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The stark life of the Ganga

The GangesSUP team believes the great river isn't as dirty as we think it is. But the perils outnumber the positives

Shilpika Gautam (right) with her mother and teammate Kumaran Mahalingam at the finish line at Gangasagar on 11 January. Photo: Upslope Productions
Shilpika Gautam (right) with her mother and teammate Kumaran Mahalingam at the finish line at Gangasagar on 11 January. Photo: Upslope Productions

The physical form of the Ganga is disconnected from its spiritual idea," says Shilpika Gautam. On 11 January, 101 days into the expedition, including 88 days of stand-up paddling (SUP), and 2,977km from the source of the river, the GangeSUP team, led by Gautam, reached Gangasagar in West Bengal, where the river meets the sea. Gautam had brought together a team to undertake a first-of-its-kind expedition—a source-to-sea descent—of the Ganges by stand-up paddle board for a little over three months.

It was the time of year when millions congregate on the island for the Gangasagar Mela and the photo Gautam emails us has devotees milling around her slender paddle board, a fitting testimonial to the spiritual pull the river has for Indians. Being on the 14ft-long, 30-inches wide paddle board, lovingly christened Laxmi, meant Gautam and her core team of three male participants were never really too far from the physical reality of the river either. “That a paddle board is the closest one can get to the river was one reason for us to do the SUP expedition," says Gautam. The 33-year-old is a likely claimant to the world record for longest continuous journey by stand-up paddle board by a woman.

The start of the expedition at Gaumukh in Uttarakhand on 3 October. Photo: Shilpika Gautam

Gautam, a native of Agra, is not given to constant cribbing (“only negative stories isn’t cool"), and the Ganges SUP team’s journey has brought in its share of good tidings from India’s sacred river, which is estimated to support over 40% of the country’s population. For one, she says, the river isn’t as dirty as they thought it would be. “There were some dead bodies floating around, but not too many."

The team, comprising Britisher Spike Reid, German Pascal Dubois and Kumaran Mahalingam from India (he joined the team on 15 October), found some evidence of the river’s health. They spotted 867 dolphins (which sit on top of the riverine food chain), including 17 Gangetic dolphins in a stretch of the Hooghly river system, and the water samples they tested did not throw up particularly stark readings, evidence, they suggest, of the river’s health.

Yet there can be no glossing over some of the perils.

Initially, the team, working with the international NGO WaterAid India, focused on single-use plastic in the awareness campaign underlining the expedition. Gautam had worked as a banker for five-and-a-half years in London—the city where 2015’s stricter rules saw plastic use plummet by as much as 85%, according to a report in The Guardian. But it was the sight of plastic floating on the river that first led Gautam to conceive of the GangesSUP, “a combination of the novelty of the sport with the desire to explore an imminent and serious environmental issue", she says on email. In Kolkata, before beginning the last leg to Gangasagar, Gautam expanded on the plastic issue: “Single-use plastic, where they are not recycled or reused, is a bane that can only be changed through the habits of consumers. Where does the plastic go? They go nowhere and stay on in the water or the soil."

The team started its journey on foot from the river’s origin in Gaumukh, Uttarakhand on 3 October—the furious, rocky and rapid-filled shallow river made it impossible to paddle. The actual SUP activity started from Haridwar on 20 October and they discovered very quickly that the issue of untreated sewage flowing into the river was greater than that of plastic pollution, especially in rural pockets. “Our understanding shifted. Even though plastic and industrial pollution was rampant near the cities, around villages the main issue is that of untreated sewage disposal, contaminating not just the river but also a threat to villagers’ lives."

A WaterAid India study, for instance, found that an alarming 70% of India’s surface water is polluted due to untreated sewage, while 91% of small towns and villages lack an organized sewage system. In towns like Fatehpur (Uttar Pradesh) and Samastipur (Bihar), situated along the river, over 64% and 75% of the households, respectively, didn’t have toilets.

“Latrine is not a sexy subject to talk about but it is important. Most villagers relieve themselves around the river and it becomes particularly problematic for rural women, whose security and dignity is compromised," says Gautam. As a woman, she found the gender disparity harsh, being subjected on multiple occasions to the sight of hundreds lining up to “see a woman paddling in shorts and in the company of men". The audience, she says, invariably comprised men. The women, restricted to the village precincts, would only speak to Gautam when they had let her into their homes and locked the doors—very rarely in public. “While the love, kindness and reception we got were extraordinary, there were occasions when village women shut their door on my face even before I could speak. Coming from a background of privilege (as I do), the lack of women in public spaces came as a sharp contrast."

Shilpika Gautam at a WaterAid’s project session about sanitation, with children, in Harpur Saidabad near Patna. Photo: Kumaran Mahalingam

With most villages lacking proper toilets, women are particularly more vulnerable to disease and follow a different diet to avoid the embarrassment of relieving themselves in the open during the day. “The issue of women’s empowerment is tied to that of the river. There have to be systemic changes," says Gautam.

For while the river cleanses itself during the rainy season, it is unable to do so effectively in other seasons—there isn’t a steady flow from receding Himalayan glaciers, huge volumes of water are diverted through canals for irrigation and industrial use and blocked by dams and barrages. “At many points, even our small boards got stuck. Had we been conducting the GangesSUP around winter, we couldn’t have made much progress beyond Haridwar," says Gautam.

Throughout the journey, Gautam, who gave up a corporate career in London to pursue her entwined passion for water sports and the environment, felt “like I wanted to kick ass every day".

“I didn’t know I had this strength in me. London almost feels like a previous life, when I had everything but used to be restless." Gautam ends with the learning she gained from this expedition: “People see life in the Ganga, and I know why."

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