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Straightening the bends in the river

india Updated: Sep 19, 2007 18:04 IST
Veer Bhadra Mishra

Ganga
Author: Julian Crandall Hollick
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 282
Price: Rs 450

Julian Crandall Hollick’s Ganga is an interesting and informative travelogue. It records the people and institutions that have experienced Ganga jal’s power over the last 500 years. It primarily provides the scientific side of the tale, citing reasons why the river’s water has a special ability to “absorb organic waste at an astonishing high rate”.

The author observes that no scientist seems very interested in investigating the river and its streams. This lack of interest is curious. Hollick goes on to assert that the river does have some extraordinary rejuvenating powers. After examining all the available technical-scientific research work, the book states that there may be something in the river-bed that gives Ganga its ‘extraordinary’ powers. It may be a new angle for researchers and must be explored.

In this context, it is interesting to consider the fact that ancient Hindu religious texts do describe Ganga’s sand as the “provider of happiness”. It is curious to find only a passing reference to the Ganga Action Plan (GAP) in the book. Being the first human intervention towards freeing Ganga from pollution, GAP’s successes, failures and plans to clean the Ganga should have been an important part of the book. The river is, in fact, in the news again because of GAP.

Environmentalists do not want any interference with rivers. They maintain that the rivers’ valley, flood plain and discharge should not be disturbed. But this ideal condition cannot be satisfied as people have to use river-water and want to protect themselves from the fury of rivers.

River management thus becomes necessary.

This is a difficult technical exercise for big mountainous rivers like the Ganga. It is in this context that the flow of Ganga is divided into four stages: the mountainous stage, the boulder stage, the river in the alluvial plain, and the river in the delta. The river meander in the plains and fans out forming different channels in the delta. It is a Herculean task for professionals to build hydraulic structures like dams, barrages and marginal bunds with this kind of uncertain river flow.

For example, meandering in the alluvial plains is a very complex process and has not been analysed with detail. Rivers meander during floods in the alluvial plains. But why does the Ganga not meander in places in the alluvial plains like Mirzapur and Varanasi where heavy floods are experienced? Why does it meander so madly in the plains of Bihar and Bengal? This is a challenge for researchers.

Looking at this complexity of the river and the complex way it is used, any management plan of the Ganga is not possible without political will. The concept of a ‘Himalayan Ganga’, a ‘Yamuna Ganga’ and a ‘Nepalese Ganga’ as described in the book is over simplifying matters and ends up confusing the reader.

GAP was launched to save Ganga and millions of people from the pollution caused by domestic sewage. Nothing has been done for the river to protect it and enabling people to happily cohabit with it. Water quality tests of the Ganga along the ghats of Varanasi reveal that 90 per cent of the pollution results from domestic sewage entering through sewer outfalls and open drains. Direct users of the Ganga are responsible for the remaining 10 per cent of the pollution.

But Hollick believes that in Varanasi “the real hidden killer [is] toxic heavy metals”. Test results, however, do not support this belief. Ganga is not polluted by ‘practising Hindus’ whose ‘behaviour’ with the river is exemplary and who, any way, form a very small number. But the book ignores them and makes the practitioners of the Hindu faith responsible for Ganga’s pollution.

The author is unable to appreciate the fact that metaphysical realities are experienced in our physical body. The river Ganga and the Goddess Ganga cannot be separated in a Cartesian fashion. But one thing that the book does is make the reader take more interest in Ganga and the culture associated with the great river.

Veer Bhadra Mishra is the founding president of the Sankat Mochan Foundation. He is a former professor of hydraulic engineering and former Head of the Civil Engineering Department at the Banaras Hindu University. He is also the Mahant of the Sankat Mochan Temple, Varanasi