Varanasi: Is there any hope for India?

Distressed. Helpless. Filthy. Nauseous.

This is how I felt in Varanasi, one of the holiest and most revered places in India.

Wandering along the ghats, I observed the rituals.

A man placed a cup in the Ganges, pulled it out and drank in the holy water. He looked at peace in the belief that this water would purify him. A few metres up-stream a few people submerged themselves fully clothed in the water so that the Ganges would forgive their sins and assist in attaining salvation.

I walked for another couple of minutes and found a dead pig lying in the shallows, it hadn’t yet begun to decompose.  Someone had only recently thrown it in to be washed downstream into those bathing and drinking in the goodness of the Ganges. Next to the pig, a boy no older than four hangs his bottom over the edge of the steps with his back to the river.  He defecates directly into the water than stands up and runs towards his mother.

Further along the ghats I come across one of the small burning ghats.  The smell of burning human flesh fills my nostrils. I have seen death before, unfortunately it has been a tragic and all too realistic part of my life. It has ripped out my sanity, brought me to my knees and left me struggling to pick up the pieces of my shattered self for two years now.

But here on the ghats it’s not about grief, loss and devastation. It’s just about the everyday rituals of life. People walk past and children play nearby as this woman’s body burns. Oddly, I don’t find this confronting at all, it just made me ponder the meaning of death and how it means different things in different places.

As I was raised Hindu, my loved one was also cremated and their remains returned to water but each of these events were carried out in private. I couldn’t speak, I could barely stand, all I could do was howl. I certainly was in no position to conduct my farewells in full public view, but then I was not raised in India.

I remember through the haze of grief considering whether I should retain their ashes and bring them to India to be returned to their ancestry in the Ganges.  I had such a romanticized view of this spiritual river then.  Practicality took over and I chose not to carry their ashes to India. Now that I have seen the Ganges and how ill she is, I am so very grateful that my loved one was released into the sparkling blue ocean near my Australian home.

As I wandered through the tiny alleyways that snake their way through the back of the ghats, everywhere I stepped I was literally treading on someone or somethings shit. Every species imaginable has crapped all over the streets of Varanasi and it just sits there polluting the streets.

Yes I know, this is India. There is insufficient sanitation, housing and infrastructure which makes it almost impossible to prevent this from happening. Whilst poverty and pollution is not unique to Varanasi, it is more in your face here than anywhere else I have seen.

It’s easy for me, I am just a tourist and this was just two days in my life…. but for millions this is their reality, their home. These streets are where people live, where children are born and raised. This river is their lifeline, and it is slowly killing them.

The more I walked the streets and ghats of Varanasi the more distressed I felt. Watching grown adults choose to bathe in water that may give them skin diseases or drink something that may very well shorten their life span is one thing, but to watch infants and children be directed to do the same just broke my heart.

I know I do not have faith.  I used to have spirituality but the events of the past couple of years of my life have made it impossible for me to believe in fate and a higher being. However a huge part of me still admires those that do have faith and can put trust in their spirituality. That said, I believe rational logic must factor in somewhere.  To believe that you are drinking an elixir that purifies you whilst watching dead bodies, sewage and garbage float past you just defies basic logic to me.  My rationale mind just sees someone baiting disease and death.

A lot has been documented about the ill-health of the Ganges and whilst there are action groups in place, I have grave fears that too many will die and fall ill before anything comes near to being resolved. Particularly when you consider that almost a third of the Indian population lives along the banks of the Ganges, it is literally the lifeline for a large proportion of the country.

According to one source I read water pollution spreads diseases such as cholera, hepatitis, typhoid and amoebic dysentery, and these account for approximately a third of deaths in India each year. Another seeks to quantify it at between 1.5 – 2 million deaths a year in India attributed to water-borne diseases. That is almost 10% of the Australian population, dying from diseases that are almost unheard of there.  This is not just disturbing, but is entirely unacceptable.

The ill-health of the Ganges is not a new phenomenon, according to one source for the past decade one of the main tributaries has had no sign of animal life. As India’s population continues to explode the amount of waste that is dumped in it will only grow. Currently it is estimated that 1 billion litres (yes you read that correctly) of raw sewage is dumped in the Ganges DAILY. Sewage is only part of the problem, there are also dead animals, humans (who can’t afford cremation), crematory remains and just everyday rubbish.  During my time in Varanasi (and to a lesser extent in Haridwar and Rishikesh) I watched people throw all their garbage into the river for someone else to bathe in and drink further downstream.

According to the World Health Organisation only about 30% of India’s population has access to improved sanitation facilities.

So why do millions continue to put themselves at risk every year?  Is it really just blind faith or necessity because there are no other clean water sources or ignorance because no one has educated them of the risks.  I suspect it’s a combination of all three.

The bigger question for me is why is there not greater national outrage about this issue. Thousands are dying everyday and yet I heard more outrage about Metallica cancelling a rock concert. Is the situation so far gone that it is just hopeless or do people really not care?

After 48 hours in Varanasi I felt so incredibly disturbed.  Just walking the streets and watching people live their everyday lives amongst the filth and squalor made me physically ill. I didn’t feel clean and had developed a rather unpleasant case of diarrhoea, and I was one of the few who did have access to clean water.

So whilst I see stadiums being built and sporting events being hosted for the wealthy in India to enjoy there seems to be only limited progress in providing one of the most fundamental human needs, clean water and sanitation. If it can’t find a way to prioritise and provide these most basic needs what hope is their really for India and its future.