I read yesterday that the World Bank is to lend India $1bn to clean up the Ganges River. The Ganges is one of the world’s most polluted waterways and supports perhaps 400 million people. Despite earlier government promises to make its water drinkable by 1989, it flows with industrial effluence and sewerage. As I wrote previously, a solution to the water crisis is crucial to India’s survival and as Sunita Narain (and others) have argued it needs an Indian solution.
I’ve been lucky enough to have been touched by the magic of this river often over the years. I’ve covered two Kumbh Melas (the enormous religious bathing pilgrimage that takes place four times every twelve years at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna) and visited the extraordinary Varanasi many times. There is something touching, real and honourable about Indian’s reverence and awe at the Ganges; something that speaks about life and its transitory nature. It’s a beautiful thing to see villagers come hundreds of miles just to bathe in the river and feel its coolness at dawn as they submerge themselves. Humbling and puzzling to see the processions of corpse bearers literally running to the cremation grounds on the ghats in Varanasi to burn a body. I shall never forget my first sight of a body (suicides, children and snake bite victims are swallowed by the river whole) bloated, rolling and turning in the gentle waves of my boat one morning at dawn.
“One hot April morning, I chopped off the little finger of my left hand and threw it into the dead river called Yamuna. They call me crazy. But I call it art.”
It seemed quite a brave thing to do to make a point and I’m not going to give him a hard time for being so literal about highlighting the state of Delhi’s famous river.
The Yamuna is one of India’s greatest rivers. Holy to Hindus, The Imperial Gazetteer of India in 1909 mentions the waters of Yamuna distinguishable as “clear blue” as compared to silt-ridden yellow of the Ganges. Unfortunately, the Yamuna that runs through present day Delhi is an open sewer and clinically dead.
I was so intrigued by Delhi’s water situation a couple of years ago and made some work around it that became a film for More4 news. You can see the piece here.
The point was that Delhi’s water wasn’t in this hellish state as the result of appalling poverty – all those pesky poor people washing and cremating themselves in it – rather a complete lack of infrustructure around water management and wholescale pollution by industry. That hasn’t stopped the Delhi authorities evicting thousands of poor Delhi-wallahs that lived on its banks over the last few years.
There are perfectly sensible answers to the state of the Yamuna – Indian answers too. Brilliantly articulated by Sunita Narain, Director for the Centre for Science and Environment, she says: ‘A city will be more efficient if it collects water locally, supplies it locally and disposes waste locally’. There’s an excellent piece by her here.
Anyway, as Delhi looks forward to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, I’m hoping that someone will finally listen to Narain and the other Indian environmentalists, too numerous to mention, whose message about water, the city and sustainability has yet to seep into the murky waters of government. But I’m sure they will be able to smell it…