July 18, 2012

Visiting India - 'Ganga Water' Obsession


The River Ganga, one of the largest and longest rivers located in the upper half of India,
 is the heart beat of every Indian, especially the Hindu who considers it sacred and gives it the title of ‘goddess’ and ‘mother’.   

Hindus worship ‘Ganga Jal’, the water of the Ganga and place it in their public and personal places of worship called the ‘mandirs’. Before a Hindu breathes his last he must sip some Ganga Jal if he aspires to be in heaven after death. Taking a dip in the holy waters of the Ganga is equivalent to going on the Haj for a Muslim. In fact the ultimate respect for a dead person is for his ashes to be immersed in the Ganga waters. The waters of the Ganga are considered medicinal and spiritually uplifting; they are believed to cleanse all the sins one accrues in a lifetime.  It isn’t surprising therefore that in Hindu mythology the Ganga emanates from the head of Shiva, one of the gods in the all-important holy Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. Mahesh being the alternate name for Shiva whose function it is to bring an end to life and is thus the ‘destroyer’ in the holy trinity. Shiva with the Ganga pouring out of his head appears to be the most popular god at this time. Besides huge posters and hoardings all around, there are 100 feet tall statuettes of Shiva at multiple places across the city, and there is one that you can’t miss; it is even visible from a plane as it lands at the T3 terminal at IG Airport in New Delhi! 

Aside from the fact that the River Ganga holds a prominent place in Hindu religion, it also provides livelihood and sustenance to the teeming billions that inhabit its banks in major cities, towns and villages.  There are several cities such as Allahabad, Kanpur, Patna, and many more that exist and flourish due to the waters of the Ganga. Civilizations in the past too owe their existence to this river and to the fertile plain that it offers for cultivation of crops. It is also the source for other major rivers such as the Yamuna and Gomati which provide drinking water and livelihoods to millions more. Given the mammoth utilization of its waters, the Ganga is obviously reeling under, especially in a country where environmental protection and hygiene is often ignored or given low priority. No wonder then “"While the permissible level of faecal coli form is 500 per 100 ml of water, the bacteria load is an alarming 20,000 to 50,000 for 100 ml of water in the Ganga. The main reason is that Ganga does not have enough water for dilution of such toxicants." (Deccan Chronicle)  Nevertheless, facts such as these do not deter the die-hard Ganga lovers who will go any lengths to procure Ganga water. 

I am currently staying in an East Delhi suburb which unfortunately is outside of the NCR National Capital Region), and is therefore not eligible for Ganga water. Just a block away there are residents that have the ‘fortune’ of Ganga water running through their taps and faucets, water that is potable, isn’t ‘hard’, and does not leave stains and deposits on usage. Meanwhile I along with hundreds of thousands of others living in Ghaziabad have to purify the ground water that we get in the tap using ‘RO’, or then we ‘buy’ Ganga water every day at the rate of Rs.250/- per barrel (12 gallons). These past few days I have begun to understand why and how people obsess over ‘Ganga’ water and pay through their nose to get those barrels of Ganga Jal that get lugged on cycle rickshaws every day. It is amazing how those barrels get supplied to apartments and houses on a daily basis; a supply chain model that could easily become another Harvard case study similar to the one done on the ‘dabbawallas’ of Mumbai.


I would love to become another ardent devotee of Ganga Jal, except that having done some reading about these miraculous Ganga waters, I am now aware of the problems that ail the Ganga; two most important ones being the river’s level of contamination  and its depleting water supply. This sacred river gets dumped not just with fecal and other organic waste, but it also carries high levels of chemical waste that emanates from factories in cities and towns located on this river.  Despite its holy status, people don’t hesitate to contaminate the Ganga in whatever way possible.  The Ganga groans sacrilege as chemicals, trash, and human waste get poured into it by the gallons! Unfortunately, there are few who hear and heed these groans; the rest are too busy bowing their heads and praying to the holy but overused and polluted ‘Ganga Maa’!

The Ganga saga does not end here, because the Ganga affects so many different aspects of daily life as well. I write this post in the aftermath of an excruciating 6 hour car drive (to and fro) that I suffered yesterday which ought to have been no more than 4 hours at the max, and all because of the sanctity and popularity of the Ganga Jal. My nightmare started the moment the car got onto a freeway close to where I stay, the National Highway 24. The highway has six lanes altogether, but only two were operational, thanks to the ‘kanwariyas' carrying Ganga Jal on their shoulders and walking back from  Haridwar and Rishikesh to their respective villages ! Practically one lane was taken up to facilitate the walking 'Kanwariyas', and this meant frequent and long duration stoppage of traffic in the two lanes that were 'open'; the average speed of our car on the national highway was perhaps 20 kms/hr! I kept patient for the first hour, but the 'kanwariya' and their welcome arrangements on the road side were unrelenting; the mainstream traffic had to yield to the Ganga carrying Kanwariyas! Ganga reigned supreme yet again even as I fretted and fumed for six hours inside a car on a National Highway on way to Gurgaon! 

This preoccupation with the Ganga is both impressive and alarming. Its impressive how the religious fervor for the Ganga has not waned over hundreds of years.  The Ganga has captured the imagination of several different eras in Indian history, and even today the Ganga spells salvation for the Hindu majority, if only they’d keep it clean! What is alarming about this Ganga obsession is that it blocks or at least slows down rational thought processes and interventions that would facilitate alternatives to the over used Ganga water. Given that there is a water crisis worldwide, the multi-million strong Indian obsession with the Ganga would only exacerbate the problem.   

Check out Aamir Khan's latest Satyameva Jayate episode on Water Crisis in India

to be continued....

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