“She is worshiped by Demons and Gods alike”
Having just been to India last summer, the pollution of the Ganges in Vinit Parmar‘s documentary Living River: The Ganges is something I witnessed first-hand. Taking a gondola ride down the ghat-filled bank of Varanasi’s portion of the holy river, I saw hundreds of men, women, and children bathing, drinking, and performing rituals to the Goddess Ganga. Having heard the facts about the water before visiting, I tried my hardest to cover every square inch of flesh from even a splash courtesy of the oars going up and down. Even so, the experience of seeing so many completely devoted to their religion despite the health problems everyone globally knows are too severe to ignore was unreal.
While more than just talking head information dispersal, the film stands as an educational resource rather than theatrical crowdpleaser with matter-of-fact narration. This is a very serious problem at the heart of the Ganga Basin where the river supports almost a quarter of the country’s population and sees about sixty thousand people a day visiting for routine and pilgrimage. Unfortunately, however, as Dr. Veer Bhadra Mishra of the Sankat Mochan Foundation says, despite knowing how bad the water is, he’ll still return to worship the goddess believed to sever humanity’s reincarnation cycle and send souls to an eternal afterlife. And it’s not bad—it’s cataclysmic with less than half the biological oxygen content of the Mississippi and 200 parts to 100ml of fecal matter when our drinking water contains less than one.
So many remain steadfast in the belief that the river’s spiritual properties supercede science despite an insanely high cancer rate in the area. Parmar shares with us how pollution comes from the 116 cities full of industrial factories on the bank as well as 32 points where domestic sewage drains directly into the Ganges. With obvious government corruption dismissing what we see on film by blaming water treatment plant employees for stopping work when interviewed—my guide in New Delhi had a lot to say about government officials lining pockets during the Commonwealth Games in 2010 too—forty million dollars was wasted after the failed 1986 Ganga Action Plan did nothing but build faulty pumps to inoperably sit. Hearing a worker’s union president call a complete shutdown “minor malfunctions” only touches the surface of the ineptitude involved.
The footage shown is quite stunning, getting into the action of both the religion and pollution. Gaining permission to shoot on the riverbed with what seems unfettered access must not have been an easy thing to do. Scenes of the fire and music rituals help show the beauty of what could be when the foamy chemical runoff of leaking purification processes is eradicated. Listening to two Brahmin priests candidly speak on spirituality and their journey to find enlightenment helps express how revered the water is. It’s easy to see why one would ignore safety concerns to pray, but while so many Indians believe waste like Chromium-6 causing cancer are issues for the government to rectify, the facts here show how the common man is also at fault.
But as we meet Riverkeeper V.J. Jose and Eco-Friends’ Mohammed Owais doing what they can to help solve the problem, the sad truth remains that survival has undermined religion. It’s all about the money now and lax environmental laws will help industry grow and become more prosperous. And despite the cow being held as sacred as Ganga—two equal halves of one mother—India is the second largest manufacturer of leather in the world. A huge part of the puzzle with Kolkatta tanneries using one hundred gallons of water to dye and chemically prepare just one piece of animal hide, the main livelihood for so many Chamars in the city is exactly what is killing them.
More polluted now than in 1986 when the government tried to enact change the first time, it appears monetary assistance from the World Bank will try to right the wrongs of a quarter century and further. Looking at the depression on the faces of so many reminiscing about times picnicking on creek beds and fishing in the fresh water only to see the same source now 40% polluted is tough to forget. Hopefully Living River can assist in the fight by bringing recognition to the problem and educating the world like the Ganga Ambassadors are reaching the youth back in India.
courtesy of the film’s website: www.livingriverfilm.com