British author claims river 'Ganges' is a breeding ground of super bugs

Oct 29, 2017, 15:13 IST | Ruhi Khan

British author Victor Mallet on the unique position that the river occupies in India - as a breeding ground of super bugs and as the cleanser of sins

In 1964, Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, stood respectfully in the small village of Stoke Row in the Chiltern Hills in England, as the water from the river Ganga was poured ceremoniously in a well to celebrate UK-India relations.

Varanasi at dawn. Pic/Victor Mallet
Varanasi at dawn. Pic/Victor Mallet

But this was no ordinary well. Hundred-and-twenty metres deep, constructed in the mid-19th century, this well stands till today as a symbol of Indian empathy towards the British. According to historical records, Edward Anderdon Reade, acting lieutenant governor of the North-West provinces, told the Maharajah of Benares (Varanasi) over dinner at his palace, a story of a young boy beaten by his mother for drinking the last drop of water in their home as draught seized the Chiltern Hills. The Maharaja then financed the construction of a well that he maintained in his lifetime and also looked after the villagers in troubled times. Following him, many more Indian philanthropists constructed wells in the UK.

The pouring of Ganga water in the Maharaja's well in the UK is symbolic of the privileged status the river holds in India and the respect it demands across the world. It is, therefore, not surprising that the river has often been looked at with both curiosity and awe in the West. In his book River of Life, River of Death: The Ganges and India's Future, published in London this month by Oxford University Press, author Victor Mallet attempts, with some success, to link writing about the Ganga from its source to mouth, to narrating the rather complex yet exciting story of contemporary India. The Financial Times Asia News Editor, told mid-day, from Hong Kong, that the Ganga is "the world's most important river because it's been one of the most densely populated parts of the planet since the dawn of history" and he was curious to find out "why Hindus worship the country's rivers, even as they tolerate the near-destruction of these same rivers?"

Victor Mallet
Victor Mallet

Born on the banks of the Rhine in Bonn in Germany, Mallet's love for rivers is visible throughout his journey from the serene reaches of the upper Ganga, and the flora and fauna rich tributaries in the foothills of the Himalayas; to the maddening crowds of millions of people at the Kumbh Mela and the crush at Ganga Sagar. The book tells an interesting story of the river from its cartographic imaginations and religious representations to its ecological and social implications. It weaves history into contemporary, myth into reality and Bollywood into politics. It casts the river as both the hero and the villain, the victim and the protector, the divine and the dying; and it is this dichotomy, an ambivalent identity, that makes it an interesting read for both Indians and those less familiar with the country.

Based in New Delhi as the FT South Asia Bureau Chief from 2012 to 2016, Mallet finds India as "a great place to work" because "most people are eager to talk about their lives and you stumble across extraordinary civilisations from centuries ago." He has written extensively about the pollutants in the Ganga, winning a Ramnath Goenka Award for his reportage in 2015. This book has its share of them — from the chemical toxins to the superbugs. Mallet unequivocally sees the emergence of the superbug-creating bacterial gene known as NDM-1 (for New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase) in India 10 years ago before spreading across the world, as a trigger to the global crisis of antibiotic resistance. However, the spiritual beliefs associated with the Ganga and the discovery of bacteriophages makes Mallet question whether the 'purifying… Ganga jal… has the power to kill germs?' thus making an 'intriguing story'.

In the book, Mallet talks about a government employee, who made an 'excellent presentation' during Mission for Clean Ganga, yet 'seemed almost offended by the idea that plans should be acted upon'. So, does he believe that Clean Ganga is just a mission on paper with little real consequences? According to Mallet, successive governments, from the time of Rajiv Gandhi to the era of Narendra Modi, have announced grand plans for saving the Ganga and the Yamuna, but have had remarkably little impact. Mallet's book, however, is quite optimistic. "It took a long time and plenty of money to clean the Thames in London and the Rhine in continental Europe. The thing about cleaning rivers is that you don't actually have to scrub them, they clean themselves through their natural flow. All you have to do is stop polluting them."

The book charts a way both politically and publicly for an effective cleaning operation, arguing for motivating stakeholders. "There are few experiences more enthralling than rising before dawn in Varanasi, hiring a rowing boat... watching life unfold in what is reputedly the world's oldest living city as the sun rises across the Ganges."

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