Standing up for the Ganga – Adventure for a purpose

4 min read
What do we mean by ‘improving sanitation

For most of my life, I harbored a deep suspicion of non-profits or ‘chanda collectors’- especially the kinds who used to knock on our door with a book of receipts and claimed to be collecting ‘chanda’ (contribution) for one cause or the other.

My suspicion stemmed from not knowing what exactly these funds were for, how they were being used and what really was the impact created? Was someone even measuring impact?

My dad spent his entire career working as a doctor in the Indian Railways. Fighting to improve medieval processes, building better systems for patients, monitoring and reporting corruption were outside of his day job but he saw it as his duty, his calling. So growing up, instead of money, my altruistic efforts were very much based on time and involvement – be it providing supplementary education for school kids, building schools, painting care homes and so on.

Last year, as I first envisioned GangesSUP and also contemplated spending some time in the development sector, I chanced upon a mind blowing book called ‘Doing Good Better’- essentially a framework to evaluate our charitable efforts and causes, on what happens if we choose not to donate. Of course, a lot of this went out of the window when some of my close, vibrant, young friends were diagnosed with life threatening diseases like cancer and I asked myself if I would make the emotional choice or the rational, data driven choice when it came to donating my money. The same 1 rupee goes a much longer way in reducing malaria related deaths versus cancer deaths. However, most of the developed world does not have to face a near or dear one suffering from malaria. So understandably they choose to give for a cause that is present and relevant for them.

Access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene are issues that the developing countries across the globe are ‘trying’ to deal with. India and River Ganga just have to deal with them on a ridiculously vast scale.

When we set out on our expedition, our pet peeve was Single Use Plastic – it still is, especially as a visible and controllable source of pollution in our water bodies. We also knew that untreated sewage disposal, industrial and agricultural waste is a huge and disproportionate source of pollution into the Ganga. So we figured it was too huge an issue for us to understand and raise. After all, what could individuals or communities do if the government did not build plants to treat waste?

So what changed? For one, except in the proximity of major cities that we passed (Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi and Patna) we rarely spotted floating plastic in the water. The one exception was ghats of religious or cultural significance in the rural areas. The small villages that form the majority of the length of the banks of the Ganga simply do not consume a lot of plastic, at least not yet in any case. And when they do, they tend to (but not always) burn it.

What was however overpowering was the stench, the ‘foam’ and the debris from the countless fountains/channels/pipes of sewage flowing freely into the Ganga. India currently treats only about 20% of its sewage before it flows into water bodies- there simply isn’t more capacity, not at the moment at least.

So what can we do besides influencing governments to build more treatment capacity? With the help of WaterAid India we set out to understand the origin of this sewage, specifically human and household waste, its repercussions and possible localised solutions. This opened up a whole new world of considerations – specifically access to toilets and taps and how these hold the key to lesser child mortality and water borne diseases, improved productivity, and most critically, the advancement of women in society.

Having visited WaterAid India’s project sites in both urban and rural settings in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it was clear to me that something as ‘unsexy’ as building toilets can hold the key to changing and improving lives, especially those of women.

So back to why I mentioned that book ‘Doing good better’? I realise that GangesSUP is probably not the most effective act of altruism. However, having seen, heard and understood the issues that prevent access to safe water, first hand, day after day, village after village, I hope to be a more authoritative voice in our quest for creating positive impact. And for safer water. After all, the issues that plague the Ganga are not an ‘Indian’ problem alone.

The toilets we hope to build with your support will hopefully convey that sometimes the gift of money is the most effective altruism of them all, without altering the quality or routine of one’s current life.

Shilpika Gautam is Team Lead at Ganges SUP. She Tweets as