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River of no return?

The Pioneer Editorial, June 17, 1998

It might seem an ecological impossibility, but the beautiful, life-affirming river Ganga might actually disappear sometime in the hypothetical expanse of time future. This is not a science fiction sub-plot or a mythical prediction. This is a fear which has been haunting environmentalists and scientists over the years. However, it seems their pleas and warnings to prevent this from happening have not stirred an apparently apathetic officialdom. Now that the danger signals are being heard loud and clear, right from Gaumukh and Gangotri-the mouth of this civilisational river and its Himalayan origin-it would be tragic to ignore the impending disaster with which it is faced. Glaciology experts have reinforced what is common knowledge in the hills-that the Gangotri glacier has been receding at an alarmingly rapid rate. Situated at about 7,000 metres above the sea level, the glacier is shrinking by 10 to 30 metres every year since the last 50 years. Defence personnel posted in the area have confirmed that the glacier has retreated faster in the past decade. Recent Geological Survey of India studies have revealed that the recession, which actually begun in 1935 at a reasonably slow rate, increased by two-and-a-half times between 1956 to 1962 and by five times during the 1962-71 period. Way back in 1842, British scientists had found that the source of the river was situated two metres downstream. It is evident that if this process of retreat continues, the river might die a slow, inexorable death in the next few thousand years.

While global warming is considered the basic cause of this gradual melt-down of one of the largest glaciers in the Himalayas, unceasing pollution and deforestation have worsened the scenario. The 18-km zone between Gangotri and Gaumukh, which was once rich in bio-diversity, lies barren today, littered with plastic, polythene, throw-away bottles and non-biodegradable remnants of modern tourism and pilgrimages. Dhabas close to the source of the river too add to the pollution. Local opinion leaders have been seeking a ban on tourism in this area so that nature can heal itself, but the authorities seem to have neither the concern nor the vision. The dark side of this divine reality is that despite being iconised by millions, Ganga is in a state of decay. In its incredibly long journey to the Bay of Bengal, this river is being reduced to carry half-burnt corpses, sewage, municipal and industrial waste, chemical effluents, pesticide residue and other morbid substances which urban societies and industries along its shore dump into it. Besides, this is one river which also carries the filth of other rivers and tributaries which merge in it, including heavily polluted rivers like the Yamuna, Gomti and Damodar. The fact that the multi-crore, much-hyped Ganga Action Plan could not fulfill even half of its agenda, is a pointer to the fact that the river which sustained the cradle of an ancient civilisation is being pushed to the brink. Timely action from the authorities alone can change the course of no return that the Ganga seems to be taking.