Ganges Reveals Sublime Luxury, Polluted Wasteland India has overtaken Japan as home to the most billionaires in Asia. Yet it also has the world's largest population of hungry people, as one reporter's continuing journey down the Ganges River reveals.
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Ganges Reveals Sublime Luxury, Polluted Wasteland

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Ganges Reveals Sublime Luxury, Polluted Wasteland

Ganges Reveals Sublime Luxury, Polluted Wasteland

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

You know, people say if you throw a ball anywhere in India, somebody's going to catch it. The country has more than one billion people, and is the world's most populous after China. Many people believed that India is on course to become one of the three great powers of this century.

The United States is actively supporting India's rise as a possible counterweight to China. India has overtaken Japan as home to the most billionaires in Asia, yet it's also home to the world's largest number of hungry people.

To get a clear picture of the country, NPR's Philip Reeves has been traveling the length of the Ganges River. And this is the second of his five reports.

PHILIP REEVES: The Ganges is about to leave the Himalayas and begin her journey across the plains of north India. We all know the river is holy to Hindus, but you don't usually think of it, though, is clean.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

REEVES: Yet here, outside the town of Rishikesh, big, fat fish called Rohu flap around in her emerald waters. To see India's really big fish, you have to go to the top of a nearby hill.

(Soundbite of chanting)

REEVES: This is the Palace of the Maharajah of Tehri Garhwal. The Maharajah's staff still call him your highness though he lost his royal status with India's independence and is now a politician. His honey-colored palace and its peacock-filled grounds have become the sight of one of India's most exclusive resorts, the Ananda Spa. This is where India's top businessmen, Bollywood stars and senior ministers escape to relieve the tensions of life at the top. Spa Director Colin Hall says his clients certainly need that.

Mr. COLIN HALL (Director, Ananda Spa): It starts as soon as they get here. It's basically, you know, that they look after them that they're ready to take fault with everything that's going on. But we know what's going to happen. We know how to deal with this. So we look and we think, ah, here we go. We got a lot of work to do with this guy.

There's several different types of scrubs. There's a (unintelligible) blossom ginger.

REEVES: This place is not just about relaxing. Some guests come to refurbish themselves.

Mr. HALL: This room is, again, the package is (unintelligible). The jet-powered lifts for lifting women's backsides and getting rid of cellulite.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

REEVES: Soothed by the spa's violinist, you can have your feet bathed in Ganges water and rubbed with rocks from the river. You can play golf on turf imported from the United States. Or consult an expert on Ayurveda - the medical system, which originated in India thousands of years ago, and it's still widely used -especially in rural India.

Unidentified Man: The mind is active, intelligent or calm? Active. And any kind of dreams you remember. Yes? Okay. And their beach climate you like more -very, very cold or warm?

REEVES: Many guests come from abroad including Kamlesh Lumba(ph). Her husband, a retired businessman from the Punjab, moved to England 50 years ago. They belonged to the category known in India as NRIs - Non-Resident Indians - now taking a fresh interest in their booming home country. Kamlesh says she can see the changes in India's capital, New Delhi.

Ms. KAMLESH LUMBA (Non-Resident Indian): Every year, the country's improved, you know, especially from the last five years, you know. I've seen the big, big buildings, and the roads are very good. And they make the underground, you know, Metro - its facilities are very good, you know.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

REEVES: Well, this is the way to view the Ganges River - lying in a bathtub looking out of a window in the grounds of the Maharajah's palace. You can see the river and the valley below, winding towards the planes of north India. It's absolutely spectacular.

The next part of our journey takes us to some pretty grimy places in India's industrial heartland. So I'm going to take advantage of this.

(Soundbite of splashing water)

(Soundbite of machine sounds)

REEVES: And this is where the next stage of my journey has brought us. After a 13-hour train ride, we're back down to Earth on the banks of the Ganges in the industrial city of Kanpur. Evil-smelling raw effluent is pouring out of the pipe directly into the river.

Mr. RAKISH JAYSWALL(ph) (Environmentalist): Can you imagine anyone coming to the river and taking a dip here?

REEVES: Meet Rakish Jayswall. He's a leading environmentalist. Kanpur has hundreds of tanneries turning hides into leather goods - from fashionable shows to silver belts - for the foreign marketplace including the U.S. The process has nasty byproducts - chromium and other toxic and cancer-causing materials, which end up being dumped in the river. One look at the Ganges is enough to see the result. It looks oily and dead.

Mr. JAYSWALL: When you think about the River Ganges, you cannot think, you cannot imagine this kind of river. Ganges is receiving this highly contaminated water - black stinking water, highly toxic water. And also, you can see there is a dead body floating in the river.

REEVES: Jayswall says there had been moves to curb the tannery pollution and clean the river. Treatment plans have been installed, but the system's undermined by a multitude of problems from corruption to power shortages, to a squabble between government and the tanneries who make a handsome profit over who should pay.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

One man who pays is Ranbaboo Nishad(ph). His family's been fishing the Ganges -or Ganga, as Indians call the river - for generations.

Mr. RANBABOO NISHAD (Fisherman): (Through translator) When I was younger, the Ganga was very, very clean. And I can remember fishes to come up to right here. And we used to bathe further on over there. Now, we can't even bathe at the (unintelligible) here because it's so filthy.

REEVES: It takes Ranbaboo the best part of a year to make enough to pay the bill for one night at the spa we've just come from. There are plenty of others like him. More than a quarter of a billion Indians live in abject poverty. For them, dirty water is a serious threat. Several hundred thousand children die from its effects every year. With no education or access to capital, Ranbaboo has no chance of breaking out of the ranks of the poor or of his caste. He says that will be down to his sons, who he hopes will go to college. But he knows all about India's boom.

Mr. NISHAD: (Through translator) Yeah, even we wish that we had cars and mobile phones and we got freedom from that, because there's not much money to be got out of just fishing.

(Soundbite of traffic)

REEVES: Sobered by this encounter with rural India - where, by the way, three out of four Indians still live - we set off anew this time by road. Along the way, the landscape yields yet another example of the startling gap between the old world and the new.

(Soundbite of car horn)

REEVES: Right there that's a classic example of old India meeting new India. We're on a new highway on the road to the holy city of Varanasi and there's an...

(Soundbite of bleating siren sound)

REEVES: ...and there's an elephant walking along in the middle of the road in the wrong direction.

This is Philip Reeves, NPR News, on the road to Varanasi, by the Ganges.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Philip's personal observations and anecdotes about the people and place along the Ganges are at npr.org. And tomorrow, his journey continues to Hinduism's holiest city, which he mentioned there: Varanasi.

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