‘Where is this going?’ That is the question at the heart of River of Life, River of Death, as author Victor Mallet travels the length of the Ganges. Beginning at its ice cave source in the Himalayan foothills, he follows the water through the holy confluence at Allahabad, the spindly banks of Varanasi city and onwards to the delta in Bangladesh, where ‘in its parting gift to the land, the river spews millions of tonnes of fertile silt on to the rice fields of Bengal and the mangroves of the Sundarbans.’
It is the same question he asks about the treatment of the Ganges, both good and bad. The river leads a double life, being the most worshipped waterway in the world and also one of the most polluted. The Ganges and its tributaries are now subject to sewage pollution that is ‘half a million times over the Indian recommended limit for bathing’ in places, not to mention the unchecked runoff from heavy metals, fertilisers, carcinogens and the occasional corpse.
As Mallet observes, the danger of contamination does not put off the millions of revellers at Kumbh Mela, where under ‘orange sodium floodlights’ and the din of loudspeakers, they crowd on its banks to bathe in the water. It is a Hindu pilgrimage ‘thought to be the largest gathering of people anywhere’, described to him as ‘a spiritual expo... where you will be talking one moment to a visiting Mumbai businessman and the next to a marijuana-stoned yogi’. He suggests the pollution might never deter them. He is told by one bather: ‘we do believe that anyone who takes in this water, he becomes pure also, because it is always pure.’ There is a collective sense that the spirit of the Ganges is so sacred that she can never be spoiled.
It is with a contagious fervour that Mallet joins in and describes such scenes. However, having been a Financial Times correspondent based in Delhi for four years, he makes the most of his skills with his matter-of-fact interviewing and quoting from Indian environmentalists, engineers and religious leaders. Crucially, ‘almost everyone knows the problems are real’ he informs in the preface, and it seems the book sets about quoting almost everyone who has something useful to say about the subject. If this is a journey down the Ganges, it is one of investigation rather than discovery.
“There is a collective sense that the spirit of the Ganges is so sacred that she can never be spoiled”
Throughout, Mallet tempers his observation with expert opinion on the region’s pressing health issues. In one especially troubling chapter, he investigates the potential of the river to become a cradle for antibiotic-resistant infections – or ‘superbugs’ – that could be exported to other regions by global travel. ‘Five years ago we almost never saw these kinds of infections,’ he quotes Neelam Kler, doctor at the department of neonatology at New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. ‘Now, close to 100 per cent of babies referred to us have multi-drug resistant infections. It’s scary.’
Some 450 million people depend on the Ganges water basin for survival, and many more for its religious and cultural importance. ‘[The Ganges] is a goddess and a mother to everyone from Narendra Modi, to the humblest Hindu living in the far south or running a motel in the United States,’ says Mallet.
Prime minister Modi, who has paid much lip service to the restoration of the Ganges, is given careful consideration by Mallet. It is the historical pattern of previous projects, he believes, that gives most cause for doubt. ‘It is not just that the river remains filthy after they were supposedly implemented. No one is even sure how much money was spent or where it went.’
There is hope. Mallet draws some parallels to clean-ups of the Rhine and the Thames. He points to the design feat of Kumbh Mela, which as ‘a pop-up megacity’ for two million pilgrims has better infrastructure and waste treatment than many Indian cities. ‘In the minds of both Indians and foreigners, this raises important questions... if the authorities can build infrastructure so efficiently for this short but very large festival, why can they not do the same for permanent villages and towns?’
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