CEESP Blog: By Saurav Gawan, Member of the 'Sustainable Use and Livelihoods' CEESP/SSC Specialist Group.
Ganga, the mighty river rising in the Himalayas is lifeline to millions. It has various references to it; for some it’s Moksh Daini (Salvation provider) for others natural sources of mineral and nutrients and a living legend who has witnessed history. It supports the existence human and wildlife alike despite the severe anthropogenic threats.
National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) under the Namami Gange program of Ministry of Jal Shakti, Government of India (GoI), is tirelessly working towards an Aviral and Nirmal Ganga. Following this, the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, a knowledge partner to the GoI’s Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change, has been given the responsibility of studying the biodiversity of Ganga river and to prepare a science-based restoration plan for aquatic species by involving multiple stakeholders. This project is being carried out under the leadership and supervised of Dr. S. A. Hussain, Scientist-G, and Dr. Ruchi Badola, Scientist-G, WII. I feel very proud and honored to be part of this incredible team of researcher, experts and field staff. I have been fortunate to have travelled nearly a 2500 Km stretch of Ganga River, this post is a very brief chronicle my experiences and interaction with residents of Ganga, that includes human and wildlife alike.
Surveying the Ganga River from Haridwar (Uttarakhand) to Ganga Sagar (West Bengal), I found my friends around the endangered species of turtles, crocodilian and other reptiles, birds, amphibians, and mammals; I had an opportunity to closely observe the local communities and their association with Ganga aqua-life. This group includes daily wagers, commercial fishermen, farmers etc. Interaction with these communities opened me to the key challenges faced by one of the longest rivers in India and how it affects them.
I started my journey from Haridwar in the beautiful backdrop of the mighty Himalayas with my team that includes Mr. Aftab A. Usmai, Mr. Goura Chandradas, Mr. P. Gangaiamran, Mr. Ajay Rawat and Mr. Rahim Sheikh. We followed the route of Ganga downstream till Nurpur (West Bengal), where the river meets the sea. This journey gave me a unique window to compile a complex and colorful picture of what has been called the land of the hardest working river in India.
In the upper reaches where the river flows swiftly, I witnessed it to be a symbol of baptism and holiness. To people here, Ganga is a sacred entity. It is to be touched only for salvation; littering, dredging, and unsustainable resource extraction is considered a sin. The gushing water of Ganga, here, is home to fish species like Snow trout, Golden Mahasheer etc. Van Panchayats, village heads and villagers, ensure that no unhealthy practices are conducted in and around their pious. In spite of this unplanned infrastructure, excessive tourism, overcrowded and improper waste management are major threats in the region.
As we entered the mighty plains, I saw how Ganga is beyond a symbol of religious beliefs and practices. Up till Varanasi-holy capital of the Hindus, the river is deeply associated with cultural and religious values. Beyond Varanasi, resource dependency overtakes the religious value. People utilize its waters for various domestic chores like washing, bathing, navigation, transport etc. Here, I observed a unique connection between community and the river, life here is unimaginable without Ganga. It’s their drinking water source, they use the water for irrigation of agriculture farms, fertile plains of Ganga supply major cash crops in the country like rice, wheat, potato, sugarcane etc.
People here can also be seen practicing riverbed farming too. Here, I also saw the endangered turtle and crocodilian species, basking in the sun where communities practice riverbed farming too. During the winter season people sight resident and migratory birds in and around Ganga. Travelling further, it was a treat to the eyes when I sited the National Aquatic Animal - Ganga River Dolphin, surfing along with its calf. Sus, to the locals, the Dolphin indicates the health of this freshwater system and during our survey whenever we encounter them my heart was filled with satisfaction that things are still in hand.
In the middle stretch one can sight Turtles basking on the sandy islands.Their numbers can be in thousands in some areas - Pangshura genus. Photo credit: Saurav Gawan.
To the communities, the banks of the mighty Ganga River are the burial grounds for their departed loved ones. Here, I saw the plight of the poorest in the society who can’t afford to buy firewood for burning the dead bodies. In absence of resources, the bodies are wrapped in a saffron robe and buried in the sandy banks.
Graves waiting for moksha. Dead bodies buried in the sandy bank of Ganga are a common site in the middle stretch of Ganga river. Photo credit: Saurav Gawan.
After monsoon season when the level of water increases, and these buried bodies are flushed into the river, one can see half burnt bodies and animal carcasses floating in the waters. Watching this filled my heart with melancholy that this is not the kind of salvation they deserved. But nature had solution for this too; few freshwater turtle species scavenge on the dead remains and cleanse the river system. Surveying further downstream I witnessed heartwarming moments of a father and son ploughing their farm, the father here was giving lessons his kid and passing the legacy of the respecting and loving Ganga. I also saw a man relaxing under the shade of a tree, simply trying to escape from the heat and stress of the day; and I could also see a mother with her kids, splashing the shallow waters and fishermen waiting for their catch of the day. From dawn to dusk, life here revolves around Ganga.
Further down, in the lower stretch, I saw large Cargo ships, local ferry transporting vehicles and other household items. In the entire journey so far, I observed the plight of marginal farmers who are struggling hard due to the ill effects of extreme dry summers and massive water, flushed in during the monsoon, all of them ruin their farms in the wink of an eye.
Large ships and cargos can be easily sighted in the lower stretch. Photo credit: Saurav Gawan.
This dichotomy poignantly illustrates a need for a balanced approach for water management and conservation of natural resources to ensure good for all.