The Ganges River. The mere mention of the name conjures up a colourful conglomeration of images in the eye of the imagination. Divine fervour, meditative worship, and a gathering point for all that is venerable; combined in an intoxicating mysticism that borders on surreal. This is the quintessential locale for the spiritual and the transcendental.
Having lived next to the Ganga, the centre of the sacred for the Hindu religion, I can attest that the holy river is certainly not lacking in sacrosanct intrigue.
Sunrise sees thousands gather in the holiest of Indian cities, Varanasi, to relish in the softly lapping currents, the relative coolness of dawn, the rousing aromas wafting from burning incense and street vendors, and the excitement of titillating conversations at chai stalls lining the ghats (the staircases leading down into the river itself). Colourful saris, friendly boatmen, muted chanting, and godly curios are in abundance. It is humanity at its most exuberant.
Which leads one to ponder, how can it be that this is reputed to be one of the most polluted rivers in the world? Simultaneously attracting over 20 000 bathers each day in Varanasi alone, whilst registering fecal coliform levels a hundred times the government standards, the river is an enigmatic perplexity. Plagued by the release of untreated sewage, chemical effluent, human and animal remains, and the trash of riverbank residents, the river is scorned by many as one not to be approached without extreme caution.
My curiosity was peaked. One morning, I was sitting with a local man on the ghats in Varanasi, chatting.
“Which country?” “Your country very nice country,” “You like India?” The usual.
When he nonchalantly tossed some trash in the river, I had to ask; “Why do you throw your garbage in the river?” It is holy, after all. His response, with a shrug, surprised me; “it moves fast!”
When I tell people his flippant response, they laugh, they shake their heads. How could he think it was okay to trash the river, just because the river will carry the problems downstream? Ridiculous! Right?
After thinking about it for a while, I think it’s an incredible and succinct summary of our attitudes to resource issues. Out of sight: out of mind.
The pollution of the Ganges seems most absurd when juxtaposed with its sacrosanct position in the Hindu faith. To an outsider’s eyes, it seems most inconsistent; to tolerate the pollution of a river so heavily steeped with tradition. In Varanasi, the river is host to two cremation ghats, where the bodies of the dead are carried onto open funeral pyres and burned in flames. The ashes are returned to the river.
It is believed that it is here, in the holy city, where one can achieve moksha, liberation from the endless cycle of life and death. For this reason, hospices are not uncommon along the banks of the Ganges. The very sick and very old gather in varying stages of decline, lined up on cots and waiting to die. This alone seems reason enough to wonder about the continual dirtying of the sacred waters.
Ever increasingly, however, religion is not the only powerful force dictating India’s direction. Since economic ‘liberation’ in the 1990s, the country has rapidly changed from the pre-globalised state it once was only two decades ago.
India is oft touted as an emerging giant, an economic prowess, with unprecedented possibilities. It is predicted that from 2007 to 2020, India’s GDP per capita in US$ terms will quadruple. This leaves one to ponder the development path of a giant with a perilous, at least at the moment, record for resource use. Certainly India is not the first, or the only, nation to emerge as a powerful economic force with a lagging regard for the precarious balance between resource use and resource abuse.
But what is to be said about an economy (and a society) facing such gargantuan issues with water contamination? And what of the shortage of our most precious of resources itself? In 2009, gravity satellites commissioned by NASA found that the water table near Delhi, India’s capital city, is falling by four centimeters per year, an alarming rate in any country.
Water scarcity and drought are more commonly associated with countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but with a burgeoning population and an ever-increasing thirst for consumerism, India is quickly coming to the realization that it could be (and already is) facing water problems of its own.
Confronting the realization that poverty and development are paradoxical, and that sanitation and environmental quality are important keys in reducing the devastating effects of poverty, the Indian government is faced with crucial choices. Allow unbridled economic development and turn a blind eye to the disastrous environmental effects? Or clean up its act? More than four hundred million people live along the Ganges River, no small number depending on its quality and flow.
It’s easy to watch from afar, lazing in our easy chairs and reading of the ails of far-away places. But perhaps India’s case should serve as a poignant reminder of own economic, and environmental, fallibility. While we can tout projects to clean up India’s water supply and to reduce waste in the major consumptive industries, we must also understand that our own investment and trade often counter such projects.
When someone throws their trash in the Ganges, it bobs and floats along, for all to see. When water tables plummet, wells stop pumping. The problems are stark, poignant, and in-your-face. The indirect effects of factories forced to cut costs to produce cheap products are less immediately obvious.
Economic growth and resource security hinge on the ability for a nation (and a world) to provide adequate resources to sustain itself. Our own economies are increasingly dependent on those of the emerging giants, India included. When India faces environmental issues, we too face these issues.
In the west, we exist in a gloriously buffered comfort zone, too often ignorant to the ills of our own economic growth. Our trash may not float down the river in front of us, but it still exists, in frightening volumes. We may not bathe directly downstream of our effluent-releasing factories, but water contamination remains a threat to our ecosystems. It may seem that developing nations like India are far away, and that their problems won’t affect us – when in truth we are one collective humanity living on one single and increasingly connected planet.
The river may move fast, but it won’t carry our problems away.