By Dinesh Sharma

The river that has been the life blood of millions of Indians has been choking from pollution.  While PM Modi tries to revive the Indian economy and infrastructure, will he be able to save the Ganges (Hindi Ganga), the holiest river of the Hindus?  Or will the river be further sacrificed at the altar of progress and development?

On May 13, 2015, the Modi government announced a Special Ganga Protection Law which will make polluting the Ganga an illegal act, National Mission to Clean Ganga (NMCG).  The cabinet has approved Namami Ganga, or in the name of Ganga, a comprehensive program to clean the river with unprecedented levels of funding (Rs. 20,000 Crores or $3 Billion).

The river is deeply intertwined with Hindu mythology and identity that its ongoing pollution invariably reflects the ills of modern Indian society.  PM Modi’s ability to clean up the river may be a litmus test, perhaps, an unadulterated measure of his first term in office.

After all PM Modi conducted aarti at the ghats in Varanasi after his landmark victory a year ago.

Take me to the River

Haridwar, India

Most Hindus visit the Ganges River at least once in their lifetime, especially, after the passing of a family elder or during the Kumbh Mela, the gathering of pilgrims at the banks of the holy river.

The Ganges has been the source of life for the Hindu people and other civilizations that have settled along the banks of the great river. The river has connected the subcontinent in all directions, not only as a life-sustaining force but as a trade route for conquerors and colonizers.

I visited the Ganges during summer vacations, mostly as a child and local tourist, but didn’t think I would return after a hiatus of 40 years.

After migrating to the U.S., the Ganges became an imaginary river — buried deep inside my unconscious memories — rarely considered a conscious part of my identity.  Yet, it has always been there, dormant yet active — underneath the daily hustle of life — representing the current of the life-force.

I went back to the river last week, carrying my father’s ashes.  I returned to the steps of Haridwar to disperse his last remains in the river.  My ancestors have performed this ritual for approximately 2,000 years, where millions have dipped in the river; my father-in-law (Mr. R.N. Bakshi) who passed away last year also had a similar ritual.

My Father (Mr. Jaidev Sharma)

My father’s journey was atypical of his generation of men, born in pre-partition India (West Punjab), his family settled in New Delhi as refugees after India’s independence.  He decided to leave India as an adult for greater economic opportunity during the years of the Emergency in the 1970s.

My father was a maverick; he worked for the U.S. Corps of Engineers for almost thirty years after migrating from India. Yet, he kept his roots intact to the best of his abilities, even as he became a U.S. citizen and took on American mannerisms.  He traveled to India as often as he could, but made the U.S. his home.

As the first wave of immigrants to the U.S., he was part of the generation of Indian immigrants who paved the way for the emergence of a global Indian identity.

When he settled in the suburbs of Chicago, there was only one yoga center in the northwest suburbs of Chicago; now yoga studios are ubiquitous.  Much has changed, yet so much has remained the same.

The River Returns

Ganges in the morning

On Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in 2014, PM Modi told the audience that Indian philosophy urges you to enjoy life only when the environment is healthy and harmonious. “That is why in our mythology trees are worshipped. Animals are worshipped. Even water, earth and sky are worshipped. We have been taught to replenish what we take from the Nature. India’s ancient message of sustainability thus can show the way in the fight against Global Warming and Climate Change.”

Thus, in PM Modi’s worldview, environmentalism is compatible with Hindutva politics.  Green and saffron are holy colors and the guardians of Maa Ganga.

Yet, many challenges remain on how to reform the religious and industrial polluters, who may not want to adopt new technologies to clean the river.  Since 1986 the repeated efforts to clean the river have consumed crores of rupees with little success.  This may not change within a year under PM Modi’s government.  However, the new plan is stricter on polluters and relies on community participation.

The plan is already facing challenges from those who don’t want to give up land to build Sewage Treatment Plants along the river, the defenders of faith who see rising threats to traditional Hindu practices, and ironically from environmentalists who fear that by diverting the water flow the ecology of the river basin is being disturbed.

All sides point the Himalayan floods and landslides of 2013, which originated in a glacial meltdown at the mouth of the Ganges, to find fault in each other’s positions.  Industrialists blame the government for over-regulation to control hydroelectric supplies, traditionalists feel threatened by modernization, and environmentalists feel efforts are either wrong-headed or inadequate to offset the impact of climate change.

The Modi government must balance all of these factions to save the Ganges River for the future generations.

Dinesh Sharma is associate research professor at Binghamton University’s Institute for Global Cultural Studies in Binghamton, N.Y. He is the editor of “The Global Obama: Crossroads of Leadership in the 21st Century,” published by Routledge Press. His previous book, “Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President,” was rated as the Top Ten Black History Book for 2012.

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