A Kanpur-based journalist remembers Rakesh Jaiswal, who devoted his life to making the Ganga clean in its most polluted stretch
It was in 1997 that I met Rakesh Jaiswal for the first time.
I was, at that time, a cub reporter with an English newspaper in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. Jaiswal had set up a non-profit named ‘Eco Friends’ in the city and had started working to clean the Ganga river. Jaiswal would visit my office with press releases.
As an organisation, Eco Friends was too small — perhaps Jaiswal and an office assistant. Neither funds, nor manpower. But he was able to motivate hundreds of people living in villages on the banks of the Ganga to do something to stop polluting the river.
Jaiswal knew he had to do something big to draw the attention of the authorities. So he became an activist. Along with the help of the villagers, he blocked the drains with sand bags that were opening into the Ganga.
His step was symbolic but it caught the attention of the authorities and Jaiswal became famous. He was ready to do bigger things.
Till a few years back, one of the prime reasons for the Ganga’s pollution was the dumping of unclaimed dead bodies into the river. An electric crematorium was set up in Kanpur in the 1980s under the Ganga Action Plan, especially for the unclaimed bodies.
But the electric crematorium, due to some reason or the other, remained out of order most of the time. Cremating bodies in the traditional Hindu way was too costly. Hence, policemen preferred dumping the bodies into the Ganga.
Half-burnt bodies would also be consigned into the river. Hindu customs do not allow the burning of dead children and unmarried women and their bodies used to be left floating on the surface of the river.
A life devoted to the Ganga
Jaiswal collected the fishermen and boatmen who depended on the Ganga for a living and with them, started collected bodies from the Ganga. The corpses were buried in graves on the banks. The swollen Ganga, after the monsoon, washed away all the remains.
It was due to the efforts of Jaiswal that the electric crematorium became functional. Its charges were reduced so that people preferred it over using wood for cremation. Funds were earmarked in all police stations of Kanpur so that unclaimed bodies could be cremated at the electric crematorium.
Jaiswal also started visiting schools to apprise students about the importance of the Ganga and the need to keep the river clean.
The Ganga flows some 2,500 kilometres from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. The stretch of the Ganga in Kanpur is the most polluted. For any journalist of the European or American media doing a story on the Ganga, a visit to Kanpur is compulsory.
And the visit was incomplete if he or she did not meet Jaiswal. He would guide the journalists and take them to the sources of the river’s pollution.
He became an authority on the Ganga as the years passed. He could speak to the journalists for hours without referring to papers or notes.
In 2017, a journalist with a large news organisation headquartered in London was planning to do a major series on the Ganga. He called me and asked for the phone numbers of some people who were experts on the Ganga. Before I could answer, the journalist said, “I have Rakesh Jaiswal’s number”. I said, “That is enough”.
A few days later the story appeared. Only Jaiswal was quoted in the story.
There is a popular saying in Hindi used across North India: Ghar ki murgi, daal barabar. Roughly translated, it means one does not value much the things that she or he gets easily.
I was born and raised in Kanpur. My home is some two kilometres from the Ganga. I was away from Kanpur for six years. It was after returning to the city that I realised the importance of the Ganga.
And I also realised the importance of the work that Rakesh Jaiswal was doing. Now I spend some time on the banks of the Ganga at least once a week.
I met Jaiswal last April. We talked for over an hour. I asked him what the solution to the Ganga’s pollution was.
He said, “The waters of the Ganga should not be diverted for agriculture or domestic use. The Ganga or any river should not be exploited. It is the duty of the government to make alternate arrangements. Don’t build dams. Let the Ganga flow freely. She will always remain clean”.
Yesterday, I came to know Jaiswal was no more. He was 57 and died of cardiac arrest.
Jaiswal strove to make the Ganga clean. He was cremated on the banks of the Ganga. As the embers of the pyre cooled, the ash was collected and sprinkled on the surface of the Ganga.
Rohit Ghosh is a Kanpur-based freelance journalist
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