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A journey down the Ganga in the age of Narendra Modi

From its origins in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges is a place of worship, a source of livelihoods, of water, power, and transport: It is all of those and more


Narendra Modi’s first act on taking charge as prime minister in 2014 was to worship India’s holies t— and arguably its most polluted — watercourse
Narendra Modi’s first act on taking charge as prime minister in 2014 was to worship India’s holies t— and arguably its most polluted — watercourse

She is said to have descended to Earth to release humankind from suffering, a gift from the creator Brahma.

Every Hindu in India learns the story of the goddess Ganga and the medicinal qualities of her waters. And every dying Hindu is given a few drops from the Ganges River to free the soul from the cycle of life and death. Narendra Modi’s first act on taking charge as prime minister in 2014 was to worship India’s holies t— and arguably its most polluted—watercourse. “Mother Ganga needs someone to take her out of this dirt,” Modi declared from his electoral district of Varanasi as millions watched on television, “and she’s chosen me for the job.”

From its origins in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges flows for 1,570 miles through five of India’s most populous states. A place of worship, a source of livelihoods, of water, power, and transport: It is all of those and more. As Modi seeks a second term in elections that began in April and stretch through mid-May, a journey along the river’s course offers a chance to appraise his impact on India’s heartland, and assess how voters judge his record.

At one level, Modi’s popularity seems largely intact, with little evidence of a groundswell of support for the opposition led by Rahul Gandhi, yet the lower castes and Muslims who together make up one-third of the country’s 1.3 billion population are growing increasingly critical as they feel sidelined by Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.

What seems clear is the “Modi wave” that helped him win India’s biggest mandate in three decades on a pledge of jobs, economic development and ending corruption is absent this time around.

When it tumbles down from its source in the Himalayan glaciers, the Ganges is pristine. But any sense of purity at the great river’s main headstream, the Bhagirathi, was lost as road rollers, earth movers, and scores of workers in yellow helmets crashed rubble and boulders down the mountainside. They were widening the road to allow cars to reach four iconic Hindu temples in Uttarakhand, a state run by Modi’s and assumed to have voted the prime minister’s way in the first phase of India’s seven-stage election.

The Modi government initiated the 560-mile Char Dham highway project without commissioning an environmental impact assessment, despite concerns raised by the National Disaster Management Authority about road construction in such mountainous terrain. Flash floods in 2013 killed more than 5,000 people in Uttarakhand, and the authority fears a repeat. Some 2,500 families facing displacement as a result of the construction began a general strike in December. Their battle continues in the courts.

“So much should have changed after the floods,” Kesar Singh Panwar, 53, said by the river’s banks. He lost his home in the 2013 flooding and has challenged the government’s development plans in court. He supports Modi but thinks he has bad advisers. “We should have ensured policies that protect the Himalayas and the Ganga.” Instead, he said, dam-building and cutting into the mountains continue unabated. “That’s very, very dangerous.”

Whoever wins India’s elections will have to confront the trade-offs required to develop the country and meet its potential.

Dams on the Ganges generate 4,900 megawatts of power, enough to supply New Delhi, while 97 cities and towns use its water. Some 11 billion litres of industrial waste and effluent is discharged back into the river each day, the equivalent of 4,400 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Tourism has become an economic mainstay. Uttarkashi, a town of 17,000 on the river’s upper reaches, was once where people went after renouncing the world. It doesn’t seem ready for the influx of tourists the government plans. No hotel has more than one star; many sell hot water by the bucket. There was a power cut when we visited. Hotel owners are adding rooms regardless.

The transformation of the Ganges from a spiritual journey to an economic resource is arguably the story of Modi’s new India. His critics say Modi’s focus on cosmetic changes — building Himalayan highways and sprucing up riverbanks instead of tackling the deeper challenges facing the more than 400 million people of the Ganges basin, from jobs to child malnutrition — reflects his politics. The dissonance between campaign promises and implementation was a recurring theme on the journey.

Downstream at Haridwar, a city of more than 300,000, a cow roamed the yard of the Matri Sadan ashram, a Hindu retreat.

Swami Shivanand Saraswati, Matri Sadan’s founder, complained the government wasn’t serious about finding a solution. “We have given up the world. We have nothing left to lose but our lives,” he said. He and other sadhus, or holy men, had great hopes for Modi in 2014, counting on his credentials as a staunch Hindu leader. “But Modi has disappointed us.”

The change in topography from mountains to the Ganges plains is abrupt, opening up into a vista of roads lined with banyans and Indian fig trees, or peepuls.

Kanpur is the first big industrial town after the river descends into Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state and a key election battleground.

A couple of workers whitewashed the walls of the empty courtyard enclosing Naiyer Jamal’s factory, where the 61-year-old sat in his office drinking tea with a half-dozen Muslim men. The idle plant and endless rounds of chai have been their daily routine since December, when the state government shut down all 256 of Kanpur’s tanneries.

Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath ordered them shut before the Ardh Kumbh festival, when millions bathe in the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers on days considered auspicious according to the Hindu lunar calendar. Kanpur’s leather industry is worth some 480 billion rupees ($7 billion) a year. Past governments shut Kanpur’s tanneries for three weeks at most. This year’s closure of four months and counting is unprecedented and has already cost millions of dollars, said Jamal.

They appealed against the closures all the way up to the Indian trade ministry in Delhi, to no avail. Now he fears the government wants them closed for good. “We are easier to target because we are weak,” he said. “Only two communities touch leather in India, we Muslims and the Dalits, or lower castes. Now so many people have lost their livelihoods.”

Kanpur’s tanneries have been in the legal sights for more than three decades. India’s Supreme Court first ordered they set up a sewage treatment plant in 1985 after chromium and metals from the factories were found to be contaminating the Ganges. The tanneries say poor sewage treatment and not their effluent is to blame. In 2014, many Muslims in Uttar Pradesh supported Modi for his development agenda. Now, watching their industry die, none of those interviewed in Kanpur, tannery owners or employees, planned to give him their vote.

The plains turned greener and the call of the cuckoo announced the arrival of eastern Uttar Pradesh, where tall bamboo, teak, and mango trees lined the highways. The city of Allahabad, scene of the Kumbh, was freshly painted and newly renamed: It is now Prayagraj, returned to its Hindu roots in October by the state’s chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, a leading light of Modi’s

Manish Dubey, 39, a senior official, was keen to show off the roads that had been widened for the Kumbh, which ended in March.

An engineer by profession, Dubey quit his job with Alstom SA to join the and help secure Modi’s victory in 2014. He’s part of the team working on Modi’s reelection campaign. Modi’s appeal helped the BJP to sweep 71 of the 78 seats it contested in Uttar Pradesh. Dubey expects a repeat win based on Modi’s handling of attacks in February on Indians in Kashmir, the disputed territory also claimed by Pakistan. The arrangements at the Kumbh might also help.

Modi chose the next stop on the river, Varanasi, as his constituency in 2014, winning with a huge majority. The seat has been solidly BJP since 2009. Known for millennia as Kashi to Hindus, it is one of the most important Hindu shrines. “The city’s modernisation before the Kumbh may have angered a few locals, but will translate into votes for the prime minister’s party because it shows they can take hard decisions,” he said.

Modi promised ~20,000 crore to clean the Ganges, to be supplied from state funds and donations from devout Hindus worldwide. As of December, less than 20 per cent of the ~240 crore received in donations had been spent, according to The Wire. In a recent report, India’s pollution monitoring agency found the river is relatively clean in only one of 39 locations it tested.

Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, an engineer and professor at the city’s Banaras Hindu University, is also a Brahman and high priest at the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, one of the most revered in Varanasi. The temple foundation runs a laboratory that tests for fecal coliform bacteria, science that Vishwambhar Mishra, like his father before him, uses to press for a cleaner Ganges.

At his sprawling home on the banks of the Ganges, Mishra cited data showing that 85 per cent to 90 per cent of the river’s problems are caused by raw sewage disposal. City sewers along the river’s course are the chief culprit, with “uncontrolled development” also a concern. “People now say that the Ganga is cleaner,” he said. “I say her condition has further worsened.” In reality, “all that’s needed is that we not treat Ganga as a dustbin.” Modi’s supporters are vocal, said Mishra, but there’s a silent majority that has turned against him.

Progress in Varanasi, as in Prayagraj, means clearing the way to temples. Outside one of the houses scheduled for demolition, Nirmala Gupta, 60, stood on a heap of rubble trying to come to terms with the demise of the home she was married into 40 years before. She is no longer a Modi supporter. “We never thought such a thing could happen, that the government goes out of its way to destroy such an ancient neighborhood,” she said. “One day they spoke about it, the next they turned up with bulldozers. We’ve been living without sewage or water connections for the last 10 days now. But they say it will make life easier for worshippers.”

Loaded coal wagons crossed the rice-growing flatlands of Bihar along the Sone, one of the Ganges’s biggest tributaries. Bihar and Jharkhand are known as India’s mineral-rich states, yet they’re among the poorest financially. Bihar has barely 1.5 per cent of India’s industries. Unemployment is 11.6 per cent, compared with India’s average of 7.1 per cent; in Jharkhand, it’s 14 per cent. Both are strongholds of the BJP or its affiliates. As infrastructure demand grows, developers are dredging more sand from rivers like the Ganges and the Sone to use for building.

Lack of work is the reason, said Rampyari Devi, 70, sitting in the courtyard of her mud and wood home. “Farming doesn’t pay in India,” she said. “My husband worked in Mumbai and Delhi as a daily-wage worker for years. I raised the kids by myself. I want to ask Modi, ‘Should my sons and grandsons have to do the same?’ ” To the south, on the Ganges delta, Kolkata was India’s capital during the British Raj but saw its importance fade as power shifted to Delhi. Kolkata is the capital of West Bengal state, a target for the BJP as it seeks to expand its power eastward.

The city is the most important port for the state-owned Inland Waterways Authority of India, and so key to government plans to turn the lower Ganges into a national waterway for cargo. Shipping is cheaper than transport by rail or road. Yet building barrages and deepening river drafts threaten the alligators, turtles, and dolphins that inhabit this part of the Ganges, say environmentalists. Shipmaster Kanhai Debnath, 38, who has worked at the Waterways Authority for a decade, sees the development as a chance to return jobs and prestige to Kolkata. Steering his ship down the river, he said the authority is doing more business under Modi. The government has ensured the river was dredged, making it easier to navigate. “I have no doubt that things have gotten better,” he said.

With assistance by Evan Applegate

First Published: Sat, May 04 2019. 01:42 IST