.

And this is what we give the Ganga: 1.3 billion liters of untreated municipal and industrial sewage, more than 9 million tons of chemical fertilizers, and some 9,000 tons of pesticides from 29 cities, 70 towns, and thousands of villages that extend along the banks of the Ganga. We also give to the Ganga thousands of dead Hindus, whose cremated ashes or half-burnt corpses add to the decay of the river, and added bacterial content.

Today this Goddess languishes, as do the people who live along it’s banks, as Rakesh Jaiswal and his organization Eco Friends discovered. They conducted a survey of 20 villages downstream of Kanpur that receive domestic sewage and tannery effluents from Kanpur. They use the water to irrigate their farmlands. They found at least one person per household had some type of skin or stomach ailments. The cattle spontaneously abort. On conducting a chemical analysis of the water these villagers were receiving, the National Botanical Institute of India found high levels of Chromium (a known cancer-causing substance), Sulphides and Chlorides contamination in the soil and ground water up to 100 feet! No epidemiological studies have been conducted.

Can the holiest of rivers say no, no more? Is there a threshold point for the Ganga? A point where this Goddess says, I have purified the land of the Hindus for millennia, and now I am defiled beyond my capacity to purify? If this Goddess were to intone her distress, who would hear her?

Priests, whose rituals stand unpurified with the Ganga? Politicians, who are responsible for the welfare of the people who live along the banks of the Ganga? Farmers, who draw waters from this holiest of rivers for their fields? Industrialists, who employ Ganga’s waters for processing, or using the Ganga as a dumping ground? Or would it be the omnipotent Hindu who uses the Ganga in myriad different ways?

Is India going to doom the Ganga to be just another one of the paradoxes that revel in India? That we worship the purifying waters of the Ganga while poisoning her?

This is a story of one person who heard her call, Rakesh Jaiswal, who was in the U.S. recently to receive the Dalai Lama’s award for “Unsung Heroes of Compassion.” This award was presented to Jaiswal on May 16 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose by the organization Wisdom in Action. Jaiswal is one of the 50 heroes selected from 16 countries around the world.

He received this award for dedicating seven years of his life to protecting one of the most sacred rivers in earth: the Ganga. And why does the Ganga, revered in a land of Hindus, need protecting? Jaiswal comes from Kanpur, a city that holds the distinction of having the most polluted stretch of the Ganga run through it, on account of it being the most populous and industrial town along the banks of the Ganga.

The Ganga is suffering from various threats, one of which is over-extraction of waters.

People don’t know the Ganga is being killed by water diversion to the upper and lower Ganga canals downstream of Haridwar. There is probably no original water left in the Ganga in the lower reaches. Whatever is recharged, is diverted to the lower canal in Aligarh. During the lean period, the Ganga is not even able to maintain the required minimum flow in Kanpur! Now the Tehri Dam is coming up at the source, which will further reduce the flow.

This is what poisons the Ganga most: corruption, pollution: industrial pollution, agricultural pollution, organic pollution, medical pollution, Hindu rituals, dead bodies, and other commercial activities.

Jaiswal discovered all these for the first time, when he opened the tap in his kitchen. And discovered black, viscous, stinky water. This water appeared infrequently at first, about once a month, and then he found this tap water about once a week, first in his locality, and then in other localities. “I got curious as to why.”

The main water source was the Ganga, so he went to the intake point, where water in siphoned off to be diverted for urban uses, lifted some sample water, and sent it off for analysis. He saw that five drains discharged themselves at the intake point. Local residents used this area for defecation and there was a dhobi ghat (a laundry service) that discharged its cleaning agents right into the river. He was aghast to find that the river was given untreated Tuberculosis hospital sewage, and contaminated TB water from the hospital.

It was interesting, since all drains claimed to have been stopped during the Action Plan through interception and diversion to treatment plants. Jaiswal smelled corruption behind these false claims. He launched a protest, whereupon the Central Govt. allocated Rs. 500,000 to the Uttar Pradesh Jal Nigam (the UP water authority) to clean up the Ganga. In 1997 Jaiswal and his associates filed a case for Public Interest Litigation at the Allahabad High Court after he had fished 180 corpses along a 10 km. stretch in Kanpur. Dead bodies are “offered” to the Ganga when people die of asthma, leprosy, and snakebite. Politicians, religious leaders also tend to have their bodies floated in the Ganga. Since 1997, about 1,000 bodies have been given a watery burial in the Ganga. These corpses decay and putrefy, giving rise to germs and bacteria in the seemingly “pure” waters of the Ganga. People drink water straight from the Ganga, bathe in it, and perform bodily ablutions, all of which contribute to the organic and microbial pollution of the Ganga.

The first movement to save the Ganga was established upstream of Haridwar by the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Justice Giridhar Malvia of the Allahabad High Court, son of the late Madan Mohan Malvia, freedom fighter. They identified that there is a need to stop ritual bathing at Kumbh.

Jaiswal’s letter to the Supreme Court was treated as a writ petition, and this litigation has been going on since 1997—for five years now. Often the police thwart the efforts of Jaiswal’s group. Eco Friends discovered that the police, along with the economically weaker sections of society, find it economically viable to drop dead bodies in the Ganga rather than give them a funeral pyre. The scope of his writ petition expanded to include the entire Uttar Pradesh stretch of the Ganga. Consequently, the court passed several orders, 300 industries were closed and sealed, including 150 leather industries, dyeing units in Mirzapur, and seven stone crushers in Haridwar. A treatment plant was set up, but they are not using it, and the monitoring agencies seem to be in collusion with the industries.

“There is no integrated plan to protect the Ganga—all the people, institutions, and agencies that work to preserve the Ganga must come together with local authorities to protect her. Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) need to come together against the Tehri Dam. In Varanasi Veer Bhadra Mishra Mahanji has been leading a fantastic effort. In Kanpur my organization, EcoFriends have been working tirelessly. M.C. Mehta (also a recipient of the Richard and Rhoda Goldman award in the U.S.) has filed a case in the Supreme Court and in Bihar the Ganga Bachao Andolan has been lead by Anil Prakash,” says Jaiswal.

In Rakesh Jaiswal’s practical vision for Ganga, he acknowledges that pre-disturbance storage is not possible for a river that serves so many of the Indian population, but this river does need rehabilitation. A lot of water is being wasted, and we need to establish water conservation in our homes, industries, and agricultural techniques.

The bottom line is this: if there is not water, there is no river.

The pollution dumped into the river needs to be strictly minimized, if not entirely stopped—we cannot pollute the water we drink! The government needs to treat effluents. It needs to monitor and eradicate agricultural runoff, pesticides, insecticides and non-point sources of pollution.

No industrialization should be allowed within a 200 m buffer of the Ganga. We want to make this a political issue and rally the leaders.

Since this issue requires government support, the government needs to take strong, tenacious action. For the government to take action, it needs to be motivated. For the government to be motivated, it needs to hear from Indian citizens (both in India and abroad).

If I were to take Buddha’s life and values to heart, I would believe that the person who nurtures a being has a right over it, and the person who helps destroy something has no rights over it (remember when the Buddha picked up a bird injured by an archer’s arrow?). So far Rakesh Jaiswal and others like him are doing everyone else’s work—they are trying to protect the Ganga on everyone’s behalf. Though an extremely courageous action, they cannot succeed with so many people (and commercial interests) against them—for you are against them if you help pollute the Ganga, or do nothing to save it.

Jaiswal has received death threats from industries for hurting their businesses. We asked him why he still goes on with his work. “This is all I can do, if I try to not do it, this works brings me back to it. Rakesh means the moon, and I am the moon that sits on Lord Shiva’s locks. I protect the Ganga.”

She gives us life, and we give her … death?

For now, the Ganga belongs to Jaiswal and others like him. We need to do something to help the Ganga. Or forsake your rights to the holiest of all rivers. For tomorrow, there will be no river to save.

Ritu Primlani is President and Executive Director, Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education.


www.thimmakka.org (510) 655-5566.