Ganga: The holy, polluted river

Why Earth Needs Ecofeminism
July 1, 2015

Ganga: The holy, polluted river

Ganga Pollution

“Supreme Lord, let there be peace in the sky and in the atmosphere. Let there be peace in the plant world and in the forests” – Atharva Veda

I wasn’t expecting much but I couldn’t push down the excitement that threatened to boil over. I had steeled myself for disappointment, specifically, disappointment that is born from false expectations and literary fabrication.  I had read about the mythical Ganga and it’s divine origin; it was one piece of mythology that was profane and tangible.  To me, it was proof of the greatness of the ancient Ganges civilization and its transcendence through time and space.

As we entered Haridwar, I took in the scene around me; it was that of a typical Indian town, with its temples, small shops, stray cows and plastic garbage. However, what marked Haridwar as different were the numerous shops selling Ganga-themed paraphernalia. Bottles and jugs, inscribed with the Devanagari symbol for ‘OM’ lined the pavement in front of almost every shop alongside handmade chillums. Prayer beads, orange flags and scarves rustled gently in the humid wind.

The lanes of the town all seemed to point to one direction, towards the famous Ganga ghats, where pilgrims could submerge themselves in the great river and wash away their sings. We followed the surging masses of worshippers towards the ghats, our frenzied excitement palpable. When we reached the ghat, I hurried down the stairs intended on cooling my feet in the rapid waters. However, I was met with an unpleasant, if typical, sight.

It is no secret that India consumes a grotesque amount of plastic every year. According to Plastic News, India produces about 5.6 million metric tonnes of plastic waste every single year. This trend shows no signs of decelerating; the number rises every single year. Most of this plastic waste is derived from polythene bags and foodstuff packages. The ubiquity of plastic is a large part of the contemporary Indian consciousness; plastic embodies the resilience and cost-effectiveness that Indian consumers so value.

It can be argued, however, that India is only a pawn in the plastic consumption. The real consumers are OECD countries, namely, the United States of America. But what we tend to forget is that though consumption is high, there is an effort at consumption control both at a normative level as well as at a practical level. The OECD public consciousness is imbibed with the mantra of ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’, which stains the social fabric with a biocentric sense of duty. It is historically evident that that this sense of duty stems from a return towards ecological feminism, indigenous wisdom and ironically, the Hindu theory of One Consciousness. So how is that India, with its rich heritage, has failed the environment so greatly?

Hinduism, one of the dominant religions of the subcontinent, is quite candid in its biocentric approach towards the profane world. Animals, plants and natural elements make up a large part of the Hindu narrative and wind themselves around human protectors. Lord Krishna was the protector of cows; the Pandavas were cursed for their inadvertent destruction of the Khandava forest; Hindus worship the rain, the sun, water and other natural elements. Hinduism is also open to the possibility that human beings may have been animals in previous lives and accepts the karmic possibility of being re-born as non-human animals. While this certainly apotheosizes human beings to a certain level, it does not account for the arrogant anthropocentricism that pervades India.

What does account for this human arrogance is economic practicality and development. Plastic is cheap, disposable and transcends all religious and cultural divisions. Before the Industrial Revolution, there was no such thing as “use and throw” and “disposable”; everything was meant to be preserved and taken care of. Replacements were expensive and were considered a luxury that most of the population could not afford. After the Revolution, into the post-Cold War era plastic became a way of life and embodied the victory of the capitalist culture. There was no more appeal in taking care of natural resources; the consumerist culture valued material objects over all else and created an obsession of commodification.

This reality began painfully obvious to me when I took in the sight of the Ganga before me. The water was a silty brown and carried with it scars of constant abuse. Plastic bags, dead flowers, food wrappers, and other debris flowed along with the sacred river; the stain of humanity that spreads slowly but surely. I inched to the edge of the water and looked in, horrified but enable to look away. The translucent layers of polythene, which, in the afternoon sun, gave off a slightly acrid smell, choked the water. Glittering plastic wrappers whose emptiness rendered them invisible to the masses, punctuated the rapid flow of water every couple of meters.

“Are there any fish?” I found myself wondering aloud in Hindi. My question floated in the air, as I looked at all the bathers around me. Families with small children splashed in the shallow waters, while the more adventurous ventured out deeper into the rapids. I watched as a half-naked man chanted in the water while at the same time detaching any rogue plastic bags that stuck to his bare chest. A mother handed her toddler a packet of cookies and discarded the packet into the water. I watched with revulsion as she then stripped with child and helped it into the dirty water. It was as if the garbage was natural, part of the water and its worship. There was no sense of revulsion at the polythene intrusion; it was treated as a fact of life and part of every mundane experience.

I cupped my hands and let them fill with water. It looked clear, but it would be unthinkable to drink, however holy it may be. The problem with plastic is that it is still hazardous even when it has disintegrated. The matter that makes up polythene and plastic, despite our desperate wishes, does not dissolve away into nothingness. Rather, it breaks into smaller pieces, called nodules. These nodules are even more harmful than large masses of plastic, as they are easy ingestible and toxic to both animals and plant-life. However, nodules are often ignored, relegated to the status of non-existence and needless worry much like most of the other problems slowly unraveling the environment.

“There are no fish. They are scared of people”. I turned around to the sound of the rough Hindi dialect, realizing that my floating question has been caught. A middle-aged hawker stood in front of me; his eyes squinted to the sun. In front of him rested small plastic objects, toy boats, cars, containers, chillums, whistles and the ever-present water jugs. He smiled at me and gestured to his wares, egging me to look and buy. I was about to turn away when something caught my eye; a small shrub was growing in a plastic bucket.

Seeing my interest, the man handed me a small dried plant. “This is Sanjeevani, the magical herb that healed Ram and Lakshman…you know the story?” I nodded, I was familiar with the famous tale, yet was skeptical.  The man continued, “You can have it for yourself, take it home, put it in water and it grows…it cleans your air, ekdum nicely and it is auspicious like Tulsi, maybe more even”. I smiled at him and examined the little shrub with its vibrant color and muted smell.  The man continued his sales pitch, “but don’t think you can take Ganga water home and grow it, God knows, it needs ekdum clean water”.

I shook my head slowly and walked away. I couldn’t believe that we had come to such a point of ignorance about the very planet we professed to worship. The worshipper has become the merciless destroyer; the role of preserver has been completely neglected. There is no going back, the future calls for drastic action and hasty intervention. There is no way to hold back the current of the destruction that we have caused. The current will continue flowing until we are either swept away or until we have the courage to face it.

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