Ashok, Teri Ganga Maili Ho Gayee

Dear Ashok Singhal, I agree fully with you and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad that something must be done about the appalling quality of water in the Ganga. Once regarded as amrit, it is better regarded today as sewage. What I cannot understand is your new theory that the Tehri Dam will spoil the purity of the holy waters and so should be abandoned. Now, I also cannot understand your theory that Ram was born at the very spot where the Babri Masjid once stood, so perhaps nothing I write can convince you. But let me try.

Through history, Ganga water was of such high quality that it could be stored for years without decomposing. You may attribute this to its holiness. But science provides a non-holy explanation. Waste matter in water gets neutralised by interaction with oxygen–the process is called oxygenation. The Ganga gets huge doses of oxygen from the air as it cascades down its upper reaches. In its lower reaches, its huge surface area enables it to imbibe much oxygen from the atmosphere. In this way the Ganga constantly purifies itself.

Keep this in mind before claiming that the Tehri Dam will ruin the river’s quality. The Bhagirathi, the tributary on which the Tehri Dam is coming up, contributes not even 5 per cent of the water of the Ganga. Much larger quantities come from the Alaknanda, Yamuna, Kosi, Sone and other tributaries. I hope you do not think that the Ganga is a sort of canal, which carries only the waters of the Bhagirathi to the sea.

On the contrary, all the rain, tap water, sewage, and other flows in the Gangetic basin, covering most of North India, drain into the Ganga and hence to the sea. A river is, ultimately, a drainage system carrying excess water from a watershed to the sea.

So, you need to look at the whole Gangetic basin. If you do so, you will find that dozens of dams have long been constructed on various tributaries, of which the Ramganga Dam is probably the biggest. Tehri is not even the first dam on the Bhagirathi–the Maneri Dam already exists upstream. So why single out Tehri?

Possibly you do not want to single out Tehri, possibly you want to dynamite all the dams in the entire Ganga basin. I can only urge you to desist. The truth is that these dams actually improve the water quality.

Do you think water in the Tehri reservoir will stagnate and decompose? Not so: Water constantly moves in and out of the reservoir, and does not stagnate. Do you fear that sediment in the reservoir will make the water muddier? In fact, a reservoir acts as a settling basin which reduces silt in the water. Moreover, a lot of reservoir water seeps into the earth below, travels through the earth by gravity, and re-emerges downstream (this is called river regeneration). Thus, a dam or barrage actually acts as a giant earth filter that purifies and regenerates a lot of water. Water that does not seep into the soil cascades down the dam and its associated irrigation canals, getting highly oxygenated in the process.

No, Mr Singhal, the real problem is not what dams do, but people do to the Ganga. Once, only a few million people lived along the river. Today the Ganga basin holds almost 400 million people, all of who necessarily sweat, urinate and defecate. Much of this muck finds its way into the soil and hence to the Ganga. New Delhi alone has 12 million people on the banks of the Yamuna, converting it into a filthy sewer. No wonder the water can no longer be passed off as amrit.

The Ganga’s reputation for cleansing sins has, alas, led to a huge influx of people to its banks. When they descend on the river to wash away their sins, they leave much more than their sins in the water. The holy Ganga may be able to cope with their sins, but not with the accompanying muck.

At the Maha Kumbh, no less than 70 million Hindus are expected to take a dip in the waters. Human beings discharge perhaps five litres of urine and one kg of excrement per day. That adds up to 350 million litres of urine and 70 million kg of excrement even if pilgrims stay on an average for just one day each. Many use toilets, but the waste matter will have to be disposed of in the soil or river, with horrendous effects on water quality.

Allahabad is the junction of three rivers, the Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. But at the Maha Kumbh, human beings contribute a veritable fourth river, whose discharge matches those of the other three. The Triveni becomes a Chaturveni.

Should we, therefore, ban the Kumbh? Definitely not. It is a great religious occasion which must be treated with reverence. Even non-Hindus marvel at the sight of a congregation unmatched anywhere in the world. But we must find ways to deal with its environmental consequences, and not resort to escapist notions that dams at Tehri or anywhere else are the culprits. Human waste is the problem, and must be addressed as such.

Possibly, Mr Singhal, you are too busy trying to build Ram temples to worry about such minor matters. Possibly you are so keen on avenging the Muslim invasions of earlier centuries that you have no time for sewage disposal. In that case, perhaps I can help you see a silver lining in the situation.

You are reportedly aggrieved that the Farakka agreement has given Bangladesh so much Ganga water in the lean season. But consider this: The Ganga in the lean season carries the concentrated muck of 400 million Hindus of the Ganga basin. If Bangladeshi Muslims actually want more of this, does the VHP really find it such a bad deal? You might even think of it as the ultimate form of revenge for the Muslim invasion.

What do you think?