It’s a forenoon hour, and the small post office alongside the Ganga is bustling with activity. Ratan Rawat, the postmaster, is busy taking phone calls on the landline as well as his cell phone.
“Ho jayega sir, saari cans jald aa jayengi (Yes sir, will ensure that all the cans reach soon),” he speaks reassuringly to his senior at the other end. As the head of the staff totaling six, Rawat inspects the plastic cans filled with Ganga jal collected from the river bank, just across the road.
For a month now, this post office in this pilgrim city in Uttarakhand is sending the holy water to Delhi. At a facility in the national capital, it is filled in bottles of 200 and 500-ml capacity before they are distributed for retail sale to post offices across the country.
It was in May this year that Union communication and information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced making Ganga jal available at post offices and on e-commerce platforms. The idea of selling the holy water proved to be an instant hit after the scheme launched on July 10.
The Ganga jal is collected from two places in Uttarakhand: Rishikesh and, further up, Gangotri. “Initially, we used to pack and dispatch 25 cans of 20 litres each a day,” says Rawat. “These days, we collect 100 cans—or 2,000 liters per day. That is enough to make 10,000 bottles of 200ml each.”
A 200ml Ganga jal bottle collected from Rishikesh costs Rs 15, while the price is Rs 22 for 500 ml. The Gangotri water is collected from Gomukh—the origin of the 2,525km river. The purity quotient is up at the glacier area, and so are the costs. It’s Rs 25 for the 200ml bottle, Rs 35 for 500ml.
The post office at Gomukh, which is situated 13,200 feet above the sea level, is opened for only six summer months any year. July being a monsoon month, its roads face repeated blocks. “So, we have temporarily stopped collecting water from Gomukh” says GD Arya, superintendent (postal) for Tehri Garhwal zone.
At the Rishikesh post office, the staff members take turns to monitor the water-collection work and count the packed bottles. “At times, we feel a little overloaded,” shrugs Rawat. “But it is all about service to society.”
At the Ganga bank that overlooks the famed suspension bridge called Ram Jhula, young Ram Singh collects muddy Ganga jal in cans. Two fellow labourers join the 32-year-old local man.
“It’s an earning season for us,” says Singh. “We get Rs 1000 for 3 to 4 hours of work. Not bad.”
Rains in the upper stream have made the Ganga water particularly muddy. “Our job is to collect in the raw form,” adds Singh.
The business of Ganga jal
As one of the world’s longest, Ganga is a trans-boundary river originating from the Himalayas in northern India. On hitting the plains at Haridwar, it takes a southeast course and enters Bangladesh before finally merging with the Bay of Bengal. The river’s water is holy for millions of Hindus living across the globe. Lakhs of pilgrims visiting Gangotri, Rishikesh and Haridwar, among other spots along the river, collect its water and store them back home.
The Indian postal department is not the first in the country to sell Ganga jal. For long, several small traders sell the river’s water, employing varied kind of packaging. Most of them do the business without registration.
The government’s entry has upset them—more so those who run the business legally.
For instance, middle-aged Pradeep Kumar of Haridwar opened a firm in his name this February, sensing lucre out of selling Ganga water. Five months thence, the postal department stepped in a big way. Today, Kumar is anxious about his future.
“I am ready to negotiate with the postal department to save my new business” he says, standing outside the Rishikesh post office. “My business fetched me a turnover of Rs 26,000 so far.”
The state had its first Ganga jal firm in 2004 when Uttarkashi Mineral Corporation (UMC) was registered with the plan to sell the river water in both domestic and overseas markets. Anita Sharma, its manager, says the company has a “sizeable share” of market.
“We maintain quality; we have a plant near Gangotri that has 20 employees,” says Sharma. “The company ensures total treatment of Ganga jal before sending the product for sale.”
She claims that the postal department is selling “muddy water” that “cannot be used”.
UMC has been doing good business with an annual turnover of around Rs 4 crore.
The Ganga is no less than ‘Ma’ (mother) to a chunk of the 966 million Hindus living in the country. Many of them believe that its water has medicinal values—and have an undiminished trust in its quality despite growing industrialisation in a contemporary world.
Of late, the government is keen to learn more about the subject. Last month, Union water resources minister Uma Bharati instructed National Environmental Engineering Research Institute to undertake a study on the properties of the Ganga water.
As the Ganga jal business is gaining momentum, the priests at Haridwar downstream are not happy with the postal department’s business initiative. Purshottam Sharma, president of Ganga Sabha—an umbrella organisation of priests in Haridwar—says Ganga is a goddess, implying impropriety in commercial use of its water.
“Pilgrims pray to Ganga Ma and collect the water,” the sabha head says. “We fail to understand what the BJP government is up to. Why it is selling water? It is wrong.”
The Akhil Bhartiya Akhara Parishad differs. The powerful body of saints finds nothing wrong in selling Ganga jal. Baba Hathyogi, a spokesperson of the Parishad, says the project would further strengthen people’s bond with Ganga. “Not everyone can visit the pilgrim places along the river,” he points out.
Is the Ganga clean?
For the record, the Ganga is one of India’s most contaminated rivers. Studies on the quality of its water have suggested that beyond Rishikesh, Ganga jal is not potable. “It is not fit for even ‘aachaman’—a sip taken before worship,” says one survey.
Uttarakhand Pollution Control Board (UPCB) says the Ganga water quality is ‘good’ at Rishikesh and upstream. Vinod Singhal, its member-secretary, shows data to substantiate the point.
“We collected samples at Rishikesh’s Laksham Jhula, which is 1.5 km from Ram Jhula. The water has biological oxygen demand in healthy range, suggesting that it is drinkable,” he reveals. “A similar test in Haridwar shows high presence of harmful coliform bacteria.”
The Narendra Modi government has promised to rejuvenate the Ganga. A separate ministry for Ganga rejuvenation is headed by Bharati, who has given nod to constitute a committee that will prepare guidelines for de-siltation of the river from Bhimgauda (Uttarakhand) to Farakka (West Bengal).
The four-member panel has been asked to establish the difference between desilting and sand mining. And also look into the need for desilting for the ecology of the Ganga.