Writer Raksha Kumar traveled 1,500 miles down the Ganga River. Here, millions worship it as a God, but experts say that as India’s economy burgeons, the sacred waterway is slowly dying.
From a distance, the Himalayas, the tallest mountain range in the world, look solid and unyielding. A network of rivers, which like blood vessels enmeshing the body, breathe life into the land below. Its beating heart is the river Ganga: the holy river of Hinduism, which flows from mountaintop glaciers through narrow valleys and deep gorges for more than 1,500 miles. The sediment it carries nourishes 700,000 square kilometers of the world’s most fertile land, feeding the 600 million people who live in the river basin.
From a distance, it seems solid and unyielding, but look closely, and you’ll see the blood is poisoned.
This fall, I journeyed 1,500 miles down the Ganga. I met people whose survival depends on it. In fact, their identity comes from it: They are because Ganga is.
I also witnessed firsthand how the onslaught of human activity plagues the river—saps it of its strength—and how climate change is amplifying those threats. “Climate change and human activity are two sides of the same coin,” pointed out environmentalist Mallika Bhanot, before I set out. “A thin line separates the two. Do cross it freely so you understand the situation as a whole,” she said.
In 2014, when India elected a Hindu nationalist party to lead the country, its leader Narendra Modi promised to make the Ganga “nirmal” and “aviral”—to restore its purity and ensure its uninterrupted flow. I saw no evidence of that. What I did see was unbound pollution and extraction, threatening the faith, identity, health, livelihoods, and food security of the millions of Indians who depend on it.
Just 62 miles from Gangotri, the Ganga’s starting point, human meddling begins. Canals, reservoirs, and dams channel the river as it moves towards the first town it will encounter on its journey: Uttarkashi.
As I drove up the mountain towards Uttarkashi, I couldn’t help but notice heavy machines lining the roads, used to cut boulders, remove soil, and flatten the land. The federal government was paving a 900-kilometer project to connect four holy places for Hindus called the Chardham. Gangotri is one of them.
Last year, the Chardham saw more than 4,000,000 visitors. The roads will ease the journey for the pilgrims, its backers say. “People used to say it is tough to make roads on the mountains,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared at a public gathering last year. “but now we are making those roads at unimaginable heights.”
Scientists, environmentalists, and even some developmental economists say that large infrastructure projects on the mountains are not a good thing. Some places are just not meant to have highways.
People of this region have always resisted “developmental activities.” In 2006, when the federal government proposed to start three hydroelectric power projects in the upper Ganga regions, there was public outcry. One of those who opposed the project was 40-year-old Hemant Dhyani, who has a calm presence that can only come from years of meditation. A Ph.D. in nanoscience from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Dhyani says he was drawn towards spirituality at a young age. “On the banks of the Ganga we all live frugal, simple lives,” he told me while sitting in his ashram.
But, Dhyani is worldly when he needs to be. Along with a few others, he moved courts and got the planned projects canceled. In 2012, the federal government declared the Gangotri valley an “eco-sensitive” zone where human activities such as construction and tourism are restricted. Still, four years later, the Chardham road construction began, reversing the tide of their movement..
Replacing forests with roadways is exacerbating the hazards of living near the glacier that feeds the Ganga River, especially as the planet heats. Where there used to be ice, there are now glacial lakes. These lakes can burst, causing unimaginable harm to the population living in the valley, said Dr. Ravi Chopra, research scientist at People’s Science Institute, a nonprofit based in the northern city of Dehradun. In 2013, for example, a glacial lake outburst flood killed more than 6,000 people as it ran through the neighboring Alaknada valley. Some scientists fear that denuded mountain slopes paved with roads can’t hold back the floods the way forests might have, Chopra said.
When I was in Uttarakhand, the locals were split into two factions: those who feared the consequences of increased human activity, and those who rejoiced for an economic boom. There were no easy answers, but commerce seemed to be winning the battle.
The pace of human activity only picks up as the Ganga flows past Uttarkashi. Soon thereafter, its waters reach the 52-square-kilometer-wide reservoir of the Tehri Dam, one of the tallest dams in the world. The dam provides electricity to major cities in nine different states of India. It irrigates hundreds of thousands of acres of land. Perhaps most importantly, 7 million people in Delhi and neighboring states drink its water.
I stood at the Tehri Reservoir and soaked in the sight of the Ganga’s shimmering waters reaching out to the horizon. There, 64-year-old Vaani Ramola, a local resident approached me. “For most of my life, I have seen the Ganga flow here,” she said. “The still waters make it feel like it is trapped.”
Literally and metaphorically, the Ganga is trapped in the development conundrum that countries like India are struggling with. The Ganga is a main reason that large, booming cities can survive—but locals and environmental advocates ask, to what end?
Before the Ganga hits the plains, it flows through two sacred towns: Rishikesh and Haridwar. By the time it’s just miles south of Haridwar, it is almost depleted of its Himalayan water, especially in the summer months, said Professor Rajiv Sinha of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. “All the water is held up at Tehri reservoir,” he said. “What is left is in Narora,”a smaller dam south of Haridwar.
By the time the Ganga reaches the floodplains, several tributaries, or streams that feed into others, replenish the river. But that water is only as good as the land that funnels rain into it, often called a catchment, said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an influential network of environmentalists. “If the catchment is forested, the water quality and quantity are both high,” he said.
But presently, especially in the densely populated state Uttar Pradesh, the Ganga’s catchment is becoming more and more concrete. Here, the Ganga is just another landmark in a city, like the airport or railway station, silenced by the din of urbanization.
Uttar Pradesh’s biggest urban conglomeration is the city of Kanpur. In colonial times, Kanpur came to be called the Manchester of the East. Today, it is still a major industrial center with massive automobile, textile, and leather factories. It has Ganga to thank. Businesses transport raw materials and finished goods along the river. They also discharge factory pollutants back into it.
In Kanpur, I stood in the middle of the Ganga’s most polluted stretch. Although the city has repeatedly tried to install sewage treatment plants to check solid waste from reaching the river, untreated waste still enters nonetheless.
Efforts to control the river’s flow have failed, too. Rivers like the Ganga are migratory; they slither around on their floodplains over the years. In 1995, after people noticed that the Ganga was moving away from Kanpur, the authorities built a massive embankment to hold the waters closer to the city. They called it the Ganga Barrage. “But, rivers don’t work like that,” said Sinha.
Today, you can visit the Ganga Barrage to enjoy spicy street food—if the water levels aren’t out of control. This August, when heavy rain raised the river to dangerous levels, all 30 gates of the Ganga Barrage were thrown open to let water through. It submerged 70 villages downstream.
One such village was Bhagwaandeen, where about 30 people live. They survive by fishing or growing fruit on the banks of the Ganga. When I visited them, pear trees surrounded the village. Bittan Nishad, a frail 80-year-old woman who lives with her blind husband in the village, approached me and began telling her story without waiting for a question. When the floods came, she packed up her belongings and jumped into a boat with her husband. The authorities evacuated Nishad and her neighbors from their village but they had no place to go. So, they squatted in a tent on the sides of a nearby highway for 15 days, hoping they would not be run over by speeding cars.
Nishad has 12 grandchildren. While she stays in the village to guard her small piece of land, she doesn’t want her grandchildren to live there. “They are better off living in Kanpur city,” she said.
According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, about 590 million Indians will live in cities by 2030. Not only are cities such as Kanpur the future of the country—the fate of cities rests on the fate of its rivers.
India’s first prime minister was born 120 miles southeast of Kanpur. The city of Allahabad, also called Prayagraj, teems with bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, and businessmen. And here, too, the city pollutes the Ganga and extracts water without care.
In Allahabad, the Ganga meets another sacred river often referred to as its biggest tributary, the Yamuna. Hindus revere this meeting point and call it the Sangam—a “V” where the two rivers come together.
Hindus use water from this confluence during rituals. For instance, many store water from the Sangam, called Ganga jal, in small copper pots in their homes. You can buy holy water from vendors along the river juncture, or these days, on Amazon to be delivered straight to your door. My grandmother had one of these pots, and she passed it on to my mother.
Every January about 90 million worshippers from all over the country visit the Sangam to take a dip. “It might be freezing in January, but we have to atone for our sins by bathing in the water,” said Ravindra Singh, a computer salesman in the neighboring town of Unnao. Once every 12 years, many more throng the site for decadal festivities called the Maha Kumbh. In 2013, during the last Maha Kumbh, 120 million people came.
During the festivities, the authorities build a temporary city on both banks of the Ganga complete with tents, roads, electricity, and mobile toilets. Although they take the city down after a few weeks, water rights activist Brajendra Singh said the damage is already done. “There are enough pollutants that go into the river in that one month to destroy water health,” he said.
In addition to the Yamuna, more than 20 tributaries join the Ganga along its course. “I would argue that the tributaries are more important than the mainstream of the Ganga,” said Thakkar, the water resources expert. According to a 2019 report, rivers in the Ganga basin—such as Betwa, Chambal, lower Yamuna, Damodar and Ganga Sagar—have recorded more than 50% decline in annual and seasonal flow between 1975 and 2005 alone.
The river network’s interconnectedness is overlooked in failed river management plans dating back to the 1980s, experts say. That includes Prime Minister Modi’s 200-million-rupee plan called Namami Gange. “If the tributaries are not clean, how can you expect the Ganga to be clean?” said Singh.
“Without a paradigm shift in water governance, we cannot solve the problem of water,” reads a recent report by the International Water Management Institute. “We have divided water into silos of groundwater and surface water, [and] also irrigation and domestic use, with little dialogue across silos… where the left hand of drinking water does not know what the right hand of irrigation is doing; and the left foot of surface water does not know what the right foot of groundwater is doing.”
My journey further along the Ganga would only confirm those fears.
Reverence and Irreverence
For Hindus, the Ganga is divine. A devout Hindu feels complete if they take a dip in the Ganga at least once in their lifetime. My grandparents did that.
Many also seek out the Ganga at the end of their lives. About 62 miles southeast of Allahabad is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, Varanasi. Here, the city’s two namesake rivers, Varuna and Assi, join the mainstream of the Ganga. Many Hindus believe that they achieve salvation if they are cremated on the city’s stepped platforms, or ghats, that line the Ganga. Afterwards, they’ll disperse their ashes on the river itself.
Varanasi is unrivaled in its perceived holiness. Other cities pray and perform rituals to the river, but the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi is like no other. The river is given the status of God. At dawn and dusk, dozens of holymen line up with lamps, flowers, and incense to pray to the river to grant them peace and prosperity. But walking on the filthy ghats, I couldn’t reconcile the reverence with the absolute apathy over the river’s health.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi renovated a ghat in the northern part of the city which is now popularly known as NaMo ghat. In 2014 and again in 2019, Modi got elected to India’s Parliament representing Varanasi, his constituency. “Mother Ganga called out to me,” he declared. “Therefore, I am at her service.”
Local people swear that the city has changed unrecognizably in the Modi era. It used to be known for its cramped, winding streets around the eastern bank of the Ganga, fried snacks, silk sarees, ancient temples, and manipulative priests who would scare believers into performing rituals lest doomsday befalls them.
Since Modi took over, the city expanded westward, with fancy hotels, international airports, and expensive residential complexes. The city’s main temple, Kashi Vishwanath, got a major makeover. The concrete ghats now extend into the river. On the eastern bank of the river, there is a “tent city” with 5-star accommodations for tourists.
But glitz and glamor aside, the river itself is nothing but a sewage canal that carries the huge ships and the filth of the city.
Vallabhacharya Pandey, a Gandhian philosopher who has lived in Varanasi all his life, remembers learning to swim in the Ganga in his childhood. “However, these days in summer months, we just walk across to cross the river,” he said. There is very little water flow, but that has not stopped the Modi government from dredging up the river to accomodate for large cargo—a plan that Thakkar, the water policy expert, said is “not economically viable.”.
Kamplesh Singh, a 32-year-old resident of the Tahirpur village on the outskirts of Varanasi, said authorities entered his home four times in the last three months and coaxed him to sell his land to the government so they could convert his village to a freight village—where cargo is stored before it is shipped. 117 people in his village have received notices from the government to give up their lands. “We have lived here for seven generations,” he said, while standing in his courtyard, amidst half a dozen cows. “Now, they want us to give up our lands so ships can navigate non-navigable waters?”
As Pandey said clearly of the city’s namesake tributaries: “Assi is dead, and Varuna is on the verge of dying.”
Left to its original course, all the waters of Ganga would flow to Bangladesh, where the river is called Padma. The Indian government, however, built the Farakka Barrage in the 1970s to divert some of the water westward towards Kolkata, where it finally approaches its end.
If the barrage had worked, the redirected water would have made Kolkata a thriving, navigable port. Except, it didn’t. Instead, the Farakka clogs with silt and floods the region upstream. In 2021, Farakka’s silting, along with heavy and erratic rainfall, caused three months of flooding in some of India’s poorest regions.
A short ferry ride from Kolkata led me to the river’s endpoint: Sagar Island, where the Ganga finally meets the sea. The island sits just west of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. Here, at the river’s confluence with the Bay of Bengal, stands a temple dedicated to the Ganga. Every January, just as millions throng Allahabad to worship the Ganga, millions from eastern India congregate at Gangasagar, a Hindu pilgrimage at Sagar Island’s southern tip, to thank the Ganga for flowing through their lands. But even at this idyllic sacred point off the coast of the mainland, climate change threatens to drown yet another cultural touchstone.
Biswajeet Mondal lives in the westernmost corner of Sagar island, away from all the pilgrims who go to pray at Gangasagar. He is one of few here who speak Hindi, a language widely spoken in northern India. Others only converse in their local language, Bengali. The 26-year-old leaves his island every year for about six months to work in different parts of India. “That’s how I know Hindi… Since our islands began to sink we don’t have any option but to seek employment elsewhere,” he said, pointing at the neighboring island of Ghoramara that is all but underwater. Sea level rise in the region is moving twice as quickly as the global average, and the sacred tip of Sagar Island is receding more and more each day.
From head to mouth, the Ganga is considered divine and pure. But the way it’s treated is far from reverent. From melting glaciers to rising seas, from unchecked pollution to careless extraction, the godly river is finally flashing its mortality.
I have never been a believer. I would never have even identified as Hindu. But, traveling the length of the Ganga made me think I could worship a natural life-affirming force. The river has, after all, nurtured the land, nourished its people, and fueled its biodiversity for millennia. Even if I don’t think it’s a God, that makes it no less divine.
Over the course of my journey, I’ve realized that enough is enough. We’ve taken enough life from the river that gives it. Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves, Hindus and nonbelievers alike: If rivers are the cost of human growth, what do we humans stand to lose in the process?
Published in Atmos
Published on November 27, 2023
Link: India’s Holy River, Desecrated | Atmos