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Once magnificent

The Ganga is a persona alright, but a haggard ecological entity

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In the second half of the 19th century, European jute factories in Calcutta had installed septic latrine tanks for their workforce. These tanks discharged the effluents directly into the river Hooghly. For Calcutta’s Hindu population, this was not done. How could they allow the Hooghly, a distributary of the Ganga, to be defiled? Some colonial officials understood this sentiment. But many could not. What puzzled them even more was that a section of the Hindus seemed to be arguing that the disposal of sewage into the Hooghly was causing the river sorrow.

While they could grudgingly accept the deification of the river, bestowing the water body with a persona was difficult to fathom. About 130 years later, the Uttarakhand High Court has ruled that the Ganga — along with the Yamuna — is indeed a person, and it has all the rights of a human being. But ironically, it has had to do so in order to protect the rivers from ravages, similar to the ones people in colonial India were railing against.

The Ganga, like all rivers, has a personality. Its annual rhythms are linked to the livelihoods of farmers, fishermen, boatmen, traders, as well as to the Hindu ritual calendar. Along with its tributaries, the river makes its own path, but replete with sand and sediment, it is also known to change course often and does not like being confined by banks. It goes into spate and, as atonement of sorts, leaves behind as soil nourishing silt. It has inspired myth, poetry, films, literature.

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But while Ganga as cosmology and metaphor excites people, the river as an ecological entity is in distress. In their paper, ‘Impact of environmental aberrations on fisheries on Ganga,’ M. Sinha and M.A. Khan note that the river’s basin which was largely free of human activities until the 1940s became a disposal site for agricultural, industrial and sewerage wastes after Independence. The river is still a persona, but it bears little resemblance to the river whose deification confounded colonial authorities.

First published on: 25-03-2017 at 12:44:42 am
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