The stark life of the Ganga

#1 Jan 22nd, 2017, 12:33
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Shilpika Gautam (right) with her mother and teammate Kumaran Mahalingam at the finish line at Gangasagar on 11 January. Photo: Upslope Productions
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The GangesSUP team believes the great river isn’t as dirty as we think it is. But the perils outnumber the positives

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.

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.”
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