The date is 8 October 2018 and a man lies, unmoving, on a hospital bed. The white bed sheet hides his emaciated frame, but his hollowed-out face and sapling-thin wrists tell the story – he is slowly starving to death.
The end of this man’s story is near, but the battle on which he embarked will likely rage for many more years. The man who lies rock still in this Indian hospital bed is called GD Agrawal, or to give him his religious name, Sant Swami Sanand. The reason he’s starving to death isn’t due to famine or poverty – it’s due to choice. GD Agrawal, a former environmental engineer turned religious leader and environmental activist, went on hunger strike in order to draw attention to a cause that he believes is worthy of the ultimate sacrifice. He’s protesting the poisoning and destruction of India’s Ganges River, the Mother Goddess. The following day, he stops drinking water; it’s day 109 of his fast. This is the third fast upon which he has embarked in order to draw the government’s attention to the environmental threats that the Ganges faces – and to spur it into action.
Flowing for just over 2,600 kilometres across northern India, the Ganges is more than just a river. For Hindus, it’s the Mother Goddess Ganga herself and a focus of religious devotion for tens of millions of people across the world. It’s also a vital source of water and life for more than 40 per cent of India’s billion-plus population.
And yet the river is being sullied by the very people who revere her. Every day, around three million litres of sewage is emptied into the Ganges – and only about half of that has undergone any kind of treatment. The river’s waters are so dirty that it’s considered one of the most polluted waterways in the world. But there’s more than just sewage entering this river; waste from tanneries, chemical plants, textile mills, slaughter houses and even hospitals is dumped, untreated, into it. Dams block and alter the river flow throughout its higher reaches. Agriculture sucks out vast quantities of water and uses it to irrigate tens of thousands of fields. Even climate change is out to get the Ganges. The monsoon rains are becoming less predictable and shorter in duration, droughts are increasing and the Himalayan glaciers that nurture the highest points are shrinking rapidly. The result is that the river levels are falling quickly.
Even love is killing the river. As the Ganges is a holy place, people come here by the millions to bathe, thereby cleansing themselves of sin. As well as bathing, people make offerings of food and flowers, which are frequently deposited into the water in small cardboard boxes or on bits of plastic. Every day, tens of thousands of flowers are carefully placed into the river in this manner and left to drift downstream. This might seem benign enough, but many of these flowers have been treated with chemicals to keep them bright and fresh for longer. When those flowers enter the water, the chemicals leach out.
Hindus also consider the banks of the Ganges to be one of the most auspicious places to die and be cremated. After cremation, the remains are placed into the river and left to float downstream. Some bodies, such as those of young children, are never even cremated and instead are just wrapped in white cloth and sent on their way. In Varanasi, the holiest city along the banks of the Ganges, it’s estimated that 40,000 bodies are cremated every year. Scientists have discovered ‘super bacteria’ living in the waters that are resistant to most forms of commonly used antibiotics.
For decades, cleaning the Ganges has been a political issue. Many politicians have promised to do something about the state of the river but most have failed to live up to those promises. ‘Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt,’ Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in 2014, shortly after his first election win, ‘and she’s chosen me for the job’. Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist who is now in his second term as prime minister, pledged US$3 billion in 2015 to clean the river up within five years. But five years later, critics say that there has been little change and that much of the money allocated to the mission has been lost to corruption and mismanagement. In fact, critics say that under Modi, the river, and India’s environmental policy in general, are in worse shape than ever. His premiership has coincided with a marked increase in coal mining and the building of coal-fired power plants, which continue to result in worsening air quality and river pollution.
Nevertheless, GD Agrawal isn’t alone in his determination to see the Ganges cleaned up and respected in the way that he believes a Mother Goddess should be. In towns, cities and villages all along the river, and across India and beyond, other people and groups, tired of hollow promises, are working in less dramatic but no less important ways to clean things up.
Take those devotional flowers used in pujas (offerings) in temples up and down the length of the river. In the past, they were just thrown into the water, but today, small grassroots projects such as Help Us Green are tackling the problem. One such project involves turning used devotional flowers from temples into joss sticks, which are then lit at the temples. It might seem like a mere teardrop in this polluted ocean, but the quantities are staggering. Help Us Green is based in the industrial riverside city of Kanpur (which holds the dubious honour of having the world’s worst air pollution, according to a 2018 WHO report). The organisation’s founder, Karan Rastogi, says that he works with 16 large temples in Kanpur, as well as a number of smaller temples. He adds that since its creation in 2015, Help Us Green has recycled 7,000–8,000 tonnes of chemical-doused flowers and other temple debris that would otherwise have ended up in the Ganges. If scaled up, this could make a huge difference; Rastogi’s best guess is that, taking the river as a whole, something in the region of 1,000 tonnes of temple and puja flowers end up in the river every day and that for every 100 kilograms of flowers, a kilo of pesticide is used.
Other simple but effective projects are springing up. One, run by the Banaras Cultural Foundation, involves planting Indian almond tree seeds along exposed parts of the riverbank around Varanasi. From his home in the city’s heart, the group’s founder, Navneet Raman, says that the idea of the project was simply to regenerate degraded parts of the riverbank and to create a habitat that would encourage birds and other wildlife to return. For the most part, he and his small team of volunteers have concentrated on planting seeds and saplings along a one-kilometre stretch of bank on the opposite side of the river from the city’s famed bathing ghats (steps leading down to the river). This stretch had suffered so badly from environmental destruction that it had become a virtual desert. Raman now estimates that over the past 20 years, he and his team have planted some 12,000 or more seeds and saplings in the area and that today, when he walks along the bank, he does so in the shade of trees, listening to birds warble. An additional effect of the tree planting scheme is that the roots of the trees help to bind the soil and hold the banks in place during the powerful monsoon floods.
Away from the riverbank, Varanasi faces several problems. In this holy city, humanity exists at its most intense. The noise is unceasing, the traffic rages day and night, and pollution sits heavy over the streets. At first, it feels as if there isn’t a single living tree in the city, but Raman and his team have focused their attentions here, too. A 2,500-square metre patch of forest now sits in the city centre, growing in a spot that, 15 years ago, was wasteland used by mechanics. Today, dozens of birds call the forest home. Raman says that when he visits, he feels as if he’s no longer in the city.
Yet more groups are working to tackle the huge quantities of plastic waste that pour out of the mouth of the Ganges and into the Bay of Bengal. Renewology has been installing mobile plastic-waste-to-energy systems along tributaries of the Ganges with the aim of collecting discarded plastic and converting it into fuel. Others are busy installing physical barriers, similar to fences, a short way out into the river to trap waste and prevent it flowing downstream. At the same time, numerous educational programmes teach riverside residents the value of keeping the great river clean.
Ancient religious traditions, too, are being given a green make-over. In recent years, electric crematoria have been constructed next to the ghats in Varanasi and in other holy riverside towns as an alternative to burning the bodies of the deceased on traditional wooden pyres. This helps to reduce river pollution while also reducing the number of trees that need to be chopped down for the funeral pyres.
These are all worthy projects and worth highlighting, but given the scale of the issue, they can still feel futile, even to those pursing them. Raman from the Banaras Cultural Foundation sighs when asked whether the Ganges will be a cleaner, healthier river in 20 years’ time. ‘Unfortunately, a dirty Ganges is worth more to India than a clean Ganges. There are so many big projects to clean up the Ganges – World Bank projects, Asian Development Bank projects, big government projects. All of those projects are posting 20 or so people here, 20 or so people there. They all have fancy cars and get well paid. These projects have so much money. A dirty Ganges generates money for the country through all the development projects. If the river was clean, then the projects wouldn’t be needed and the money would disappear. With a clean Ganges, it’s only the poor people, who are completely dependent on the river for their livelihood, who would benefit. So, for the bigger people, a dirty Ganges is a money-making machine.’
Rastogi from Help Us Green is less cynical. ‘In some ways, things will be better,’ he says. ‘People are becoming more conscious of what we’re doing to the river and the next generation is less interested in going to temples and doing puja, so there will be less religious pollution. But, at the same time, the human population is continuing to expand and this will put great pressure on the Ganges. Maybe an even bigger problem is climate change. I think that in the future, the river will be narrower and smaller than it is today.’
During the 16th century, the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great, who at the time was one of the most powerful men on Earth and who did much to turn India into the multicultural society that it remains, served water from the Ganges as drinking water in his court. To him, it represented the ‘water of immortality’. Perhaps, one day, it will once again be clean enough to drink. Sadly, however, GD Agrawal won’t be around to see it happen. On 11 October 2018, two days after he stopped taking water, he closed his eyes for the final time. For the Mother Goddess he had paid the ultimate price.