It was Bhagirath who chose to leave his kingdom and commit to austere tapasya, for a thousand years, in order to bring Ganga down from the heavens. Tapasya is most often translated as penance but it also means the burning desire for change, writes Bidisha Banerjee, the author of Superhuman River: Stories of the Ganga, published by Aleph.
For centuries, the river Ganga has been worshipped as a living goddess, mythically originating in the Milky Way and extending to the underworld. During its long course from the icy Himalayas, winding over 2,500 km, through five major Indian states, creating the largest mangrove system on Earth in the Sundarbans Delta, it sustains 500 million people along its banks. But today with over a billion litres of waste and sewage pumped into it every day, the river is dying a slow death.
Over a span of 10 years Banerjee explored the Ganga from its source to the sea to understand what the river was trying to tell us. The result is the book, which alternates in style between a travelogue and a reporter’s diary, bringing into its fold environmental anthropology, mythology and science.
In an email interview to BLink, Banerjee, a social ecologist and an ethical leadership coach who lives in Oakland, California, says the only way to save the Ganga is to collectively cultivate what Bhagirath did — a burning desire for change.
Why do you call Ganga a Superhuman River?
Directly, it means extraordinary or exceptional, which the river clearly is. More deeply, however, it means having a nature superior to that of ordinary humans. The latter is harder to grasp and it’s the one I give most attention to.
In the book I write that the Ganga can help us better understand our own superhuman status. I mean that, now, in an age of climate change, we have the power to impact the Earth and its future in ways unimaginable before. So we are called on, by the Ganga, to get good at being superhuman. The book is about the Ganga calling us to that new task.
I pose the question in my book of what can happen if we venture beyond blame-games and try to find and reclaim what of the sacred is left of the Ganga and the idea she represents.
In 2017, an Uttarakhand court conferred upon the Ganga the status of a “living human entity ... with all corresponding rights, duties, and liabilities.” Within months, however, this status had been suspended. In future, I would like to see the courts revisit the status. This status should be granted so that we humans, who have become superhuman compared to the river, can be held liable for damaging the river’s integrity.
I would also like to see the courts address a specific question: How does legal recognition of the river as another human being redefine our rights, duties, and liabilities toward this person?
Faith and rationality are two banks of the same river, the book holds. Do you think the Ganga is somehow trapped in its own myths of being eternal and pure? That it has this destiny to absorb all sins and remain unaffected? How can environmental responsibility be made to enter a religious discourse?
The point about faith and rationality being two banks of the same river was made by Veer Bhadra Mishra, the late priest-hydrologist who devoted his life to Ganga clean-up efforts. Many of us schooled only in the modern world have a hard time approaching the river with faith, given how polluted it has become. For me, meeting people like Mishra opened up a new possibility — that we who are modern can also re-enchant our relationship with the nature spirits who once gave us a sense of identity and purpose.
For millennia, Indian civilisation had a very respectful relationship with the river and hesitated to exploit it solely for economic gain. As a result of several hundred years of empire, we now don’t hesitate to exploit the river. And the mentality that unlimited economic growth is desirable is part of the reason why the river is as polluted as it is. But there are limits to growth, as our current pandemic is showing us. Embracing those limits and rebuilding a more respectful relationship to the river is the task ahead of us.
Does the river have a destiny to cleanse itself? No. In fact, given humans’ current superhuman ability to affect the river’s health, it’s up to us to treat the river with greater care. Many notable religious people have tried to integrate environmental responsibility towards the river into their messaging. However, this is not the full picture. Many of the largescale changes that are needed will have to come from the government, private industries, and civil society.
Since the book is part-travelogue, tell us about a particularly memorable place you travelled to for the book. How did it deepen your understanding of the river?
I had the fortune of visiting the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Glimpsing the endangered river dolphin and meeting scientists and fisher-people who know its habitat well was a highlight. Many threats to the dolphin’s survival exist, including the 2016 Indian Waterways Act, which proposes to dredge the river and turn it into a canal for coal-bearing barges.
Another highlight was hearing the songs of the fisherwomen of Bhagalpur. They sing about the Ganga directly to the Ganga. Both these experiences deepened my understanding of the river by highlighting the opportunity we still have to ensure that the Ganga River Dolphins — and the traditional cultures that know the dolphin intimately — do not vanish in our lifetime. These experiences reminded me that living is opportunity. Opportunity is not something we create. It is always with us.
While the government claims to have cleaned up the river, several surveys show that beautification and clean-up drives have only masked environmental deterioration. What difference has the government programme ‘Namami Gange’ made to the river, given we’re at the end of 2020, by when a sum of Rs 20,000 crore was supposed to have transformed the river?
Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who speaks of himself as a son of the Ganga — came to power in 2014, the Ganga’s public image changed into a river on the mend: The Modi government has promised an ‘aviral Ganga, nirmal Ganga’ — a clean and free flowing waterway. But new leaders, ministries, funding mechanisms, policies, and personnel have overpromised, underdelivered, and failed to live up to our shared environmental values.
There are officials who would disagree and insist that, till the book’s publication, 3,234 villages have been declared free of open defecation. Over 700 industries suspected of dumping waste into the river have been inspected, and 48 were asked to shut down, while 123 new ghats and 65 crematoria have been built. The river flow through Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur, and Patna has been cleaned, at least on the surface.
But our faeces, even in open defecation free zones, is far from turning into fertiliser. In many places, sewage and largescale industrial pollutants still flow freely into the river. Different stakeholder groups blame each other. The task of cleaning the river is more often seen as a technical challenge (one with a clearly defined problem and solution), rather than as an adaptive challenge (one that will require new ways of being and new practices on the civilisational level). This distinction between technical and adaptive comes from Ronald Heifetz, a Harvard professor who studies leadership development. And we certainly need a new approach to leadership with regard to the Ganga.
Gallons of untreated sewage continue to poison the Ganga. We have curtailed its flow, thwarting its self-cleansing properties in non-monsoon months. Scientific reports suggest the river might soon dry up during summer. What should we be most worried about and is there any hope?
As for what we should be most worried about: the answer is climate change. Extreme rainfall, flooding, and landslides are expected to continue increasing. Not to mention more of the droughts and locusts we’ve already seen. Ending the fossil fuel industry (including the proposed coal plant in the Sundarbans) is an important leverage point.
People’s love for Ganga and skepticism about the status quo give me hope. In my book I talk about how the environmental laws laid down in Kanpur in the ‘80’s had a positive impact on the health of people living downstream. We need to enforce and expand these laws, perhaps with an equivalent of the US Clean Water Act.
Visiting Sagar Island and Satjelia Island on the Bay of Bengal also gave me hope. I saw solar panels on thatch roofs. I met young people who know all about medicinal herbs and traditional water management in addition to modern science. I marvelled at the resilience of island communities in the face of cyclones and sea-level rise. And I marvelled at the ability of islanders to collaborate across differences and communicate with the spirits and energies of the forest, in the form of Bon Bibi, a goddess dedicated to ecological justice. It’s also important for us to see the river as a system — a watershed — a basin that extends from Tibet and Nepal to Bangladesh through India. Cross-border cooperation and rebuilding our infrastructure, so it’s more attuned to the needs of human and nonhuman communities, are sources of hope.
How can laypeople play a part in saving the Ganga?
Laypeople have a very important role in mustering political will for change. Beyond that, there are many other ways to get involved. Educating ourselves about the ways in which pollution impacts our food, and our health. Healing your corner of the Ganga river system can start in your kitchen, your dining table, your water closet.
Citizens can speak up about this outrage. Those of us who eat fish can do more to demand high-quality freshwater fish, which used to be a point of pride for our ancestors.
Whether it’s building a composting toilet, installing solar panels, decolonising the extractive mentality you’ve learned, healing your relationship with your ancestors, protecting people displaced by dams and by change, or simply reading about the Ganga to enlarge your sense of its indecipherable mystery and seemingly infinite variety, let the Ganga speak to the many different aspects of who you are.
This article has been republished from The Hindu BusinessLine, with permission.