Ganga on her deathbed?

In June 2007, a news channel said that the World Wide Fund for Nature had listed the Ganga among the five most threatened rivers of the world, ranked number four after China’s Yangtze, the Salween flowing through China, Myanmar and Thailand, and the Indus flowing through India and Pakistan and followed at number 5 by the Mekong of south-east Asia. The channel reported that water extraction, dams and climate changes were the three biggest threats for rivers. The status of the Ganga as a threatened or dying river has not improved one bit since efforts began to restore its health in 1986 through the central government’s Ganga Action Plan. Till a few decades back, nobody would have been ready to believe that Ganga might have, on the timescale of its age spanning millennia, just a few moments of life left on the planet.

But centuries ago, the Puranas, Hindu religious texts which, among numerous other things, outline the history of the universe from creation to destruction, had prophesied that the Ganga will die in Kali Yug, the age in which we are living. Kali Yug, according to Hindu religious literature and belief, is one of the four ages of specified duration that come one after another several times in a fixed cycle while the universe exists. The attributes of Kali Yug mentioned in the Puranas related to human conduct and its effect on the environment establish this age as the darkest and most degraded of the four ages. It has been said that rulers will be criminal and cruel and human beings in general will be debased and debauched. Natural calamities will be common and the environment will be severely polluted. The Puranas have an oral tradition going back much earlier than the time they were first written around the third century AD. Many of the signs of Kali Yug were nowhere on the horizon when the Puranas claimed to have foreseen them, but are all around us now. This makes it difficult to take lightly Puranic prophecies, including the one about the Ganga.

Global warming and ecologically damaging human activity is making the Gangotri glacier, which feeds the Ganga, retreat at an alarming rate. The UN Climate Change Report of 2007 apprehends that the flow from the glacier may stop completely by 2030, reducing the Ganga to a seasonal river fed by the monsoon.

It seems the Ganga will survive till I am around. I can see how she has become physically weaker with lesser depth and width and slower flow in Patna, from where I have seen the journey of the river for a long time, but it does not appear that she will disappear before I leave the world. For me, the Ganga is not just a non-living geographical entity, but a living being, a mother as real as the mother who gave birth to me. I am quite a
chhora Ganga kinare wala.
I was born in a house on the banks of the Ganga and spent the first 28 years of my life near the river. A strong emotional bond developed with the Ganga as naturally as a tie with a close relative a person grows up with.

The entire Patna University is on the banks of the Ganga. My father taught in the university’s engineering college. My family stayed for 20 years in one half of what was once the bungalow of the principal of the college. Built by the British, it is a beautiful, spacious structure surrounded by a huge campus. And right in its backyard flows the Ganga. A lawn at the back of the bungalow had a waist-high iron fence and a steep slope of just a few metres separated the fence from the Ganga.

Many rooms of the bungalow offered views of the Ganga. The beauty of nature can be hypnotic and I grew up enthralled and mesmerised by the moods of the Ganga. In moonlit nights, the Ganga very much looked the heavenly river she is believed to be in Hindu mythology, her waves a sheen of silver shimmer and the white sands on the other bank glowing tender. The songs of mallahs (boatmen) drifted over the river from the other bank and their rustic, raw notes harmonised beautifully with the natural sounds of the wind rustling leaves, the crickets singing in the undergrowth and the river splashing on the banks. In monsoon the expanse of flood water stretched up to the horizon and the river gave a glimpse of what untamed nature can be.

It is a chilling thought that all this might not be there someday. It is even more chilling to see that nobody is bothered too much about that. The Puranic prophecy is moving inexorably, relentlessly towards fulfillment. A civilisation nursed and cradled for millennia by the Ganga has sure come a long way. It has many preoccupations—politics, business, showmanship, knowledge, wars, diseases, life, death. If only it had the wisdom to see that it needs the Ganga to continue being a civilisation.  

Amit Shekhar is a senior journalist and columnist
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