India’s River Ganges is a mess. The great and awe-inspiring sacred Ganga, as it is generally known, is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus who foul its waters and assume that all will be well, however awful and health-endangering it becomes.
That in many ways is the story of modern India, a country that manages to be awe-inspiring and brilliant, but also frequently dysfunctional, defying most efforts to make it work better.
The challenge for an author is how to combine a study of all the enormous potential and the failings of this magical and frustrating country, and to explain how people tolerate the faults but do little to improve them, while making the most of what is available.
Successive foreign correspondents based in India have tackled this in different ways, mostly with broadly based surveys of political economic and social life, but with an increasing awareness in recent years of the negatives.
Victor Mallet, a widely experienced Financial Times journalist who is now the paper’s Hong Kong-based Asia news editor, has chosen a neat solution by writing about the Ganges after spending four years in Delhi as his newspaper’s South Asia correspondent.
He has explored the 2,525 km river’s history, religion, economics, industry, environmental and health issues, and the people, while using it as a metaphor to explain how India functions, or doesn’t. Politics comes in too because Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister, has failed so far to fulfil his 2014 promise to clean the river that Hindus both revere and pollute.
A keen yachtsman, Mallet first developed an interest in the river when he spotted an image on a Delhi map of a sailing boat in a red circle – the universal sign for a yacht marina. It is in an industrial zone called Okhla on the banks of Delhi’s (filthy) Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges.
There he found “an immaculately kept building and garden called the Defence Services Sailing Club” with sailing dinghies nearly stacked on racks. “It was obvious that the boats were rarely used. The caretaker confirmed it. The reason was there in front of the club: the stinking, foamy black filth that was once a river.”
After explaining how the Ganges was portrayed in India’s legends and paintings “as a natural paradise of lilies, turtles and fish” where “the cheerful god Krishna would play his flute amid a troupe of adoring female cow herds,” Mallet reports that “the water at Okhla is so polluted by human waste that it contains nearly half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water.”
That is a good introduction to modern India, enabling the author to show in the first two pages of his preface why the Ganga is such a great vehicle for exploring all the contradictions of a country that could be a world leader but somehow is not (yet?) getting there. As he travels, he meets a contrasting series of people from Saffron-clad Hindu priests to engineers and well-meaning environmental activists, and from tannery businessmen and bureaucrats to ashram devotees.
The most horrifying part of the book is a chapter headed “Superbug River.” Many of us living in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) tolerate air pollution many times above safe limits, as well as undrinkable tap water, because we are protected by purifying filters in our homes and offices.
Mallet however uncovers much worse health hazards in the Ganges, saying that people are liable to pick up a recently discovered bacterial gene that can make various diseases highly resistant to antibiotics.
He stumbled on the gene, known to scientists as NDM-1, while researching “normal” pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste. “It only takes a short visit and exposure to acquire such genes in your gut,” he was told in Britain by an environmental engineering professor. As Mallet notes, this is a politically sensitive matter - Indian officials and doctors “were furious” when The Lancet medical journal in 2010 named the new gene NDM after New Delhi.
Devout Hindus, says Mallet, are unwittingly spreading diseases, and antibiotic resistance to diseases, in the very river to which they have come to pay homage. Water samples have demonstrated that even what are usually regarded as the relatively pristine reaches of the upper Ganges near Haridwar suffer surges of bacterial pollution during visits by thousands of urban Indians during the May-June pilgrimage season.
Throughout the book, the Ganges is the main focus but, along the way, there are many other subjects and issues ranging from the poisoning of vultures and a state government suggesting the use of cow urine as a hospital disinfectant, to corruption among water tanker drivers (and others), and India’s desperate need for jobs that Modi’s Make in India campaign cannot begin to solve.
Modi was elected in 2014 both to change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and to create jobs and opportunities for the aspirational young. Make in India is one of a myriad of high profile schemes that he has launched to try to inject focus and drive into a somnolent government, but it is difficult as yet to assess how much has actually been achieved as a result of all the razzmatazz.
Modi’s pledge to clean the Ganges and reverse the failure of many earlier attempts can however be assessed, especially at the holy city of Varanasi which he chose as his parliamentary constituency. Little seems to have been achieved in the city apart from some beautification of the ghats, or flights of stairs, on the Ganges banks.
Varanasi’s disillusioned residents reminded Mallet about Modi’s televised launch of a plan to clean tonnes of mud off the city’s famous Assi Ghat, and criticised the lack of progress on the more important problem of sewage. Such cosmetic projects were like “putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari”.
Curiously, Modi made Uma Bharti, a religious activist and politician the minister in charge of water, and thus the Ganges. Mallet says “she appeared more interested in proving the existence 5,000 to 6,000 years ago of the extinct Saraswati River… than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganges.” That demonstrates one of the Modi government’s limitations – that several ministers and leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party are more interested in Hindu religion and mythology (and nationalism) than they are in building a strong nation that works.
Mallet is however too optimistic about the prospect of the Ganges being cleaned. He cites great and well-organised religious festivals like the Kumbh Melas, which bring millions of worshippers to the Ganges, as examples of even the most corrupt state governments being able to perform. “Good organization and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else,” he declares.
This misses the point that the Kumbh Melas are one-off events where a single official is given overall charge without political interference (though politicians are quick to claim credit when all goes well). There are other similar examples, such as the building of the Golden Quadrilateral highways around India 15 years ago and the construction of the Delhi Metro railway. In each case, politicians stood aside and left officials to get on with the job - and there was overwhelming support for what was being done.
Sadly, that is unlikely to work with cleaning the Ganges because there are too many interests and the project is neither time-bound like a Kumbh Mela nor of clear immediate benefit like a metro or highway.
Cleaning the Ganges is therefore a perfect metaphor for modernizing India. The task is just too huge and too complex for quick solutions - as Modi is discovering with a general election just over a year away.
A former “Financial Times” South Asia correspondent, John Elliott now writes for Asia Sentinel from New Delhi. He is the author of “Implosion: India’s Tryst With Reality” http://amzn.to/2gwrfjb (HarperCollins)