I grew up in a town next to the Ganges, attended school in another town where the river ran adjacent to its premises. Garlands, remnants of clay idols from festivals, untreated sewage – concocted into one toxic entity, that was the river. But two years ago after my grandfather’s death, when the entire family had to go bathe in the Hooghly river, it stench was suddenly unbearable. There was a garbage heap right next to it, but people were taking their morning dips and doing their laundry, almost unfazed. I was suddenly aware because the state of the river now affected me. I haven’t thought of the Ganga since then and until this morning when I spoke to Shilpika Gautam.
The lack of sanitation eventually has a trickle-down effect negatively impacting the progress of women in these places.
A banker from London who stand up paddle-boarded along the Ganga (from its inception to its confluence, traversing over 2,500 km in three months) to raise awareness about the imminent threat the river was under because of plastic waste and untreated sewage choking the water body. Currently 91 per cent of our small towns and villages lack an organised sewage system.
Shilpika says how the trip came out, “An extended trip back to India in late 2015 (my longest in a decade) showed me the challenging aspects of of water pollution in the Ganges (with the plastic pollution component being the most visible). I think the extent of the problem not only left me distraught but also enraged. However, it also left me wanting to learn more about the issue while indulging in a physical challenge too -at the same time I had just taken up the sport of stand up paddleboarding. Wanting to combine the novelty of the sport with the desire to explore an imminent and serious environmental issue led to the birth of Gangessup.”
For this expedition, Shilpika had partnered with the charity Water Aid (with whom she had also worked with in the UK) to navigate the river
For this expedition, Shilpika had partnered with the charity Water Aid (with whom she had also worked with in the UK) to navigate the river, to seek her roots and to get to the bottom of the problem of open defecation through the length of the river. She hoped to trigger questions in communities about how they live.
“The Prime Minister had promised new toilets in rural India with an allocation of Rs 12,000 per family to build a toilet. But this is still a big problem. So where is the money going? Does the Sarpanch keep all of it? Or do ministers conveniently forget the marginalised once they have been elected to power?,” asks Shilpika.
According to a water testing kit, her team and she carried along the trip, the pollution levels were not as bad as they thought. But she also recollects a time when the group literally woke up in their camps near the river to find people defecating beside it.
“We suggested them to cover up the faeces so that it doesn’t spread diseases or may be dig a hole for the purpose of defecating. Even when we couldn’t tangibly solve people’s problems we at least started a conversation to help them think about the issue,” she says.
she also recollects a time when the group literally woke up in their camps near the river to find people defecating beside it
One of the biggest challenges for Shilpika was to get access to the women. At every pit stop, the curious onlookers (sometimes in hundreds) were always men. So she had to literally go and knock on people’s doors to be able to speak to them.
“The lack of sanitation eventually has a trickle-down effect negatively impacting the progress of women in these places. These women are used to getting up before sunrise so that they can defecate and urinate and are prepared to start their day without having to go again. I have heard instances where young girls defecating near railway tracks were assaulted. This leads to a complete lack of dignity in women and they are completely unaware that their lives can be made better, ” she laments.
Having said that, Shilpika states that she has also noticed positive things on her journey. People have been kind and welcoming, she even came across a village in Uttar Pradesh where the people organised their own cleanup drive. After a year of preparation, and just two instances of riding the paddle board before the actual expedition, Shilpika has now set a record for the longest continuous journey by stand up paddle board, source to sea, by a female. She feels that it all begins with a single step, once you set your mind to it, anything is possible.
Having completed her journey at Gangasagar on January 11 Shilpika says, “There are a lot of ways by which we – the country’s youth – can sustainably contribute to this issue. Charity, advocacy, writing about the cause, every bit of it helps. Change is possible, a difference is being made. It is slow, but it is happening.”