JLF 2018: How can India worship its rivers, but still treat them cruelly, let them die?
How can a country worship its rivers but also be deeply apathetic to their state, treat them cruelly and contribute to their death?
This paradox was at the centre of a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival on the Ganga and its connection to India’s future, based on a recent book (River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India’s Future) on the subject by journalist Victor Mallet.
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Through a lecture and a series of photographs charting the Ganga’s trajectory through India, Mallet argued that the ancient prosperity of the country was tied to the fate of the river, whose polluted waters bring misery and ill health to the 500 million people who live on its banks. He also emphasized that the Ganga was not yet a dead river and could be saved – just like the Thames was rescued in Britain.
“When Modi met Obama for the first time at the White House in 2014, they talked about environmental issues, about rivers,” he said. Obama said he was from Chicago, where the local river used to be filthy and polluted but had been cleaned up recently. “That’s what I want for the Ganga, Modi said,” Mallet said.
Another reason for hope, he added, was the extraordinary way in which states such as Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal pulled together mega religious events on the Ganga every few years – complete with sanitation, running water and electricity.
“You built this city in two months on the sand banks where 70 million people come in a few weeks. Why cannot you do that for Allahabad in normal times,” he asked.
The answer, for Mallet, lay in giving local governments more power to make decisions about the treatment of the rivers that flowed through them. He argued against a top-down centrally governed scheme, saying money was often under-used or wasted in this model.
He acknowledged the massive unused funds and the historical failure in cleaning the Ganga. Several action plans put in place since the 1980s have come to naught and a recent Comptroller and Auditor General report blamed the government for Rs 2,500 crore lying unused and said “not a single drop” of the river had been cleaned.
The biggest threat, though, according to Mallet, are the dams and projects that hold back silt and have serious consequences for people downstream. “It is not what we put into rivers, it’s what we take out of them,” he said.
Not enough water is flowing down the river, and over extraction of water has harmed the river’s trajectory. Surprisingly, only about 5 percent of it is for the cities and 2 percent for industry. The rest goes to agriculture.
The picture is really bleak. The growth of superbugs has been aided by polluted water in the rivers, making India -- where already 58,000 infants die every year of untreatable diseases -- one of the sources of this global crisis. “India has the perfect storm of factors: a lot of disease, very poor sanitation, a big pharma industry and misuse of antibiotics. This aids the growth of superbugs,” Mallet said.
But all hope is not lost. The writer pointed out that the current government has made river cleaning a priority and there was national consensus on the importance of saving the Ganga. “We don’t have to clean the river, we have to stop dirtying it,” he said.
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