It’s been a long trip for Jake Norton and David Morton. Starting with their weather shutdown on Chaukhamba IV, then flowing through the moving mass of Indian humanity south, they traced and tracked the Ganges 2,600 kilometers to the sea. The genesis of this trip was an idea about better understanding the relationship between a dramatically growing population and the crisis of securing clean, drinkable water for all. On the Ganges, it is a complex conflict between sacred divinity and economic pollution that seems even cloudier with each new introduction. In his final report on the trip, Jake Norton explains in vivid detail why the Ganges is not such an easy river to understand. –LYA Editor
Words and Images by Jake Norton
I could tell by her eyes it was going to be a sad story, for they wept tragedy. Bonashree Haldar’s futile attempt at a smile belied the intense sadness racking her body. As soon as she spoke, her grief erupted like a geyser, her voice breaking into a wail. Tears streamed down her face as she recounted the story of her young daughter, married off by her husband for a dowry, and recently found horrifically murdered by her in-laws, her body in tatters from torture and a savage beating. “There is no chance of prosecution,” said my friend, Mina Das, who runs the non-profit Nishtha. “There is no chance of justice. We are poor people, and the killers are rich. Without money, we have no education; without education, we have no influence; and without influence, we cannot get justice. And without water, we cannot begin to make money…You see?”
We had just finished a rich day in the rural regions of South 24 Parganas, a remote district of West Bengal; Mina and her team took us to villages ravaged recently by epic floods, and ravaged every day by intense poverty. Mina and her team work to empower women and girls in these villages, educating them, helping them start businesses, teaching them and giving them the confidence to seize control of their lives and destinies in a culture which often denies exactly that. Her work revolutionizes these villages, filling the women and girls there with pride and hope for a better tomorrow. And, as Mina reminded us, it all starts with water.
The rural poor of India – like so many around the world – live and die with water. On our journey down the Ganges, we saw how too much water destroys everything, ripping villages from their hillsides like the “Himalayan tsunami” did in the Garhwal Himalaya around Gangotri. Villagers in Uttar Pradesh told us of the hardship when there’s not enough water: drought cycles force locals to walk for miles each day for water as local taps dry up – and most of this work falls on the shoulders of women and children. Bihar was no different. During our visit, the remains of Cyclone Phailin dumped rain and flooded the countryside, swelling the Gandaki and Koshi Rivers, the latter living up to its name as “the sorrow of Bihar.” And in South 24 Parganas, Mina was showing us how water is the very cornerstone of failure – or success – of the rural poor. When water is scarce (or inadequately distributed), villagers are forced to spend much of their time just hauling water for their daily needs, making kids unable to attend school, parents unable to run businesses or tend to their farms, and locking them into the cycle of poverty. And too much water has the same effect: flooding in this region drowns crops and entire villages, erasing incomes and livelihoods and leaving the people with nothing to do but clean up, rebuild, and try to recover.
For 1,500 miles, we witnessed the intense beauty – and overwhelming tragedy – of the great Ganges River. A dearth of water, or an overabundance. Flood or drought. Industry providing vital jobs while also spewing toxic pollutants into the ecosystem. The river’s divine status creating stunning acts of celebration and reverence, while simultaneously (and often unconsciously) enabling its continued pollution and abuse. From the mesmerizing torrent of pristine water gushing forth from the Gangotri Glacier at Gaumukh to the sickly, tar-colored rivulets flowing like molasses in the industrial heartlands of Uttar Pradesh, to the might and power of the great river as it flows into the Bay of Bengal through the world’s largest delta: the Ganges is truly the life of all North India, her waters both revered and reviled, at once a blessing and a curse.
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