About My Project...

As a kid every time I would cross a river in India, be it the Ganga or the Yamuna or any of their tributaries, I would have a feeling that the water levels of these rivers were receding... my heart would sink seeing the industrial pollutants making their way into these rivers...

On the contrary the feeling I would get seeing these rivers close to their origins… especially the Ganga in Rishikesh is indescribable… no pollution, no signs of water level depletion … so calm and so serene… the scent of freshness in the air…

I am documenting the life around river Ganga… the life as Ganga sees and feels it... the culture the river has supported for thousands of years, the people it has sustained over the centuries, and also the human interference it has suffered over the last one century or so...

Towards that I am following the river from its origins high up in the Himalayas all the way to where it merges with the Indian Ocean. All the while I am meeting with people who have been close to the river to narrate their feelings about the river, what they feel about the part Ganga has played in the Indian civilization and culture, what we human beings have done or could do or have not done to save this mighty river…

My final aim is to narrate the whole documentary as a multimedia and a book. I invite anyone and everyone to please help me with suggestions... critique... and hospitality. I would love to hear your suggestions and incorporate them into my project.

Note: The contents of this blog including the pictures are copyrighted and may not be copied or downloaded without prior permission of Rahul Rathi.
Disclaimer: This is a personal project of Rahul Rathi. He is not responsible for the accuracy of the contents here in and may not be sited as a reference without confirming the accuracy.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chromium... why has it to go into the Ganga?

Among the industries, I guess the leather industry is the one that comes to mind when talking about Kanpur... and as we scroll through the media reports related to Ganga pollution, everyone seems to primarily blame this city and the leather tanneries inside the city for the same. The media reports are not wrong.

However, my take on this debate is, it's not only the tanneries that should be blamed, the blame should equally be taken by the law enforcers in the city, and also the Central Government. The law enforcers, because they are corrupt and for a hefty sum as bribe they give a clean chit to the industries that are dumping their waste, especially the carcinogens (chromium used in tanning of leather) directly into the Ganga. It be known that most tanneries are conveniently situated near the banks of the Ganga. By law each one of them has to have its own waste water treatment plant that can trap the chromium to be reused in tanning (NEWS in Times of India). However, most choose otherwise... it is cheaper to buy new chemicals rather than to set up a waste treatment plant.

Slide Show (please use arrows to scroll)

November 18th my father-in-law arranged for a visit to one factory which actually uses their own waste treatment plant, and they had no problem, what so ever, to show us around. However, there are hundreds of other factories that do not have those treatment plants, yet they are not only functioning but are thriving... courtesy corrupt law enforcers in the city. This is despite numerous reports that chromium from these leather industries is seeping into the food chain. The chromium goes into the Ganga waters and this same water is used for irrigation... and during the dry seasons the fertile Ganga water bed is also used to cultivate Water Melons, Melons, Bitter Gourd, Cucumber, etc...

I just wonder why pollution of this great river does not matter to them? I guess it is because their livelihood is not directly dependent upon the quality of water in the Ganga... and they make more in bribes than what they get in their salary... 

We also visited a water treatment plant that was commissioned in the 80's as a part of the Ganga Action Plan (phase I) to treat the waste water from the city and that coming from the then existing 175 tanneries in the area. And today there are over 400 tanneries ... and the treatment plant still runs at the same capacity it was built for... what a joke!!! Didn't the government realize then that the number of industries would go up in the area? On top of that there is no money for the upgrading the facility.
Prior to taking this tour of the city we went for a boat ride in the Ganga to see the plight by our own eyes. The sewage was being dumped with no check at all... no cleaning what so ever at all. The flow was so fast that if it was night time it could easily be mistaken for a water fall... this was at Jajmau. Not only that... as we rode up stream... there were slums all along the Ganga... and the waste from individual houses was finding its way into the river...

Yet again... Ganga has given us so much... this time a natural and free sewage system and we are just taking away life from the river who many regard as माँ (mother).

Later that day we went to another ghat where they build boats. I assumed there would be big factories building boats... I couldn't be more wrong. The boats were being built by hand, and the industry was almost non- existent with only one family busy with the boat making. Reason being... there was no money in the business. Any one person would make only like Rs 400 per boat... with a boat being sold for about Rs 7000 and profit divided between the workers - 4-5 of them.

Before I end this post I have to write about this gentleman. I saw him early in the morning as we were having our breakfast of Chhole Bhature near the Green Park Stadium. He was igniting the coal in an angeethi (an open stove that uses coal to cook or warm). As he was doing that he was also singing... although not a singer myself or having any knowledge of music... I was pleasantly surprised by his voice... and I could not resist myself from recording it. It is here:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The historical and holy town of Bithoor...

... is around 27 kilometers (17 miles) north of Kanpur. According to the Puraans (holy scriptures in Hinduism) it is at Bithoor that Lord Brahma commenced the creation of the mankind. It is thus also referred to as Brahmavarta (seat of Brahma) and considered to be the center of Universe (Brahmaan), according to the Puraans.
Historically, Bithoor has been closely associated with the Indian rebellion of 1857 for independence. Nana Sahib, one of the leaders of the rebellion had his head quarters here, and at one point it was also home to Lakshmi Bai - the Rani of Jhansi - the most well known of all characters associated with the rebellion. Other leaders of the rebellion like Baji Rao Peshwa, Dhudu Pant, Tatya Tope were also associated with Bithoor. 
On Novmber 17th we were in Bithoor. I met with two priests who performed the daily Ganga aarti at the ghat. I was told that unlike other holy places in India only Bithoor has 4 names - Utpalaranya, Brahashmatipuri, Brahmavarta, and Bithoor is the latest name. It is the most sacred of all nine aaranya mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures. According to them, in Satyug, Tretayug and Dvaparyug there were Gods and Goddesses living on the earth, however in the present Yug - the Kaliyug, Ganga is the only Goddess that is present in its visible form (साक्षात रूप ). The other Gods and Goddesses have gone to their original seats in the realms of the cosmos. They felt that it's a miracle that she is here in the visible form and that she will be here till the end of this Yug... she will not dry up... and if she does... it will be the end of life on earth...

Slide Show (please use arrows to scroll)

As regards to the plight of the river in the present day, they were very concerned about the pollution and over extraction of water. It not only hurt their religious feelings but also was resulting in dwindling in the fauna population of the river especially the turtles and the fish. There was a time when people would flock to see turtles here... but now there are hardly any in the river.

Despite all that they felt that Ganga is and will always be clean, relating Ganga to a mother on who a child urinates... the mother cleans the child first and then cleans herself too... thus Ganga will always be clean and holy for us... cleaning us of our sins and also cleaning herself...
We took a short boat ride later to see the Ganga for ourselves in the area. We came across a very historic, although dilapidated men-made cave on the banks of the river. The cave led to Nana Sahib's fort and was used by the ladies of the fort to come down to the river to bathe. I truly wish the state or the central government could do something to preserve these historic monuments. Nana Sahib's fort has been closed to the public... it was actually destroyed by the Britishers who attacked Bithoor in 1857.

A bridge was being built over the Ganga connecting Bithhoor to the state capital Lucknow. The workers were standing almost in the river... the bed I mean. And of course this would be the best time to work as the water levels were really low.

The now very common feature for me to see was the use magnets to pluck coins from the river and the use of the river bed - for sure very fertile - for seasonal crops. However, this time I also learned that this use of river bed as land is very risky for farmers. These farmers, who are also seasonal doing other stuff in other seasons, spend a lot of money to buy seed to cultivate, but every once in a while the water from the dams and barrages is released and it inundates the land leading to crop loss and with that their livelihood for the season. How sad...

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kanpur... any story on river Ganga is incomplete ...

... without a mention of this city. I reached Kanpur on the 15th of November.

Kanpur is the most industrialized city located on the banks of the river Ganga and is the economic capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Kanpur holds an important place in history too, it being one of the few cities where the Indian rebellion for independence first spread to after starting at Meerut in 1857.

My team changed in Kanpur. Now I was with my brother-in-law Nitin and his friends Surendra, Nagendra and Deepak.

The morning of November 16th we headed towards the Anandeshwar temple situated on the banks of the Ganga. After reaching the Temple I directly headed down to the ghat where the Ganga flows just a few feet away. I learned that the Ganga had migrated, changing its course, several kilometers away from the ghat, but after the barrage was built on the river it changed its course again and came back to where it used to be – adjacent to the temple. Although, the Anandeshwar temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, yet it has several other smaller temples dedicated to other Gods, Goddesses, and Saints. I was thrilled to see an idol of Goddess Ganga. I am sure as I visit Gangotri during my next trip I will have a chance to see another idol of Goddess Ganga... that time high up in the Himalayas very close to where Ganga originates.    

Slide Show (please use arrows to scroll)

The chants at the Temple were mesmerizing. As the morning prayers went on in the temple, the crowed swelled with every passing minute... people came down the ghat  to offer prayers to Maan Ganga and to the rising Sun... many would ask the boatmen to fetch some Ganga water for them from the center of the river... there were kids who would throw very powerful magnets attached to a rope into the river to collect coins that the devotees throw into the river... there was a snake charmer too... and of course beggars, sadhus (the holy men), restaurateurs, cows, baby goats playing over rose petals...  it all looked so beautiful! What a diversity ... what colors... just amazing!

As I was taking pictures on the ghat a boatman sitting in his boat uttered something in a very sad tone. Taking the opportunity I went closer to him asking him what he said… he was pointing at the garbage that came from the temple and was strewn on the banks of the Ganga. He said no one cares about the trash here and it is piling up and destroying the sanctity of the holy Ganga. The garbage he was talking about were flower offerings to Gods at the temple that were later dumped outside. The worst part of it was that the offerings were in polythene bags...

Soon after the temple we headed towards the barrage. It was built a few years ago and enabled the Ganga to come back to its original course. As we stood on the barrage, we could see the river bed ... cultivated with seasonal fruits and vegetable (Water Melon, Melon, etc). There were boats running from the banks to the land in the center of the river ferrying farmers to their “fields”. Several boats were busy in their business of fishing, and the complaints were of the decline in the fish population since the barrage was built, but it was still enough for their survival.

At the ghats near the barrage, we came across the remnants of a religious ceremony of idol immersion. Idols of Hindu gods (especially Lord Ganesha and Goddess Durga), are immersed into a water body. Not very long ago the idols were made of clay and painted with natural colors (vegetable colors), and when immersed would just degrade over time without causing any pollution. However, more recently the idols are made from Plaster of Paris and synthetic colors containing heavy metals (like mercury and lead) are used to decorate them. Plaster of Paris takes anywhere from several months to years to degrade and mercury and lead used in colors are toxic to living beings. These metals are finding their way into foods that are grown on the beds of the river. 

On one of the gates of the barrage was struck a dead human body - a not so un-common feature according to the locals. Time and again I recall the song from the classic Guru Dutt movie Pyaasa [All time 100 best films according to TIME magazine] entitled Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai... and the stanza that struck me seeing this body was...  Yahaan ek khilonaa hai inasaan ki hasti, Ye basti hai murdaa-paraston ki basti, Yahaan par to jeevan se hai maut sasti... Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai...[English Translation coming].

Regarding the issue of dead bodies in the Ganga,  I happened to talk to a gentleman probably in his late 60s, on one of the other days while still in Kanpur. According to him, in Hindu religion dead bodies can also be ceremoniously immersed (visarjit in Hindi) into the waters of the Ganga to purify the body of all diseases [read my previous post on bacteriophages]. The body eventually is supposed to be eaten up by fish and turtles in the waters. However, since the erection of dams and barrages along the river, not only has the fish and turtle population decreased but also the dead bodies get struck there. The other, and maybe a more important cause of dwindling fish population is the industrial pollution making its way into the Ganga. But then who knows if these bodies were immersed ceremoniously or unceremoniously (read murdered and dumped).

Ganga takes everything that you immerse/dump into it... ceremoniously or unceremoniously... this is all what we humans have given to her!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Ganga changes its course near Hastinapur

On November 13th 2009 we headed towards the ancient city of Hastinapur located on the earlier course of the holy river Ganga. Hastinapur is mentioned in the great Hindu epic The Mahabharataan as it was the capital city of the kingdom of the Kauravas.

In the present day Hastinapura, which was re-established by Jawahrlal Nehru (first Prime Minister of India) in 1949,  is a small town around 110 km from Delhi.

Now the Ganga flows in Makdumpur another 5-6 km from Hastinapur. We reached Makdumpur in another 10 or so minutes driving through beautiful farmlands and tiny villages. We drove all the way to the banks of the Ganga where we met some villagers. Ganga looked very dry with its bed visible almost every where and it flowed more like a small river.

Most surprising was to know from the villagers that the Ganga we were seeing was never here earlier and that it had changed its course by several kilometers. [I came to know later that Ganga has a tendency to change its course very often]. The river has done so in just last 10 or so years, according to the villagers. The changed course has taken over the land that belonged to the farmers. The villagers we talked to told us that the river still is eroding away the land of the farmers in the area. Farmers with the help of some nearby sugar mills are trying to stop the further erosion by building wooden barricades [See Picture] to slow down the flow of Ganga waters along the edges. The efforts are however proving futile with the river rising during the monsoons and taking away the barricades.

Farmers were using a boat to ferry their equipments including tractors across the Ganga to go to their farm lands, that have risen back as Ganga waters have subsided due to winters. I intended to see the land but it was quite late in the evening and decided to come back later after the 24th when, according to the villagers, the temporary bridge would be ready for our vehicle to cross the Ganga. [I called around 28th of Nov to see if the bridge was ready, but it wasn't and I had to drop my idea to visit Makdumpur again in this trip].

The original course that Ganga traversed is now being used as a natural sewage by the factories in the city of Bijnor on the other side of the river. The sewage water finally merges with the Ganga downstream. Is the water cleaned / processed before it is dumped into the Ganga needs to be found out, however, it looks highly unlikely as the villagers told me that the water is darker than my black pants I was wearing. A stark contrast to what I have just witnessed during my trip to the Himalayas along the river….

The pollution aspect of the river has begun... and my next stop would be the city of Kanpur... in-famous for polluting the Ganga.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Rishikesh... as serene as ever...

November 12th Afternoon. As we descended into Rishikesh we saw a dry river from high up in the mountains. As we reached nearer we were told it used to be watered by the Glaciers but now it is fed only by Monsoon rains. Another example of global warming leading to disappearing of glaciers...or not?

On reaching Rishikesh, we right away headed to the Laxman Jhoola one of the two suspension bridges connecting the two banks of the Ganga in the town. We spotted the bridge and went to cross the river but midway realized it is the other bridge – the Ram Jhoola. So be it, and I started taking pictures. I talked to a small girl who was selling flour balls to feed the fish … I asked her if she studies to which she said yes, during the day she works and in the late afternoon she goes to school. On being asked what if Ganga dried up, she naively says she would go up stream near Laxman Jhula and sell the flour-balls there.

As we were crossing the river over the Ram Jhoola, I happened to spot a holy-man crossing alongside. I asked if I could have a chat with him in regards to the Ganga, to which he agreed vehemently and asked us to walk with him to a place more serene. We walked for about 5 minutes and then sat on two big rock like benches (not sure what they were though) along the banks of the Ganga. His name was Anand Baba and my utter surprise he taught meta-physics at various universities in the US. And despite that he just carried a back-pack with all his belongings in there. He talked at length about all the aspects of the Ganga – religious, pollution, water extraction, and economic (The details of our conversation would be posted on a separate page on this blog).

As we moved on, we saw a sadhu (Holy man) taking bath in the Ganga, a dhobi washing clothes, a lady selling flower garlands, some young guys having a picnic, one man just sleeping on a rock, a westerner meditating, several beggars begging, tourists from all over India and the world... and a cow drinking water from the Ganga... couldn't resist thinking Ganga has given so much to so many of us... from all backgrounds and species. And the question comes back...what have we given her?

Slide Show (please use arrows to scroll)

We then went to the Laxman Jhula for a bit, had our lunch and headed back towards the Parmarth Niketan to attend the evening Ganga Aarti. On our way we stopped at the banks of the Ganga on the other side of the Parmarth Niketan where we met two boys selling chat and namkeen. On being asked what Ganga meant to them, both said almost simultaneously "She is our maan (mother)". They used the Ganga water to drink, cook and wash clothes and utensils. I asked if it was a clean water, one of them went forward took some water in his hands and drank it right away. When I told them about the sewage system of the cities and towns dumping polluted water into the Ganga ... the answer that was shot back at me was "Ganga cleans even the sewer waters, and its the purest water". Was it their faith that was speaking or did they know that Ganga water was clean? Well, they were not wrong.

The waters of river Ganga are indeed clean. It contains a virus termed Bacteriophage that feeds upon the harmful Bacteria, thus preventing deadly diseases like Cholera and Dysentery. The other thing very peculiar about these waters is its ability to retain high amounts of Oxygen... 25 times more than any other water body in the world. (How that helps...I am trying to find out).

We reached the Parmarth Niketan almost on time to catch the evening Ganga aarti. There was a large Havan Kund, the sacred fire from which filled the air with a very tranquilizing smell. The aarti was truly mesmerizing with chantings of Gayatri Mantra, Hanuman Chalisa, Ganga Aarti and more religious hymns... it was very relaxing. Every one was chanting... adults and kids, Indians and Foreigners... rich and the poor... there was a feeling of oneness... Ganga does bring us all together... another thing that Ganga has given us...  

Later that night soon after the aarti we headed towards the historic city of Hastinapur, our next stop...

Back from Tehri...

On November 12th we headed back from Rani Chauri where we had stayed over night. We decided to go down to Rishikesh instead of going further up to Uttar Kashi which would be covered on my next trip to India in April. We took the direct route to Rishikesh from Chamba avoiding Devprayag which would be done when I come back after the 24th to cover the area of Haridwar and Rishikesh again.

At Chamba we talked to a few locals about the Tehri dam project. Chamba is a town situated not far from the dam but far enough not to have drowned under the reservoir. The people were not happy – they did not receive any compensation because their town was not drowned, and they lost business due to migration of people from the nearby villages. However, according to them people whose villages were lost and did get compensation are very happy. They got land and money and most of them sold their land at a good price. Most people we tried to talk to were reluctant to come on camera, yet again. They would talk at length as long as it was not being recorded (or in other words if they did not see my microphone)

Our drive from Chamba towards Rishikesh was one of the most beautiful I have ever had. Although there was no river Bhagirathi that we were following but we did follow another river – Havel – that finally merges with the Ganga in the town of Shivpuri not far from Rishikesh. I met with some people who lived along the stream of the Havel and I felt jealous of their beautiful, stress free lives surrounded by nature. Maybe they have stress of a different kind...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tehri Dam... are the locals really unhappy?

The Tehri dam on river Bhagirathi (main tributary to Ganga) is the main dam amongst all other that are part of the TDP (Tehri Development Project), and is 5th tallest dam in the world (260m tall), and tallest Embankment (Earth and Rockfill) dam in Asia. A piece of marvel indeed!

The proposed benefits to the project include generation of 2400 MW of electricity (2000 MW from the Tehri dam and 400 MW from the Koteshwar dam), irrigation of 270,000 hectares of land, 270 million gallons of drinking water to 3 states (Delhi, Uttarpradesh and Uttrakhand).  

A clear example of water extraction! Water extraction leading to disturbance of the mother nature... the flora and the fauna in the area, but then again generating power and getting drinking water to millions. Now debate is between faith and environment on one side and economy and livelihood on the other.

The other side of the dam is the reservoir (an artificial lake to store water). It looked really beautiful as the dawn was falling upon the area. What's the name of this beautiful lake? Tehri lake? Tehri dam lake? ... hey wait... there was no lake here...it's that tiny stream of the sacred Bhagirathi river that has now been converted into a lake! The flow of water has been stopped... to fill the reservoir.

As the reservoir filled up, it submerged the town of Tehri and around 40 other small villages. As we drove along the Bhagirathi "lake" we noticed the top of a submerging Hindu Temple. It was almost dark by then, I had to crank up my Canon 5D's ISO to get some snaps...

Were the locals unhappy about the temple going under the water...No! No they were not! Why not... well they got employment at the dam, they could send their children to school and had enough to eat... and the TDP build a new Temple higher up at the New Tehri town. Looks like faith is losing it's ground here in the debate. And then I happened to talk to another local who said "King Bhagirath brought down the river Bhagirathi for the benefit of the mankind ... and Tehri dam on Bhagirathi is benefiting the mankind in the form of power, irrigation, employment etc... then why the fuss about?" Is he right... for many yes... for many others no... and most do not even care!

We drove to Rani Chauri, the hill campus of our Alma Matter - Govind Ballabh Pant University - and retreated for the night. The buildings reminded us of Pantnagar... and seeing the students brought back the memories of our student life! Very nostalgic.

The Dams!

The first dam we came across was the Koteshwar Hydro Electric Project dam which was under construction. It's a part of the Tehri Development Project (TDP) that aims to generate electric power of about 4000 Mega Watt from several dams. The Koteshwar dam looked like a huge dam to us... but that was only till we saw the main Tehri dam.

On seeing the constructions, the first feeling was - why are we messing with the nature? The beautiful Bhagirathi that we were moving along had all of a sudden changed into a men-made canal sort of. It was blocked at several places and made to flow through pipes. And in a few days, when the dam would be functional, the area would be flooded by the reservoir water inundating the nearby village(s). I felt a sense of bereavement. Ganga was indeed dying...

A few kilometers further up Bhagirathi looked as untouched as ever ... but then we started to see broken mountains, dust, construction vehicles... and then we noticed the humongous Tehri Dam. A piece of marvel indeed... but yet again at the cost of Environment and Cultural beliefs. Now the debate is between faith and nation's progress. Faith says no dams, but a nation's economic progress needs electric power, people need water...

I started talking to locals... no one would talk to me when I asked them if I could record their voice or take pictures. Then I decided to hide my microphone. The first impression I got was... the locals were not all that unhappy about the dams after all. As per them first they got employment at the construction facility, then at the dam itself, and if their house went under the water of the reservoir they got a good compensation in the form of money and a piece of land near Haridwar (at Patthree). This land, as I heard, most of the beneficiaries sold for a hefty sum of around Rs 30 to 35 Lakhs ( ~ US $80,000).

Towards Tehri via Devprayag

As we passed Rishikesh, we started to drive into the Himalayas and the Ganga looked smaller and smaller with every kilometer we drove. The Ganga looked like a beautiful stream, no where like the majestic river we just saw in Rishikesh. All along the river there were temporary camps nestled in the valley where from people would raft their way down towards Rishikesh (for Rs 500 per person i.e. $10). People were even rock climbing. All this made me feel, this river has indeed given us a lot, and made me wonder even more as to what have we given her in return!

A suspension bridge over the Ganga

We reached Devprayag via Byasi and after clicking a few snaps headed towards Tehri right away. It was a narrow road but had hardly any traffic on it, it not being the main route to Tehri from Rishikesh. Bhagirathi ran along side the road. We crossed several tiny villages on our way. There was a village almost every 5-10 km on the road and several other in the mountains.

One thing that really amazed me was to find cacti on the Himalayas... have they always been there or are the Himalayas warming up... or were they really cacti?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Start off!!

We (My brother Lt Colonel Rajul Rathi and myself) started off from Meerut evening of Nov 10th 2009, halted at Muzaffarnagar where we would get our taxi from (arranged by my cousin Vikram Veer), and headed towards Tehri on the morning of Nov 11th.

Our plan was to reach Tehri before dawn via the town of Devprayag. It was an extra 100 km to go via Devprayag but the idea was to check out the route and take pictures on our way down. 

The day started well and we were very excited to have begun the project. Passed Roorkee on our way and reached Haridwar where we got the first glimpse of the Ganga. It being winters, the glaciers had stopped melting and there was so little water in the Ganga that I could easily see the bed of the river. That's when I realized that most of the water was being diverted through a barrage towards Har-Ki-Pauri - a very religious spot for Hindus to bathe at. Most of the water then went into the Upper Ganga Canal (A men-made canal system that runs parallel to the Ganga river, helping irrigate the land in the state of Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh), and some was re-diverted back into the Ganga (if there was water in excess, mainly during the monsoons).

We carried on towards Rishikesh and that's where the Ganga looked very majestic and beautiful. It was wide and full of water. Rishikesh is a bustling holy town full of tourists from all over the world - many of them come looking for enlightenment, and most just for fun.

As we drove by Rishikesh we noticed a completely dry river … later we were told that it's a seasonal river and collects only rain waters.