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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Mother Ganges

Air Date: Week of

Richard Schiffman reports from Benares, India on the banks of the Ganges River on the essential role the river plays in people's daily lives which includes drinking, washing, bathing in Hindu religious rites, and even as a destination for cremated human ashes. Pollution is a problem along the river and a subtle campaign of clean-up awareness, stressing inhabitants' sacred relationship to their "River Mother, " is afoot.


NUNLEY: Cleaning up air and water ranks high on the list of things Americans want their government to do. But the priorities are often different in the developing world where unbridled industrialization and exploding populations contribute to ecological problems on a vast scale. One such country is India. There are few environmental activists on the Indian subcontinent today and no organized green movement, despite such environmental disasters as the Bhopal tragedy. But the people there are beginning to organize around issues of concern to their communities. Richard Schiffman reports on a campaign in northern India to clean up one of the Earth's great rivers. It's a campaign that takes its inspiration as much from spirituality as from environmental science.

(Singing and splashing in the water)

SCHIFFMAN: The dawning sun hasn't yet broken through the haze which cloaks the river, but already hundreds have gathered on the banks. These early risers are the first of an estimated 60,000 people who will take their ritual baths today at Benares, a city which some say is the oldest urban area on the planet. And for Hindus it's also the holiest. What makes Benares holy is the river which forms its eastern boundary, a river which Hindus affectionately call Gangama: Mother Ganges.

MISHRA: I have a very close relationship with the river. I consider the river as a goddess, mother. I can't stop taking holy dip in the river and bringing my prayers. That is how my day starts.

SCHIFFMAN: Vir Badra Mishra is something of an anomaly in a holy city where tradition and modern ways don't always mix. He's the mahant, or hereditary spiritual leader, of a major temple, who also happens to be a trained scientist and professor of civil engineering at Benares Hindu University. And he's an environmental activist as well. As a devout Hindu, it offended Mahant Mishra to see his beloved river fouled.

MISHRA: This tradition, faith on the one hand and science and technology on the other hand, both working in me, led to this campaign, Suchunganga campaign, clean Ganges campaign.

(Splashing in the water)

SCHIFFMAN: Out on the river it's not hard to see where the problem lies. The banks are teeming with activities. Cows and goats wander on the stone platforms fronting the shore. Scores of bathers are soaping up. Children are defecating. And human bodies are being cremated. And just upriver from the burning gas we pass a long line of men and women beating sudsy piles with wooden paddles.

(Sounds of laundry being beaten)

PANDE: They're washing clothes, so they collect all the clothes from the houses and they're washed in here.

(Beating/washing sounds continue)

SCHIFFMAN: There are also illegal housing developments and shantytowns coming up near the banks of the Ganges just south of Benares. But my companion, environmental student Ashug Pande, says the greatest offense to the Ganges by far are the streams of raw sewage that pour into the river at various points. One of the most blatant is this open cataract just below Mother Theresa's home for the dying.

(Running sewage)

SCHIFFMAN: In places, the Ganges contains 3,000 times the level of fecal coliform bacteria that the World Health Organization deems safe for bathing. And the people of Benares don't only bathe in the Ganges. A hundred yards upstream from the open sewer are the massive intake pumps for Benares's drinking water supply.

PANDE: These pumps and the water from Ungato, the central treatment plant, and from there they supply to the houses.

SCHIFFMAN: Ashug Pande adds that the river water is often inadequately treated. Not surprisingly, most Benares residents suffer from intestinal parasites.

PANDE: It mirrors in malnourishment, and malnourishment can result in weakening of immune system.

SCHIFFMAN: Dr. Vijay Anath Mishra is the son of Mahant Mishra.

V. MISHRA: And weakening of immune system can again result in severe reinfection, which will again result in all these steps, so the vicious circle goes on. And I think to break this vicious circle, the most important part is to provide a safe drinking water.

(Celebration music and ambient conversation)

SCHIFFMAN: A marriage party wends its way to the banks of the Ganges with its entourage of musicians sporting red and yellow silk turbans. The celebrants crowd into a wooden launch for a ceremonial cruise, and one is reminded yet again that for hundreds of millions of people this is more than just a river. It's a place where Indians come to celebrate the mileposts of their lives from birth till death, and to commune with the Ganges, their mother. And it's not just Indians who come here. Catherine Porter is a member of Friends of the Ganges USA.

PORTER: I work day to day in the environmental movement in the United States, and I deal with statistics and scientists and lobbyists and activists and politics. And it can be alienating from nature itself.


PORTER: When I go to India and when I sit by the Ganges and the sun comes up and thousands of people come down to do their morning worship, they chant, they sing. These beautiful dolphins rise in the water. It's such a whole experience of life, nature, community, religion. I just feel like I'm back in touch with why I'm part of the environmental movement.

(Singing continues)

SCHIFFMAN: The western and Indian environmentalists alike share an almost mystical relationship with Mother Ganges. And they've learned to speak with a special delicacy and tact about her problems.

MISHRA: If we just go and tell the people that Ganga is polluted, if you are going to use Ganga water you will fall sick, Ganga is no more a healthy river, if you just continue this type of talk for 1 or 2 minutes, people will say that we don't want to listen to this about Ganga is still our mother, our goddess, and Ganga can never be polluted. But if you say how do you feel if sewage is thrown on the body of your mother, people will immediately react, no that should not happen.

SCHIFFMAN: Professor Mishra's role as an environmentalist dates from the late 1970s when he wrote a series of popular, if disturbing, newspaper articles chronicling the deterioration of the Ganges. Shortly thereafter, he was invited to the US.

(Pete Seeger sings: "Five million gallons of waste a day...")

SCHIFFMAN: In New York, Professor Mishra met Hudson River activist Pete Seeger.

(Seeger: "Down the valley, one million toilet chains/Find my Hudson so convenient place to drain./And each little city says who me?/Do you think that sewage plants come free?")

SCHIFFMAN: It was a new concept for Mishra that people could band together to save a river. But when he returned to India he decided to try it in Benares, where he started the Clean Ganges Campaign. At first people didn't know what to make of the revered Mahant's environmental activism. But then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi responded in December 1984 with an address to the nation. He announced the creation of the Central Ganges Authority, which he charged with cleaning up the river.

MISHRA: The same day, people started congratulating me. People started talking so high of me and our organization. And it was a phenomenal change. And of course, when we started in 1982, we didn't think that the results, or such positive results will come in less than 2 years time.

SCHIFFMAN: But Mahant Mishra's exaltation was to be short-lived. Although the well-funded authority built sewage treatment plants at Benares and other major cities along the Ganges, the river remained fouled. The sewage treatment plant shuts down during the regular power cuts that plague Benares. And Professor Mishra says that the equipment is poorly used and indifferently maintained. Even when it's working, he says, the effluent which leaves the plant is often filthy, little better than raw sewage. Mahant Mishra and Catherine Porter envision a low-tech solution, one that doesn't depend on electricity or complex machinery.

PORTER: There are many communities in the United States that are using oxidation ponds to treat their sewage. This is what we'd like to see happen in Benares, and we're doing some experimental work to see if that would be appropriate for this community.

SCHIFFMAN: Last year, the environmentalists petitioned the Supreme Court of India. The Court ruled to freeze spending on the Ganges cleanup until the government comes up with the right technology for the job. Mahant Mishra says he isn't pinning all his hopes on the central government. Professor Mishra says that until those who live along the river develop the political will to clean it, the Ganges will likely remain polluted.

MISHRA: The bureaucracy, the government machinery which has implemented the Ganges action plan, they are not committed to the river. They are not committted to the job. The people who love the river, whose life depends on the river, who use the river, I think their work will be more positive to clean the river.

(Ceremonial music)

SCHIFFMAN: The state government of Udar Pradesh, where Benares is located, clearly agrees with Mahant Mishra that the people need to get involved. They've sponsored a play on the banks of the Ganges to encourage the residents of Benares to keep their river clean.

(Music and narration)

SCHIFFMAN: The play recounts the river's story. Long ago the goddess Ganga descended from heaven, through Siva's matted locks, to cool the rage of the god and to bless the Earth forever with goodness and fertility. But now demons attack the mother's flowing body. The demons of pollution.

(Music and narration continue)

SCHIFFMAN: India's river activists, like Mahant Mishra, envision a new type of environmentalism. They say that it's better to appeal to people's reverence for the natural world than to play to their fears.

(Music continues; applause)

MISHRA: The Clean Ganges Campaign is an example in India where the love and respect for the river is the motivating force, and it's not the fear of death and fear of extinction. And it would be much better if we start acting to save our morals. We say "genenee mon pormischal" that is our place of birth is genenee, is our mother. And the whole planet, this Earth, is mother. She is living.

(Music and singing continue)

SCHIFFMAN: From the banks of the River Ganges in north India, I am Richard Schiffman for Living on Earth.



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