Home > mint-lounge > features > Days and nights on the Ganga

On 18 February, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pinstripe monogrammed suit went on auction in Surat to raise additional funds for the Union government’s “Namami Gange" mission of cleaning the Ganga river, the father and son duo of Emmanuel Theophilus and Zanskar Theophilus Singh stood at the mouth of the river in West Bengal’s Sagar Island.

This was the end point of their long journey down riverine systems from Banbasa in hilly Uttarakhand to the Ganga’s distributary, the Hooghly river’s confluence at the Bay of Bengal. Theo and Zanskar, as they like to be identified, covered a distance of around 2,500km in 87 days in a kayak. For only a day, when faced with the new moon’s tidal upsurge near Sagar Island, did they use a motorized boat.

When they finally came off the boat at the fishing village of Namkhana, near Sagar Island, their tired expressions, unkempt beards and sun-burnt faces reflected the gruelling nature of their expedition, evocatively called Nadisutra, after the sutradhar (person holding the thread of the narrative) in Indian classical and folk theatre forms.

“The journey is yet to sink in," says 23-year-old Zanskar. Behind him, his mother Malika Virdi, who had joined them on the post-Kolkata leg of the journey, hugs his father. Parting compliments are exchanged with the boatmen who guided them on the last day. In many ways, it is a reunion through exploration and escapade for this family from Munsiyari, Uttarakhand.

Emmanuel Theophilus (right), his wife Malika Virdi, and their son Zanskar Theophilus Singh, at Sagar Island in West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
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Emmanuel Theophilus (right), his wife Malika Virdi, and their son Zanskar Theophilus Singh, at Sagar Island in West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Interestingly, this is not Theo’s first river project. In 2011, he received a fellowship to research the modern ecological history of the Kali river, which originates in Uttarakhand, from the Bengaluru-based New India Foundation, which supports scholars and researchers. The book that is expected to emerge from his work is also likely to link the Kali river with his latest riverine expedition—a link that anyway exists naturally. The Kali flows as the Mahakali in Nepal, which is part of the Ganga’s oldest and largest tributary system. For Theo, a matter of concern is the break within this continuum of water right till the confluence at the Bay of Bengal.

“Thousands of crore of rupees have been spent on successive clean Ganga missions. All of this money has gone somewhere but it’s not quite apparent where. See, you don’t need to throw money at the Ganga to clean it," says Theo.

On the last day of the Surat auction, coinciding with their return to Kolkata, the Prime Minister’s suit was auctioned for 4.31 crore, the amount likely to be added to the 2,037 crore allocated for the clean Ganga campaign in the 2014-15 Union budget.

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The pollution was more near urban settlements like Ayodhya. Photograph courtesy Emmanuel Theophilus

“What the government needs to do is to let the Ganga flow by removing dams and diversions, at least the major ones. When there is enough volume of flowing water, the river automatically flushes away the pollution," says Theo, a former employee of the National Dairy Development Board, its offshoot National Tree Growers’ Cooperative Federation and then with the Foundation for Ecological Security, a not-for-profit working towards the restoration and conservation of land and water resources.

While the decommissioning of ecologically damaging and under-productive dams and barrages as well as recycling of municipal waste by turning it into drinking water are already established practices in the West, here, “we continue to take out the water of the Ganga for our use and return it to the river as effluent," says Theo.

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The duo preferred to camp on small islands and cook their meals.

On one occasion, Theo inadvertently toppled the kayak, and both father and son, along with their supplies and electrical equipment, had an unwanted drench. But their choice of a slow-moving mode of transport, which barely skimmed the water’s surface, also allowed them views and experiences which also speak generously of the bounty of healthy river systems.

On multiple occasions, they found crocodiles basking on the banks, jackals singing on moonlit nights, a family of otters sprinting past. Nilgai and wild boar kept them company on an island, clams drew doodles on the sand for their eyes only. They counted 34 varieties of fish caught by village fishermen, and met one who parted with a portion of his catch without asking for money. They encountered dolphins that swam alongside fishing boats on moonless nights and yet another which bumped into the base of their kayak and then splashed them and their camera with a swish of its tail fin. “I cannot describe the beauty of the moment when a dolphin took a huge leap in a perfect arc. It turned into a silhouette against the beautiful setting sun," recalls Zanskar.

A map showing the Nadisutra route.
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A map showing the Nadisutra route.

What was initially estimated to be a 45-day journey finally turned out to be 87 days long, including a couple of stopovers. The duo hadn’t factored in the low volume of water on the way—the choking of what were earlier perennial waterways—because of a network of barrages and diversions and the sand heads they encountered. It brings our discussion to the “flow" of rivers and the Narendra Modi government’s renewed initiative towards the inter-linking of India’s rivers.

At its core, the National River Linking Project (NRLP) “envisages the inter-basin transfer of water from surplus to deficit basins/areas", according to the government’s Press Information Bureau website. In simple terms, the “surplus" water of rivers in flood-prone areas will be diverted to drought-prone, water-scarce parts of the country through an interlinked network of canals and reservoirs. The project’s agenda of providing water equity across the country will be facilitated through 14 links under the Himalayan Component and 16 links under the Peninsular Rivers Component: a total of 30 river links which will fall under the NRLP.

Zanskar holding a baby turtle, reflecting the biodiversity of Sharda river.
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Zanskar holding a baby turtle, reflecting the biodiversity of Sharda river.

The river interlinking project, under which work for a link between the Ken and Betwa rivers involving the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh has already been initiated, has been criticized by hydrologists and river experts who are concerned about its human, ecological and environmental fallout. Experts warn of the adverse effect the NRLP will have on the monsoon.

“With the river interlinking project what we’ll see is the killing of an existing utility like a flowing river which has been providing social, ecological and economic services since time immemorial. Already one finds the bigger rivers to be in bad shape," says Himanshu Thakkar, an IIT-Bombay alumnus who is the coordinator of the New Delhi-based South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an organization working on issues relating to rivers and communities in India. “The new government is diluting environmental laws, so much so that one does not even need environmental clearances or public consultation for the construction of a hydropower project under 25 MW capacity. Increasingly, we see that the government is not only indifferent about the value of rivers but also uncaring of the social cost," he adds.

Kolkata-based river scientist Kalyan Rudra, who is known for his exhaustive study of the Ganga river basin, wants the government to maintain a balance between modern science and traditional systems, which are both people-centric and eco-friendly. “Currently, there is a crusade against nature," Rudra says. “The government plans to build 16 barrages in the river between Haldia and Allahabad, which essentially means creating 16 stagnant pools of water and interruptions in the Ganga’s free flow. Such development will immediately cease the ecological services of the river."

When a river is dying, says Rudra, the first to disappear will be its biodiversity. “Losing biodiversity might seem like a small component within development plans but it reflects the health of a river," he warns.

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A prized catch at a fish market in Faizabad.

“In aquatic systems, the volume of water is habitat. With the volume being very low in our rivers, the assemblage of aquatic life is seriously affected too," says Theo. “Most of the fishermen we spoke to had the same complaint: “paani kam ho gaya hai, machhli kam ho gaya hai.’" Less water; fewer fish.

In his book, Land Of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History Of India’s Geography, which traces India’s history through changes in its geography, author Sanjeev Sanyal dwells on the drying up of the Saraswati river, possibly during the Vedic era, and “a major event in the evolution of India’s civilization".

Fed by both the Sutlej and the Yamuna, the Saraswati, much like the Ganga, was once invoked as the mother of all rivers. Its misfortune started when it first lost the Yamuna source, and was compounded by the loss of the Sutlej, both to natural causes. “Without a perennial water source, the Saraswati must have become a rain-fed seasonal river. Even this became untenable as the climate became drier. Eventually, the river broke up into a series of lakes and then completely dried up," Sanyal writes. The disappearance of the Saraswati, many think, could also have played a defining role in the end of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Even as the description of the death of one river reads ominously close to a future foretold by experts of India’s rivers, Virdi, the third vital component of the Nadisutra expedition, remains hopeful. “If people are the problem, they are also part of the solution," she says.

Virdi, also 56, moved with Theo from New Delhi to Munsiyari in 1992 to be a subsistence farmer producing the food they eat, work with the local community as a sarpanch of the village, join a women’s collective and start an environment-sensitive home-stay enterprise in the Kumaon area overlooked by the Panchchuli peaks. Virdi also talks about “proposals for setting up dams and hydroelectric power projects in their valley and on the Gori river and its tributaries" over the past few years—as many as 30 projects over a length of 100km.

She draws her sustenance from the fact that a popular protest movement in 2010 could stall the Rupsia Bhagar Khasia Bara hydel power project by the National Thermal Power Corp. Or from her own experience of having trekked the Trans Himalayas from Arunachal Pradesh to Karakoram in Pakistan with two other women in 1997—an experience that told her that in the higher reaches of the world, nature is yet unblemished by human greed.

When the family stepped off the boat in the late evening at Namkhana after reaching their final destination, Sagar Island, there was an element of optimism. At the point where the Ganga meets the sea, the new moon tide made the waters choppy, and the tidal difference in water level was over 6.2m. Had it gone up a little higher, their country boat would have been imperilled, Theo says.

At Sagar Island, also locally known as Gangasagar, small crabs had turned the beach red with their presence. In the twilight hour, the family went for a swim in the Bay of Bengal; delighting too in the glowing phosphorescence carried by the waves before the high tide rushed in.

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