RIVER OF LIFE, RIVER OF DEATH by VICTOR MALLET

I first read this extraordinary book about the state of one of India’s most sacred rivers a year ago, and was bowled over by the research as well as the empathy the writer shows towards India.

Although lamenting the damage done to the Ganga/Ganges – this most holy & revered of Indian rivers – Mr. Mallet approaches the issue with sensitivity and affection.

As he travels the length of the river, from its icy source in the Himalayas, the author recounts his many adventures with a wry, friendly smile. At least that’s how it seemed too me, reading it in Delhi (where I live), a city, by the way, with the unenviable reputation of one of the most polluted places on the planet.

On many occasions, Mr. Mallet describes the blatant disregard for protocols and rules in the treatment and disposal of industrial effluent and human sewage, which are both at the heart of the toxicity of the river.

There are horrific facts, and equally horrific descriptions of the stench and filth of a river in which, despite all of the above, people bathe and fish and pray and offer religious rituals.

The very fact this sacred river is at the heart of Varanasi, a town of supreme religious significance to Hindus and, it is worth noting, the constituency of the Prime Minister – this very fact of supreme holiness makes the wilful, almost deliberate fouling all the more inexplicable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and marvelled at the research and travel and scholarship that had gone into its writing.

Then came Coronavirus.

And India’s nationwide lockdown on 25 March.

And then the reports and photos started.

Of nature reasserting herself, while all we polluting humans stayed home.

No more factories pouring their waste chemicals into the holy ganga.

No more boats ferrying pilgrims around Varanasi, and polluting the water.

I presume less human waste, too, though unfortunately poor, inefficient sewage management remains, lockdown or no lockdown. I just imagine that, due to lockdown, there are fewer people actually going to the river to do – well, you can imagine the rest.

In a matter of weeks, nature in India has thrillingly reassured herself. Elephants, nilgai, civets are wandering the streets of this otherwise impossibly noisy, crowded country.

Turtles are taking over the beaches of Orissa.

In my own south Delhi neighbourhood, the birdsong is almost deafening in the early mornings – oh the joy of being woken up by busy, nesting tailor birds, rather than buses roaring down the street, horns ablaze.

Which brings us the Ganga.

And the reported Rs5000 crore spent over the years ‘cleaning” her.

Feel free to correct me here but I think 1 crore = =/- $130,000.

So 5000 crore = $650,000,000.

And seemingly all it has taken is 4 weeks of factories not pumping their waste and sewage into the river.

4 weeks of people not bathing, and washing, and t’other stuff.

4 weeks of not chucking your household waste in the river.

4 weeks.

What did the authorities not understand all these years, about the need to prevent the dumping of industrial effluent and waste and chemicals in the river?

Did the country really need to spend $650,000,000 to point out such a blindingly obvious fact?

I am completely baffled by this state of affairs.

Setting aside the wonder of the river becoming clean again, I cannot get the sheer breathtaking (and seemingly wasted) expense out of my mind.

At best, it indicates a complete inability on the part of the relevant authorities to impose any rules on companies and people – because rules against dumping toxic materials exist, I’m quite sure of it.

It’s just that no one follows them.

At worst, it indicates inefficiency and profligacy and (one fears) corruption on a breathtaking scale.

So, where does this leave us, and, more importantly, the sacred river?

We are told the river is clean.

How wonderful.

How long will she remain so?

Once lockdown is lifted and the factories start up again, and the pilgrims return, and the cremations restart, will the river, poor thing, revert to her filthy, dangerously toxic state?

Have any lessons been learned?

Will the authorities now force companies to follow the rules?

Will people self-police and not throw their garbage into the river?

This well-written and engaging book is perfect reading for these locked down days.

Re-reading it certainly gave me pause for thought.

Personally recommended.

Here’s the link to buy this excellent read.

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