Rakesh Jaiswal is bringing together diverse groups in a coordinated effort to curb further pollution of the Ganga River, one of the world's largest, and increasingly most polluted, river systems.
La nuova idea
Rakesh is engaging religious leaders, scientists, students, journalists, public officers, lawyers, and other groups in improving the health of the 1,570-mile Ganga River, the chief source of drinking and irrigation water for more than one-third of India's population. Rakesh sees that many government-sponsored programs introduced in the past two decades have proved to be expensive and largely ineffective, in part because they fail to engage individuals and communities that live on the river and depend on it for their livelihood–farmers, pandas (Hindu priests who perform last rites for the dying), fishermen, boatmen, cremators (Dhanuks/Doms), and others. Through workshops, camps, school and community activities, and campaigns, Rakesh and his staff of volunteers are mobilizing communities to prevent further pollution and bring to public attention practices that stand out in clear violation of government regulations. To reach a broader audience, Rakesh assembles high-profile spokespeople, who offer public statements of support, and organizes campaigns to impress upon the public the urgency of this environmental and public health threat.
On its journey eastward from the Himalaya, the Ganga River courses through the vast Indo-Gangetic plain, giving life to roughly half of India's irrigated land. In addition to providing physical nourishment for the millions living along its banks, the Ganga occupies a central place in the spiritual lives of many Indians who regard it as a source of renewal during life and as portal to the next world after death. Despite its prominent place in Indian life, the Ganga is fast becoming one of the world's most polluted waterways. Liquid waste–much of it raw sewage or industrial waste–spills into the river, contributing to dangerously high toxicity levels and presenting a crisis on several fronts–environmental, economic, and health. Compounding the problem, priests and family members of the deceased ceremoniously set afloat corpses in a ritual they believe releases the soul from the cycle of misery and despair. Yet corpses are often incompletely cremated and are floated with polythene bags and plastic flowers, all serious theats to the environment and to people, many of whom develop skin and internal illnesses resulting from contaminants in the water.
To curb pollution of the river, India's Department of Environment prepared an action plan in 1991. The Rs.900 crore ($270 million) Ganga Action Plan (GAP, Phase I) has proved ineffective on several fronts. While much of the framework established by the GAP is useful, there has been little follow-through or enforcement, and solutions have been impartially introduced. For example, tanneries along parts of the river have built treatment plants to purify the waste products, but electrical power is not consistently available, and treatment plants lie idle, as do electric crematoria, also constructed as part of the GAP effort. The GAP plan of cleaning the river naturally by releasing 30,000 turtles, which feed on corpses, was thwarted by poachers who got to the turtles first. Perhaps most critical, critics of GAP cite lack of citizen involvement in monitoring and policing pollution practices.
With wide citizen participation, Rakesh is mounting a social movement that, on the one hand, includes eminent and influential people, and on the other, mobilizes the communities that have a direct interface with the river to be effective guardians and cleaners of the river. With allies in other GAP towns, Rakesh's group is spreading along the stretch of the river, and his volunteers, a varied group known as the Ganga Guardians, are organizing in every GAP town.
Rakesh works with students at their schools and in camps. He has visited over 50 schools in Kanpur and in surrounding towns, introducing background information in lectures, then following up with hands-on workshops and with contests (e.g., an interstate green newspaper contest in Kanpur attracted 500 school children as participants). The students also conducted an opinion poll on the state of Kanpur's environment, using the results to underline the importance of resolving basic, important problems relating to health and the environment. Five thousand people gathered in support, compelling the city administration to redirect money from city beautification to a sustainable environment fund. Sunderlal Bahuguna, one of India's well-known environmental activists, participated at another rally, attracting extensive media coverage, bringing to the fore the issue of pollution, and underlining problematic areas of GAP Phase 1.
Rakesh has also been successful in a variety of ways in co-opting religious groups that contribute to the pollution of the river. He organizes awareness camps during religious festivals that take place along the banks of the Ganga, creating awareness of the pollution that the festivals, rituals, and rites cause. At Rakesh's urging, religious leaders–among them the Hindu leaders Swami Chinmayanand (Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram) and Vasudevanand Saraswati (Shankaracharya of Badrikanand)–have denounced religious practices harmful to the river. Rakesh has also been successful in eliminating the practice of setting incompletely burnt bodies afloat in the river. Supported by Hindu leaders, Rakesh and his volunteers ensure that those who cannot afford cremation do not float the bodies but bury them in the riverbed. Along a stretch of river where a hundred corpses were once floated every month, now none are; instead, family members bury the corpses along the river banks.
The rules, regulations, laws, and court orders are now in place, and an important task for Rakesh and his volunteers, besides cleaning the Ganga on a regular basis, is to monitor the enforcement of these laws and the honest implementation of the Ganga Action Plan, now in its second phase. In the monitoring process, Rakesh has involved the people who are dependent on the health of the river for their survival. Working together, they bring the failures and ineffectiveness to public attention and seek legal ramifications of policy breeches.
In 1997 for the first time, Rakesh conducted a drive to clean the Ganga physically by removing dead bodies. The shock that the act created reinvigorated the concerned agencies, and on the basis of a Public Interest Litigation filed by Rakesh and his group, the High Court intervened. It issued notices to the Ganga project directorate (now national river conservation directorate), the state government, the Uttar Pradesh Director-General of Police, and the Central and state pollution control boards.
In the course of the hearings of the petition, the court asked the amicus curiae to fix the accountability for the lapses on various authorities so that the anomalies of GAP could be corrected, and various orders were passed. Under the court's direction, a Joint Monitoring Committee was set to assess the situation and find an effective remedy. The report recommended levying a Ganga cleaning tax for maintaining various schemes under the GAP and strengthening of the infrastructure. The litigation is still ongoing.
Rakesh spent his childhood in Mirzapur, a small town on the banks of the Ganga. He remembers his childhood as a time of cleaner air and water, when he joined his mother and grandmother for the ritual bath in the Ganga. Frequent trips to the springs and forests engendered in him a love of nature and an interest in science. In college he became deeply concerned about the health of the environment and the responsibilities of citizens to steward the environment. His graduate research focused on democratization of environmental issues through citizen organizations.
While still a student, Rakesh opened a tap in Kanpur one day and dark water trickled out. He investigated further and found that the drinking water and sewage water pipes ran parallel to each other, and that at certain points untreated sewage was streaming into the drinking water. The seriousness of the problem and the complacency of those responsible led Rakesh to leave his academic work and focus full time on restoring the health of the Ganga.
In 1989 Rakesh moved to Kanpur, a city lying along one of the most polluted stretches of the river. He lives there with his sister and her children. Because of lack of funds, Rakesh works primarily with volunteers who have been inspired to join him in his mission.