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On the Banks of the Ganga: When Wastewater Meets a Sacred River Hardcover – December 9, 2002
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To be more straightforward myself and to put the big words aside, this book suggests absolutely NOTHING to solve the cultural communication problems that are related to the Ganga River. Alley thinks she has done so much for society by pointing out the problems, and leaves it to someone else to fix. After having to write a paper on how I think the Ganga and its dependents should interact, "On the Banks of the Ganga" provided me with very little supporting quotes or ideas.
My professor stated that there are great books out there on this issue. Unfortunately, she obviously didn't assign one of those books for us to read.
The study begins by attempting to deconstruct the conflation of the terms commonly used in studies of environmental pollution and the Ganga. Scholars and laymen alike, whether intentionally or not, often use terms such as clean and unclean, pure and impure, interchangeably. However, these terms contain drastically different meanings, depending on the context in which they are used. In this study, it is important to note that terms of cleanness and uncleanness refer to MATERIAL pollution of the Ganga (industrial effluents, fecal matter, animal and human corpses), and the notions of purity and impurity carry specifically SPIRITUAL connotations. The overarching view is that, while Ganga may be materially unclean, she can never be considered impure. By breaking down these terms and how they are used by practitioners, priests, and politicians, Alley aims to provide a culturally sensitive account ('emic' analysis) rather than one simply based upon the observer's impressions and biases ('etic' analysis).
The author notes that this distinction between uncleanness and impurity is perhaps one of the primary factors hindering a massive push for cleaning up the Ganga. Since time immemorial, Ganga has been accepting, purifying, and washing away the "pollution of sin," so how could anyone think that there is an "upper limit" to her ability to purify? This notion is held by innumerable Hindus who perform rituals on the banks of the Ganga, as well as priests overseeing rituals, and even some industrialists and politicians. In fact, Alley does a particularly good job in showing how Hindu notions of broader societal relations influence conduct (or lack of action) around the Ganga. Just as a mother may be temporarily unclean (after, say, cleaning up her child's waste or handling her husband's dirty laundry), she is never impure; she is always giving, always purifying. At the same time, the author points to the notion of a mother's duty to provide for the family and not receive anything in return, and suggests that this may be another reason why some people feel a certain detachment from any responsibility to observe hygienic practices around the Ganga, and why so few politicians have acted to clean the Ganga. While I am not sure of its accuracy, it is certainly an interesting suggestion.
Alley gives chapter-length analysis to issues such as how colonial discourses affected Hindus' notions of purity and pollution in the river, the "labyrinthine" nature of institutions responsible for wastewater management in and around the Ganga, and the emergence of judicial activism in issues of environmental pollution. Regarding the latter two, Alley gives much attention to industrial pollution caused by leather tanneries, chemical plants, paper production factories and many other industries along the Ganga. She notes that, given the confusion over which institution of wastewater management is responsible for what, very little has been done politically to stop industrial pollution of the Ganga. This, in turn, has led to increased judicial activism, and courts have since the 1990s closed several hundred industrial factories that were dumping waste into the Ganga. Yet, the overarching focus on industrial pollution puzzles me a bit.
Early in the book Alley notes that, in 1995 India's Central Pollution Control Board estimated that 75% of the river's pollution is from untreated municipal sewage, and 88% of this is from Class I cities (cities with populations over 100,000, of which there are 29 along the Ganges). While many of these are industrial centers which contribute industrial effluents, I am wondering if the author would have been better off focusing more on issues of infrastructural development vis-à-vis sewage treatment and less on industrial pollution. She does note in chapter 8 that there are technological problems with the drains that are supposed to bring sewage to treatment plants. For instance, most of these pumping systems are run by electricity. If there is a power cut, sewage backs up in the pipes creating pressurized noxious gases which eventually cause pipes to burst and sewage spills into the river. Additionally, when the monsoons come, the drainage ditches designed to carry waste along the river flood, and the waste is then diverted into the river so it doesn't spill over into residential areas. However, these issues are given comparatively short treatment, and the larger focus is on industrial pollution and institutional shortcomings.
Additionally, the author seems to give undue focus to pollution caused by ritual practitioners along the Ganga. While there are legal restrictions on what can be done (e.g. don't use soap in the river, don't go to the bathroom in the river, don't do your laundry in the river), neither police nor priests are doing anything to enforce hygienic practices along the river. This leads the author to take many of the priests to task. She asserts that because their business would be hurt if a mass consciousness developed about the pollution in the Ganga, priests do not use their influence to encourage better practices along the river. Some of the priests the author spoke with said they won't even bathe in the Ganga! Alley even says they try to hide where industrial pollutants are entering the river, and won't say a word if they see someone drinking from Ganga directly next to a drainage pipe releasing industrial effluents. But this part of the analysis comes off as unusually pessimistic and polemical when compared to the rest of the book, and seems to be a decidedly `etic,' and not `emic,' form of anthropological analysis.
Having leveled these brief criticisms, I will say that--regardless of whether or not the right issues were focused on in correct proportions--by laying out all of the factors which contribute to the Ganga's pollution, Kelly Alley has done a fantastic job in elucidating the environmental issues surrounding the Ganga. One comes to understand that municipal sewage infrastructures, industrial malpractices, institutional setups, and ritual performance all affect the environmental state of the Ganga, and that politicians, industrialists, priests and practitioners all have roles to play in her cleanup. In contradiction to a previous reviewer, the author does talk (albeit briefly) about grass-roots attempts to increase the saliency of environmental concerns (See chapter 9 discussions about Sankat Mochan Foundation and Eco-Friends). I think it quite unfair to accuse Alley of holding orientalist biases or neo-imperialist designs. While she may not place much focus on grass-roots organizations, she provides in-depth analysis of the reasons WHY such groups will have such a difficult time setting the agenda for Ganga's cleanup. As India's population continues to grow, the growing number of, and population growth within, major cities along the Ganga will only make it even more important to understand and cope with environmental pollution in and along the river, and Alley does a wonderful job bringing the serious nature of this problem to light.