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Story Publication logo July 20, 2016

Field Notes: Environment and the Ganges River


A pilgrim takes a holy dip in river Ganges

Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes on the Herculean task of cleaning up his country’s most sacred...

A worker sorts “wet blue” leather in a small tannery in Kanpur. Image by George Black. India, 2015.
A worker sorts “wet blue” leather in a small tannery in Kanpur. Image by George Black. India, 2015.

Over the past eight years I've traveled from one end of the Ganges to the other. I've been to the source of the river in the Himalayas and the great pilgrimage center of Haridwar, where the river leaves the mountains. In the great Gangetic plain of North India I've made four trips to Varanasi, the holiest city in India, and visited Allahabad, where the Ganges meets its main tributary, the Yamuna, at a confluence that is sacred to Hindus. I've spent time in the seething, filthy industrial city of Kanpur, the center of India's tannery industry. Farther downstream, I've traveled to Calcutta and from there to the mouth of the river at Gangasagar. By that time one fork of the river, the one that is sacred to Hindus, has changed its name to the Hooghly; the other, larger branch heads east into Bangladesh and the main delta of the Ganges, where I've journeyed by boat through the tangled mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, the last redoubt of the endangered Bengal tiger, to the Indian Ocean.

From the toe of the Gangotri glacier to Gangasagar, the Ganges travels 1,569 miles. Along the way it is subjected to almost every environmental insult one can imagine. The Himalayan glaciers are slowly melting under the assault of global warming. Hydroelectric dams block the natural flow of the river. Wasteful irrigation practices further deplete its midsection, while agricultural runoff contaminates it with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. In the villages of the plain, the smoke from millions of cookstoves burning wood or cow dung blankets the air with a brown haze laden with black carbon. The towns and cities along the Ganges treat little or none of their sewage, and the same story applies to the pollutants from the tanneries of Kanpur and other industrial centers. Where the river meets the ocean, rising sea levels contaminate the fields with saltwater, making it harder and harder to grow rice and other staple crops. Meanwhile, warming ocean temperatures give birth to fiercer and more destructive cyclones in the Bay of Bengal.

Over the years I've written quite a bit about rivers. In the United States, it seems that almost any river facing an environmental threat has a local NGO looking out for its health. Fifty years ago, a group of fishermen founded an organization on New York's Hudson River that eventually changed its name to Riverkeeper, which has since spawned the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global network of more than 280 affiliates. A number of these are in India, but most are clustered in a group of monasteries in the remote Himalayas. Astonishingly, there is not a single Waterkeeper affiliate on the Ganges, even though the crisis it faces is of global significance. In fact, the Ganges has very few environmental defenders of any kind.

I don't mean to suggest that I haven't met conscientious and dedicated individuals in my travels on the river. In the Himalayan town of Rishikesh, which is sometimes called the yoga capital of the world, I once met two young women in an ashram who were fighting proposals to build new dams on the headwaters—which were subsequently blocked by a Supreme Court ruling. In Calcutta, I got to know a middle-aged couple who were working hard to beautify a riverbank park on the Hooghly that used to be disfigured by derelict warehouses and the rusted hulks of abandoned ships. In Varanasi, I spent time with members of the Benares Cultural Foundation who were trying, with scant results, to green the city—planting trees on congested streets, offering to compost the flowers left by worshipers at Varanasi's most important temple. (The priests declined the offer, saying that the proper thing for a pious Hindu to do was to toss them into the Ganges.)

The foundation's chairman, Navneet Raman, worked for a time with the most celebrated environmentalist on the Ganges, Veer Bhadra Mishra, a priest-scientist who enjoyed unique public credibility because he could appeal to both the secular and the spiritual values of the river. Mishra monitored fecal coliform bacteria levels on the river, while also insisting on taking his "holy dip" each morning. He was known internationally. He gave TED-X talks in New Delhi. He worked with scientists from California on a low-tech sewage treatment facility as an alternative to the expensive and ineffective plants being built by the government. He was even profiled in 1998 by Alexander Stille in The New Yorker.

But Mishra was a one-man band, and Raman eventually gave up trying to persuade him that he needed to create an organizational structure to carry on his legacy. Mishra died three years ago. His son, Vishwanbharnath Mishra, took over his father's hereditary position as priest of the celebrated Sankat Mochan Temple, which is dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman. The younger Mishra is also a scientist, and he has sought to continue his father's work. I went to see him last September, when I was working on my story for The New Yorker. He said he had met with Narendra Modi during one of the prime minister's visits to Varanasi. Modi had asked for a 15-minute audience, but they had ended up spending an hour together, discussing the river's problems. I found Vishwanbharnath Mishra a charming and erudite man, with a dry sense of humor. But the energy has gone out of the campaign, and I suspect that Vishwanbharnath would be the first to admit that his father's shoes are simply too big to fill.

Two hundred miles upstream in Kanpur, which is a dismal and grossly polluted microcosm of everything that ails urban India, I spent two days touring the city's tanneries with Rakesh Jaiswal, the head of a local organization called EcoFriends. I believe that Jaiswal may be the only full-time professional environmental activist anywhere on the Ganges.

The first task Jaiswal set himself after he founded EcoFriends in 1993 was to remove dead bodies from the river. Every time he went out, he found anything from 100 to 150 corpses in various stages of decomposition. Some had been consigned to the river by poor families unable to afford the cost of wood for cremation. Others had been dumped there by the police when no one showed up to claim them after an autopsy. The local newspapers showed some interest in the story; the government showed none.

Over time, Jaiswal professionalized his operation, and, like Veer Bhadra Mishra, acquired a measure of international renown. He secured grants from the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the Ford Foundation, and the Asia Foundation. Working with the laboratories of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, he was able to carry out a comprehensive analysis that showed shocking levels of contamination in agricultural produce from toxic chromium salts discharged from the city's tanneries. He brought lawsuits against offending factories and succeeded in having many of them shut down for a time until they installed their own primary effluent treatment facilities. But over the years, the funding for EcoFriends has dried to a trickle. Jaiswal once had a staff of ten. Today he works with one assistant, a taciturn middle-aged man named Jitendra.

When I left Kanpur, I asked Jaiswal what he thought of Modi's plan to clean up the river. He said, "Clean India, Clean Ganga, I haven't seen any benefit." So what did he plan to do next? "The future is very bleak," he said with a sigh. "Having worked here for more than 20 years I have already lost hope. Our priority has always been Ganga, but at this stage I don't know what to do."

In the course of my career in journalism, much of the reporting I've done has been in the developing world, often about environmental issues. Normally I come away from an assignment not only inspired by the people I meet, as I was by Rakesh Jaiswal, but also with a sense that their battles might be winnable. I've felt that in other parts of India, too, when I've reported stories on efforts, both by local activists, small-scale entrepreneurs, and larger corporations, to bring renewable energy to villages that are off the electricity grid. But it was hard to feel that my story on the clean-up of the Ganges would have a happy ending, at least not any time soon. Perhaps the problem is simply too overwhelming, too multifaceted. I asked Jaiswal what it would take to restore his sense of optimism. A new prime minister, no matter how sincere his intentions, couldn't do that, he said. "We need a system to change the mindset of the people."

How this was to come about was far beyond the scope of my story, and perhaps beyond the scope of any Indian leader, even one with the drive and determination of Narendra Modi.


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