“Boats ferrying merchandise from the Bay of Bengal used to anchor at this port,” directing his finger towards a stagnant, reeking sewer that cuts through Garia, a suburb 14 km south of Calcutta, 72-year-old Anath Taran Ghosal sighs. “After all, this is the Adi (meaning ‘ancient’) Ganga”.
It is a little known fact that the part of the Ganga that flows through Bengal, over which hangs the iconic Howrah Bridge, is not the river’s original course. The once-main channel of the ancient Bhagirathi, as the Bengal part of the Ganga is called, is today a stinky, sooty, black gutter that circles along the outer limits of the city for 75 kms, eventually belching out a dark mass of polluted water into the Hooghly—the above-mentioned course of the Ganga that flows by Calcutta—at a point called Dahi Ghat.
Residents, such as the elderly Ghosal, who live along the banks of this polluted drain, have long agitated against the administration’s neglect of Adi Ganga, especially its use as one of the state’s main, if unplanned, sewerages.
Infested with malignant bacteria and a breeding ground of mosquitoes, the garbage-chocked old river has been blamed as the source of vicious strains of malaria, dengue and cholera that has plagued Calcutta for decades. Governments, both at the state and the Centre, have not just ignored the issue. National and foreign environmental groups that have tried to take up the challenge of cleaning up the Adi Ganga allege that progress has remained difficult. Corruption at all levels is considered a key obstacle.
“Funds don’t reach the ground,” said an NGO worker attached to an environmental group that has been working on a possible restoration of the Adi Ganga. Over the last 30 years, Rs 200 crore ($30 million) has been pumped into the project.
Even the National Ganga River Basin Project, currently under the supervision of the central government, has included the Adi Ganga restoration as one of its key areas of focus. Garia’s Ghosal, who has been associated with two subsequent committees of the Centre as a local member of the Adi Ganga clean-up project, tells Outlook, “I have been a part of the Ganga Action Plan during the time of Indira Gandhi and now the Ganga Bachao Committee of the Modi government. I am aware that large sums of money have arrived over a period of time. But I don’t know who has been pocketing it, because very little work has been done.”
The plan includes dredging and clearing the original path of the river from its northern tip at the mouth (at the juncture of the Hooghly at Dahi Ghat and Adi Ganga) along the original course meandering along Kalighat temple, Tollygunge, Kudghat, Garia upto Kakdwip at the Bay of Bengal.
“The idea is to have salt water flow into the river during high tide, thus flushing away the garbage choking it during low tide,” a committee member of the Ganga Bachao Plan reveals to Outlook. “This flushing out would be further aided with saline water, a natural purifier destroying germs and bacteria.” The project, says the member, though costly, is “not difficult to implement if approached with honest intention”.
A putrid stretch of the Adi Ganga behind the Kalighat temple
The part of the original river which hits a dead end at Garia is now covered in congested slums on both its banks. Remnants of an ancient swinging bridge juts out from tops of ugly structures which have haphazardly cropped up throughout the last few decades.
An official of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board gave Outlook a lowdown on the fetid state of affairs. “There are difficulties in implementing projects due to the fact that much of the area has now been claimed by promoters, developers and slumlords. Demolition has never been on the agenda of governments since these are votebanks. Rehabilitation attempts, too, have failed because the livelihood of most of the inhabitants of these slums, lower economic groups forming the ‘urban poor’, who work as sweepers, cobblers, rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, etc, lie nearby.” Unemployed youth who live along the banks of the sewer (that is, the Adi Ganga), says the official, are often involved in criminal activities and used by political parties as musclemen during elections, always on a quid pro quo basis. “They usually enjoy unspoken immunity against any kind of eviction activity, which is a prerequisite of the clean-up drive.”
The more middle class families of Garia and the other areas through which the Adi Ganga flows, unlike the slum-dwellers who would have to be evicted from the banks for the project to take off, would like to see the river cleaned up. They try to make sense of the horrid mess. “Perhaps this is why (the difficulty in the eviction of slums that impinge on the river) even Didi cannot keep her promise to us,” says Nilima Das, a shopkeeper. “Didi (CM Mamata Banerjee) told us that she would have the river reconnected to the sea,” she adds.
Seven years ago, during a pre-election campaign in Garia, Mamata Banerjee, then in the Opposition, vowed that if she was voted to power, she would pursue the drive to clean-up the river which, incidentally, flows near her own house in Kalighat. The plan involved not only flushing out stagnant water with saline tidal waves but beautification of the banks with fruit and flower orchards. She even conjured up a vision of boats ferrying tourists across the clear waters of the Adi Ganga, making it one of Calcutta’s most sought-after places to visit.
Any possible clean-up of the grossly polluted and choked Adi Ganga is blocked by corruption and political expediency.
In reality, even after Mamata is well into her second term as CM, the fetid monstrosity remains untouched by any ‘project’, though sporadic spots do indicate aborted attempts of ‘beautification’.
Ten kms from Garia, at an area called Joyenpur, parts of abandoned equipment, supposedly used for dredging, lie around, rusty and decaying. The section of the Adi Ganga which flows through this place is surprisingly clean. “This is the only stretch that has been cleaned,” says Ghosal. “If there is an official INSpection of whether work is being done, this is the spot that is usually shown,” he adds,his voice quivering with sarcasm.
Such amused detachment is difficult for others to emulate. Subhash Chakraborty, an exasperated resident of the Rajpur Municipality, which has recorded a high number of dengue cases, lets loose a barrage of accusations: “It’s all the fault of the political parties. Whether it is BJP, Trinamool, Congress or the Communists, they’re not interested in solving this problem. They will not do what is required to remove the obstacles because it will ruffle the feathers of goons and thugs who control the slums that choke up the river. That’s because they need them during elections. And yet they cannot explain what happens to the funds.”
When contacted by Outlook on the current status of the Adi Ganga clean-up project, Kalyan Rudra, chairman of the The West Bengal Pollution Control Board, which operates under the National Green Tribunal, declines to comment, pointing out that matters relating to the project are currently under litigation.
NGOs and environmental groups, however, continue to focus on the issue. The Third Pole, an international organisation involved in research as well as developing solutions to water crisis in the Himalayas and the vast areas fed by the rivers arising therefrom, has conducted several studies of the Adi Ganga problem in Calcutta. Joydeep Gupta, South Asia director of The Third Pole, recently accompanied a team of experts on an expedition along its banks to understand the depth of the problem and to decide on possible strategies to counter them. A member of the team, associated with the State Pollution Control Board told Outlook, “We hope that eventually we can work around the issues.”
That’s what inhabitants of Calcutta look forward to. “My grandfather and father used to tell me tales about how wide and clean the river was in these parts,” Garia’s Ghosal recalls. Looking at this befouled stretch, that’s hard to believe.
While the Ganga gradually started changing course nearly three centuries ago, in the beginning of the 1770s—the British documented a shift in 1770—its exacerbation has been attributed to the colonial administration’s attempt to link two other tributaries of the Ganga in Bengal, the Saraswati and the Hooghly. This diverted the eastern river’s flow westward, causing the original course to lose force, gradually drying it up. However, experts claim that it is the subsequent ‘abuse’ which has resulted in the current state of the Adi Ganga being reduced to a city sewer.
“For a nation that worships the Ganga, isn’t this is sacrilege?” Ghosal asks. It’s a contradiction to which millions of Indians would have no ready answer.
By Dola Mitra in Calcutta