One could well begin with TS Eliot’s lines:
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
To discerning readers, the book on River Ganga, jointly authored by Mishra and Upadhyay, would stand out as a blueprint for redressing Eliot’s philosophical lament in the context of man’s loving relationship with a great river. It is a labor of love on the part of the authors, presenting before the world the data, information, knowledge, insight, and wisdom elicited by them in their insider roles as drivers of the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), arguably one of the world’s most ambitious river management and rejuvenation missions, with profound bearing on ecological, socioeconomic, and emotional sustenance of a whole landmass and its people.
The book provides a veritable wealth of information and analyses – with its vivid exposition of geographical, demographical, hydrological, and socio-cultural features of the Indian subcontinent and its metaphorically ‘maternal’ river system of Ganga and her tributaries, flowing through eleven states and providing livelihood to “nearly 43 percent” of Indians. In that sense, it is an integrated case study on managing a great river basin and its connected ecosystem, with all attendant complexities involved in the process.
Another notable feature of the work is its exploration of a possible scientific basis behind the widespread belief in the abiding purity of Ganga water. As mentioned by one of the authors, the faith finds expression in the act of sprinkling Gangajal during sanctifying rituals before Hindu devotional rites.
The belief is also supported by the empirical evidence of foreigners carrying loads of putatively therapeutic Gangajal in their transoceanic voyages back home. The book tells us that scientific studies conducted in collaboration with National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) have also confirmed that Ganga waters, despite their heavy pollution load, do retain high levels of dissolved oxygen which is primarily attributable to the presence therein of biologically decontaminating bacteriophages, a gift from the flora and fauna in the river’s upper reaches and the minerals in its bed.
What is no less important is that the whole exposition is both informative and instructive as an aid to understanding the complex issues and as a resource document for present and future action. The cogency and lucidity in presenting some of the technical information further make the exposition understandable and interesting to lay readers.
As an instance of reader-friendliness, one may, for one thing, cite the simple yet revealing line graphs showing time-trends of Dissolved Oxygen (DO) and Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) to show the reduction in pollution load at Haridwar, Prayagraj, Kanpur, and Varanasi segments.
For another, the twin paradigm of restorative missions of viral Dhara (ensuring adequate ecological river flow) and Nirmal Dhara (maintaining the purity of the river), has been explained well as the background ideas behind the human and infrastructural interventions germane to the effectiveness of the mission. The good effects of expanding the network of Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) in reducing pollutants and of retiring water-guzzling Hydroelectric Plants (HEPs) have also been demonstrated with quantitative details supported by qualitative commentaries.
Yet another striking aspect of the book is its engaging commentary on the geo-demographic and historical aspects of the upstream and downstream areas washed by Mother Ganga. These parts of the narrative may strike a reader as an evocative travelogue of a journey of discovery across Northern and Eastern India. Equally important are the heartening specifics of that great journey of rejuvenation.
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These include the initial success story at Uttarakhand; the industrial challenges faced at Kanpur; the composite approach of sanitation, microbial treatment of sewage, and the periodical dismantling of the “world’s largest ephemeral city” at the sprawling temporary township during Kumbh Melas; reviving the glory of eternal Varanasi; refashioning the city-river connect in Bihar; rejuvenating river banks in Jharkhand; “future-proofing” the West Bengal stretch, including measures to withstand the threat of climate change by saving the mangroves on Sundarbans delta.
The final chapters, including informative accounts of various Ganga tributaries, constitute a figurative icing on a cake that should be food for thought for people at large.