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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: Guardians of the Ganga - Community Engagement & Biodiversity Conservation

Land, water, people, plastic. This is the story of National Geographic Society's female-led expedition team as they track & characterize plastics in the Ganges River using land-debris trackers, community surveys & water-air-sediment sampling. Written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

My search for answers about Mother Ganga brought me here--the rooftop of a hotel in Allahabad, an open-air terrace with a 180 degree view of the sprawling industrial city before us.

A large waste pile was aflame five floors below, the sick smell of burning trash blending into the air around us.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Across from me sat Sunita, Community Mobilizer for the Ganga Prahari.

I first heard about them during our pre-expedition training at the Wildlife Institute of India. They were featured in sleek pamphlets and printed newsletters on biodiversity and conservation. We then watched them on YouTube, where classically trained dancers moved in river-like cadence to the Namami Ganga Anthem.

And now, they were a part of our team, with new volunteers supporting us at each site location in India.

Sunita was something of a celebrity--beloved by the Guardians of the Ganga, mobilizing action and inspiring change in communities along the five river states.

She smiled at me and placed her hand over her heart.

“The secret of my energy,” she said, “is here.”

“40% of the population depend on the river in India,” Sunita told me. “We should put more effort, not only one person, not only the government, but all persons, all local communities…from Uttar Pradesh all the way to the Bay of Bengal.”

With over 600 volunteers across the five river states, the Ganga Prahari is a conservation group organized through the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). The program aims to connect local communities and their livelihoods to a clean Ganga and preserve the river through engagement, cleanliness, and biodiversity conservation.

“The Ganga Prahari program is community connection,” she said. “I connect Ganga to their livelihood because without water, they cannot live.”

Started in January 2018 with only 67 members, the Ganga Praharis begin with WII workshops and trainings before going back to their communities to lead river cleanups, in-class education campaigns, and tree-planting events. Now, WII wants to expand the program beyond the Ganga to the world.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

I also got the opportunity to meet Sunita’s colleague Deepika, a fellow Ganga Prahari and Program Officer at the Wildlife Institute of India. Deepika talked to me about the need to protect the river’s biodiversity.

“The Ganga is a large stretch. Visible change takes time,” she explained. “You need to survive first, then think of conservation. The people know they will perish if Ganga perishes.”

When I asked if they had seen any change, Sunita’s face lit up.

“They’ve changed their thinking,” she said. “What is biodiversity? They know. What is aquatic life for Ganga? They know.”

She told me that the fish, birds, and dolphins are natural cleaners of the Ganga; without them, the river has no way to clean itself.

“They didn’t know the importance of dolphins and migratory birds,” she told me, “but after us, they know. When aquatic life is dead, Ganga is dead.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

“Government policies,” Deepika went on, "no matter how strong, will prove to be a failure if people don’t follow them. In this project, the community’s perspective has been taken into account. Because of a lack of communication, a lack of facilities, they don’t realize what good programs the government is doing in their communities. This platform gives them ownership.”

Of course, working with communities requires a great deal of trust.

“When we go to the field, we have a 50% chance of success and a 50% chance of failure,” said Deepika. “You have to be true to the community, give them no false promises, must be patient and be positive.”

After our talk on the rooftop, I went with Sunita into a local village and watched her lead a focus group discussion. She was both serious and smiling--seeing her interact with community members, I realized why the Ganga Prahari loved her so much.

I continue to be struck by the Ganga’s power, by peoples’ relationship to it--what about the river could motivate someone to do so much with such dedication?

Sunita’s answer was simple.

“Ganga first came to me in a dream when I was seven years old,” she said. “Always in dreams, Ganga comes. I don’t know how to swim, but Ganga comes, I always float in Ganga.”

I know her small splash in the river will cause a big ripple for the future.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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