Nicholas Gordon interviews Victor Mallet, author of River of Life, River of Death.
What brought this book about?
I arrived in India about five years ago. I’m pretty interested in rivers, and I was immediately fascinated by the Yamuna River, a big tributary of the Ganges that runs through the middle of Delhi. By the time it leaves Delhi, it’s extremely polluted, yet if you look at Indian art and literature the Yamuna, like the Ganges, is considered this extraordinarily beautiful and pure river. A goddess, in fact.
Both these rivers, which eventually join up and become one, are celebrated in Indian mythology and history as these fantastically pure rivers with turtles and deer, and Krishna playing on the banks with his gopis. It’s tragic to see the rivers now so heavily polluted in places. In the case of the Yamuna, it’s completely dead because it’s so full of raw untreated sewage and toxic waste as it heads down towards the Taj Mahal at Agra.
The Ganges is still beautiful in places, but obviously things have gone wrong.
The Ganges is still beautiful in places, but obviously things have gone wrong. I wanted to find out what can be done to help the river, so I decided to report on it.
Could you chart your journey along the Ganges as you follow it through the book?
I didn’t travel all the way down the Ganges from start to finish on a boat, as Eric Newby almost did. What I did do was try to go to all the important places along the river from start to finish, from the source to the mouth.
The book starts at the source of the river in the foothills of the Himalayas at Goumukh, the “mouth of the cow”. The river emerges from a glacier underneath the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, and then it rushes down past Gangotri, where there’s a temple to the goddess Ganga, Rishikesh and eventually hits the lowlands at Haridwar. All these places and towns are very holy to Hindus.
I proceed downstream to Kanpur, which is a big industrial city in North India where there’s a problem with polluting tanneries, then to Allahabad which is the site of the kumbh melas, religious gatherings. I went to one in the 2013, a maha kumbh mela (a “big” kumbh mela) which was reportedly the biggest gathering of humans in one place in history. More than 70 million people showed up in the course of two months to this one spot to bathe in the river.
I then proceed further downstream past Varanasi which is, in a sense, the center of Hinduism, and is said to be the oldest living city on Earth. Then on downwards towards Patna, which used to be called Pataliputra, once regarded by some as the world’s greatest city more than a thousand years ago, but has now essentially disappeared because it was largely made of wood. Then on to Bengal, where the main stream of the Ganges goes into what is now Bangladesh while a branch called the Hooghly River goes down to Calcutta. That’s where the British first came to settle and trade, and essentially launch the British Empire in India in the late seventeenth century. Then, down to the Sundarbans, which is the world’s greatest mangrove swamp that straddles the mouths of the Ganges, and is a great paradise for fish and wildlife.
You’d think that, because the river is worshiped as a goddess, people would automatically do everything possible to keep the river clean.
One thing you mention is that the Ganges is seen to be a pure river regardless of what people do to it, which you say has made it difficult for there to be a solution.
It’s ironic because you’d think that, because the river is worshiped as a goddess, people would automatically do everything possible to keep the river clean. Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.
I think a lot of Indians, particularly those who do not have much education, would tend to think that “nothing we do will make the Ganges dirty, because the Ganges is the river that purifies you, purifies people.” When you die, you want your body to be burned along the banks of the river, and the ashes scattered over it, so you can achieve moksha, transcendence and freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth. I’ve seen people throwing garbage in a plastic bag into the river from a temple to the goddess. The belief that the river is so pure that we can do no harm to it is a problem.
Sympathetic and environmentally-minded Hindu holy men, scientists and environmentalists have said that is a silly way to look at the river and its purity, because if you kill the river through physical pollution, you undermine the very basis of its spiritual power. I think that all rivers in ancient times were worshipped as sources of life and nourishment because they provided water and fertile soil, so they were life-givers; that is why rivers were worshipped in ancient Britain, and its why the Ganges is worshipped today. In other words, the divine force of the river is derived from its physical properties, and if you destroy those—pollute the river, make it undrinkable, or pump all the water out—then you are destroying the goddess.
Your book deals with those living along the Ganges. How do people elsewhere in India think about this problem?
The river is holy to Hindus all over the place, and is an important river for non-Hindus as well. There are a lot of places with “Ganga” in their name wherever Indians and Hindus have settled. There’s a lake in Mauritius caked Ganga Talao where Prime Minister Narendra Modi poured some holy Ganges water on one of his first trips outside India.
Households around India will have Ganga jaal—Ganges water—in their households for religious purposes, particularly those associated with death: you give a dying man or woman a sip of Ganges water before they go, and you anoint them with water after they’ve died. You can obtain Ganges water on eBay, so even overseas you’ll find people with it.
It’s also worth saying that, because the Ganges is the source of North India’s prosperity, it has become important to non-Indians through the ages. The Mughal emperors used to swear by the qualities of Ganges water as drinking water, and would even ferry it by camel for hundreds of miles to wherever they were living. The Ganges is important to Buddhists as well, as Buddhism was essentially founded in the Ganges basin. Even in Western culture, the name Ganges has echoed down the ages in literature and art as a symbol of India.
What are some of the public health effects of the quality of the Ganges? And beyond the health repercussions, how else has India’s development been affected by an unclean Ganges?
Of course, the Ganges is not the only polluted waterway in India, and most of these things will also affect other waterways as well. You’ve essentially got three major problems.
The first is untreated sewage that goes into the water. Something like half of India’s population still doesn’t have access to toilets. Even if they do, they’re not connected to sewage systems, and even if their toilets are connected, the sewage systems and treatment plants often are not operational or not maintained. You have a fundamental problem with raw, untreated or half-treated sewage going straight into the river and into the groundwater. This is one of the causes of the hundreds of deaths of children under the age of five each day from preventable diseases: diarrhea, and other stomach ailments.
Then you’ve got industrial pollution, particularly in carcinogenic and heavy metals which find their way into the water from various industrial processes, including tanneries. There’s very little data about it, but pesticides and runoff from the fields is another huge problem. Then you’ve got a further problem in that a lot of the water is diverted for agriculture. Some dams in the dry season divert 90% of the water for farming, which means that pollutants are concentrated because there is very little natural flow of water coming down the river to dilute those pollutants.
It’s often argued that environmental consciousness rises as incomes rise, which would seem to suggest that this problem might solve itself. Why, in your view, is this argument too optimistic?
It’s a fair question. India is a relatively poor country on average, and so I think it suffers from the same problem that has afflicted other developing countries since the beginning of the first Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom in the 18th Century. We tend to think it’s OK to pollute and destroy our environment first, and clean up later. This is what’s happening in India, in China and it’s what happened in Southeast Asia.
It’s a bit dangerous in the case of India because it’s so densely populated and so dependent on the Ganges. The Ganges is the world’s most important river, not because it’s the longest, but because it has more people depending on it for water and agricultural productivity. You have a tenth of the world’s population directly or indirectly depending on the Ganges.
I don’t think India is worse than any other country in this regard, but it’s probably more urgent that it doesn’t allow the Ganges to die as we allowed the Thames to die in London, for example. It’s a much more important river to India than the Thames is to London or the UK, so it is imperative that the pollution is dealt with and solved.
The idea of the demographic dividend is complete nonsense particularly because of the way the world of work and industry is changing.
Speaking of population: you briefly discuss the optimistic view that India’s population growth, the idea that its fast-growing population will fuel economic growth, especially when compared to China’s stagnant, if not declining population. Your book sees things differently.
My argument is not so much pessimism, but rejecting the notion that India’s young and fast-growing population is an advantage for the economy and an advantage for India. The idea of the demographic dividend is complete nonsense particularly because of the way the world of work and industry is changing. China and Southeast Asia benefited from having large populations of young people who could work in factories. But with automation, with artificial intelligence, the rise of service industries, you actually don’t need huge numbers of unskilled or semi-skilled laborers. What you need is a smaller but very well-educated population of people to run things and manage the economy. India doesn’t have that because it has a shockingly poor education system, a very large and growing population, and a lot of people who are grotesquely underemployed.
The reason this is important for the river is because a growing population puts pressure on the river and you need to build infrastructure to serve those people. The more water used, the more strain you put on the country’s water supply.
I think this is an important issue that is often neglected. People don’t want to talk about it, because they find it easier to conveniently think “Oh, India will have a demographic dividend and it will all be fine.” My view is that it won’t be. What’s happened to the river, what’s happening to the river, what will happen to the river, the way it’s managed or mismanaged does tell you a lot about India’s successes and failures, both past, present and future.
The Ganges seems to be an issue where both sides of Indian politics agrees there’s a problem but both sides have also been unable to do anything about it. Given the consensus on the issue, why has a solution not yet been developed?
The failure to save the Ganges so far is an example of how difficult it is to govern India. When Narendra Modi came into power, he talked in very moving terms about the importance of saving the river from the horrors of pollution. He’d felt he’d been called by the River Goddess herself to save the Ganges. When he made his first Independence Day speech in 2014, he stood on the walls of the Red Fort and said “I’m going to talk about sanitation, I’m going to talk about women’s issues, I’m going to talk about toilets. They’re not things you’re going to expect me to say, but I’m going to say them.” His government did have plans for cleaning the river, but more than three years on, very little has been achieved in concrete terms.
This has not been unique to this government. Previous governments have announced multimillion dollar plans to save and clean the Ganges, and again nothing has happened. It’s very easy in India to announce things, but very difficult to get things done. One reason is that the central government is relatively limited in its power and reach, and a lot of the power rests in state governments, which are of variable quality and effectiveness. And then you have the lack of effective municipal governments in India, which is a huge governance problem, because things like sewage treatment and industrial effluence control must be done on the local level by local inspectors. It’s not practical to have people coming in from the center to enforce this kind of stuff, so you need complete local buy-in. But effective local government is lacking in India.
Is the lack of municipal governance in India a structural problem, or is it a problem of implementation and capacity?
It’s a structural problem, I think. Municipal governments don’t have the power or revenues to do things. Most of that lies with the central government or state governments. State governments are huge. The state government of Uttar Pradesh is looking after a population of over 200 million people. That’s bigger than Brazil. This is a not a local government, it’s the size of the one of the world’s biggest countries.
But I want to take a slightly more optimistic note because when we talk about public policy and pollution, we understandably get mired in depression. But we should also remember that there’s a lot to celebrate in the Ganges. There’s a wealth of culture, a wealth of art, a wealth of natural history. You can see freshwater dolphins all the way up the river in Allahabad. The Ganges is not dead. It’s a fundamental part of Indian life, and it’s a joy to behold in places.
It’s important that we remember the vitality around the river, that Indians do care about it, and that they do have the ability to fix the river. When you clean a river, the task you have to set yourself is merely to stop polluting it, and that day you stop, the water flows down the river and washes away the dirt. The next bit of water that comes is unpolluted because you’ve stopped polluting the river.
Indians including Narendra Modi himself and other Indian government officials are very keen to take the lessons of other river clean-ups around the world. You think of Chicago, the Rhine in continental Europe, the Thames in London. They talk about this all the time: “we want to do what you did to help your rivers, to save your rivers.”
Governments have shown when they have these big religious festivals that they can get things done. They can build temporary cities with facilities, including sanitation, on the banks of the river. They serve millions of people effectively and cost-effectively, but they’re dismantled before the next monsoon while the permanent cities remain badly-managed with bad sanitation. The point is that it’s not impossible.
How has the Ganges been represented in Indian popular culture, especially in the past several decades? And has that changed from how early historical representations?
In the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, she is a fantastically beautiful and very spiritual presence which awes the people who come across her, even if they’re gods and goddesses. The people that bathe in her are purified. There’s discussions of interesting wildlife. You really get the sense that she is a magical river. That’s of course from the days when there was no pollution.
Now it’s a bit more contemporary in the sense that she’s still worshipped as a river by a goddess by hundreds of millions of Indians, but people are aware of the problems. My favorite example of this is a Bollywood movie which is called Ram Teri Ganga Maili, or basically “Oh, Ram, Your Ganges Has Been Sullied.” It’s an allegory. The goddess herself is abused as she goes on this journey down her own river, as it were. She’s a real-life character who goes to meet a man, falls in love, but is abused when she tries to join him. She’s abused by all these odious characters, including officials, corrupt priests, evil businessmen, gangsters. She’s essentially sold into prostitution. But then, in the end, she meets the man and all is well. There’s a parallel story of where the bad guys are also trying to build polluting factories along the river.
This film came out in 1985 at the time when one of the first Ganges plans was launched. So you’ve got the spiritual story of the goddess doing her thing and being sullied, but is paralleled by real life events. The innocence of the river has clearly been lost, but Indians who write about it or make films about it try to revive and restore it through their work.