Posts   |   Victor Mallet: The holy and deadly Ganges River

February 25, 2016
Victor Mallet: The holy and deadly Ganges River

In case you missed it from ten days ago (as I did), this is a must-read piece on the holy, deadly, toxic Ganges River by the FT’s South Asia bureau chief Victor Mallet. I’ve often thought that the Ganges River is a useful metaphor for modern India: a natural bounty, beautiful and massive and bursting with potential, abused and misused by callous, short-sighted and unthinking governments. Mallet’s piece details the extent of damage to the river and the uphill battle to clean it up.

He writes:

“Like many non-Indians, I was vaguely aware of the sanctity and the economic and social importance of the river before I came to live in India three years ago,” “What I had not expected was to find the Ganges so polluted by untreated sewage, industrial waste and pesticides that parts of the river and its tributaries are not only filthy and unsightly but disease-bearing, toxic and carcinogenic.” (boldface added)

Consider what Mallet writes about a key tributary of the Ganges:

“At its worst — according to the 2011 water quality statistics published by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) — the Yamuna’s water at Okhla contains 1.1 billion faecal coliform bacteria per 100ml, nearly half-a-million times the (Indian) recommended bathing limit of 2,500. The reason is clear. Half of India’s 1.3 billion inhabitants lack toilets; if they have them, they may not be connected to drains; if they are, there may be no sewage treatment plant; and if there is, it may not be working. The CPCB says only a tenth of the sewage produced along the main stream of the Ganges is treated at all. It is small wonder that those who can afford it use high-tech water filters to ensure the cleanliness of their drinking water, or that more than 300,000 Indian children under five die each year from diarrhoea, many of them in the Ganges basin.”

A country in which 300,000 Indian children die of diarrhea each year is hardly the image of the India on the move, growing 7%, of an emerging middle class shopping online and going to malls.

Consider this shocking scene from Mallet’s excellent reporting:

“The descent to the plains of Uttar Pradesh (at 200 million, the state has as many inhabitants as Brazil) is a shock. By Indian standards, Moradabad is not a particularly large city — just one million people — but there is no sewage treatment and there are scores of paper mills, sugar plants, brass foundries and plastics factories nearby that spew waste into the Ram Ganga and its tributaries. Downstream of the city centre, the sandy banks and the exposed riverbed present an apocalyptic scene of filth and garbage, of dead dogs, plastic bags, nullahs (drains) spewing pink dye and pigs rootling through the muck. All the while, men with tractors and bullock carts are mining sand for construction, while dhobi-wallahs(washermen) ply their trade in the dirty water and a boy forlornly casts his net for fish.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made cleaning up the Ganges a high priority of his administration. Clearly, he has a long, long way to go.

To read the full Victor Mallet piece, go here: the Ganges River.