I remember my Guru’s prediction on the banks of India’s most sacred river—the Ganga—that I would one day undertake a journey from Kanyakumari to Kashmir in the company of many people. Today, Walk of Hope—a 7500 km, pan-India padayatra through 11 states in 500 days — is crossing the subcontinent in its quest for peace and harmony. While the prophecy has now come to pass, I have not quite forgotten the river that stood mute witness to this exchange.
At that point, I had already spent three years with my Guru, living and traveling in the Himalayas. The Himalayas too are thus close to my heart. I must add, for reasons inexplicable, I have been enamoured by its snow-white magnificence from a very young age though I was born in the far south — Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala.
In the course of the afore-mentioned Himalayan travels, we visited Gaumukh—the originating point of the Ganga. We reached the legendary spot where the river, once upon a time, descended from its celestial status to impart succor and salvation to millions of souls. Here the river, composed of snow melt from the surrounding peaks and the magnificent Gangotri glacier, emerges from a snow-covered snout, shaped like a cow’s mouth. For anyone who has laid his eyes on this brilliant landscape, it is at once a sight divine and extraordinary.
Over the past few years, I have been deeply concerned by the monumental environmental threats faced by the Himalayas and, Ganga in particular. These two have remained our cultural icons since times immemorial. River Ganga is the cradle of Indian civilization—a source of drinking water and lifeline to millions along its course. Despite its haloed status, it is today the world’s fifth most polluted river, endangering humans and the fauna endemic to it. The Ganga Dolphin and Indian Gharial, commonly found in the river,are on the verge of extinction—listed as critically endangered in The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
During our padayatra, we came across rivers whose state is similar or more alarming than the Ganga. Everywhere, we found rivers reduced to a trickle, having graduated into dumping grounds for sewerage and industrial waste. While the Government has various river cleanliness missions in place for the last 30 years, including the latest National Mission for Clean Ganga, the pollution has grown manifold proving that all efforts in this direction have come to a naught.
I believe that true sustainable living begins with compassion, and from compassion comes the ability to share responsibly. We all share the environment and it is only with our participation that steps can be taken to rectify the impending ecological doom. The Walk of Hope, among its various stated objectives, counts sustainable living and community health as paramount to India’s future progress as a nation. Through our initiatives, we inspire harmony with nature to energise our immediate eco-systems and reduce our personal footprint.
With its mystical connection, Ganga has become the consigning point for everything material. The sore truth is, at its most holy points along the 2525 km course—Haridwar, Allahabad, and Varanasi—the river is also the sole recipient of the respective city’s sewerage, almost 13 billion liters every year. Add to this, million liters of industrial effluents generated by hundred of factories, and the run-off of chemical fertilizers and pesticides from hectares of agricultural land served by the Ganga. Negligent diversions of its water, along its route, have also led to alarming depletion of its water levels.
The condition of the Ganges is also a result of the religious significance attached to it. We consider the Ganga in a maternal context—terming it Ganga Maiya. Its rampant pollution is certainly a desecration of this sacrosanct sentiment. At some level, it is important to tone down our spiritual expectations from Mother Ganga, and instead focus on our natural duty to preserve this vital lifeline. We can desist from consigning cremated remains of corpses to the river and maintain a self-imposed decorum that will help revive the river. A case in point is the Ganga, along certain towns with lesser Hindu populations, shows remarkably lesser levels of pollution. A dedicated campaign preserving religious sensibilities while driving home a message of the river’s conservation is badly needed.
However, all is not lost. World over, we have remarkable success stories that have turned around rivers considered biologically dead—River Thames, UK; River Singapore; River Han, South Korea; and Yellow River, China are living testimony to such efforts. In 1957, River Thames had so low oxygen levels that no life form could survive. Now, Thames is back to its old glory, home to about 125 species of fish and 400 species of invertebrates, and growing.
Legislation for safeguarding our rivers is also the need of the hour. Strict implementation of this will prevent effluent pollution by industries and diversions of water by vested interests. The youth of this country considering they are stakeholders of the future—are key to this national mission. I foresee a dedicated, well-coordinated youth mission—a Ganga Corps—on the lines of the NCC, that will involve our youth to build a systematic awareness in the society, help monitor local effluent-generating agents and work on ground in an organized manner to help clean the rivers. This will add considerable impetus to the efforts by the Government, deriving faster results.
Later this year, the Walk of Hope will pass through Varanasi, the holy city that is also a major polluter of the Ganga. I hope the recent twinning of the city with Kyoto, Japan that foresees the upgrade of the ancient city will possibly address the river’s tragic status as well. While there, I intend to involve its citizens in a composite dialogue that will draw attention to the level of environmental degradation and help generate a greater local participation to improve the situation of the Ganga.