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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Dispatch: The Man Who Started It All

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.

Akshay was the guy to talk to. The guy.

But the night we met, I was exhausted. It was 9:00pm after a long day, and sleep threatened to take over. I was on my way out of the dining room when Adarsh intercepted me.

“This is the man you want to talk to,” he said, turning and pointing to Akshay. “He’s the man who made this all happen.”

I realized this conversation couldn’t wait. So, I walked over, sat down, and prayed the caffeine from my last cup of chai would get me through.

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Akshay was the first person to raft down the Ganges--ever. He was the first person to start a rafting company on the Ganga. He was the first person to do a paddleboat expedition from the sea to the Ganga’s source.

Akshay crossed his hands and leaned onto the table in front of him.

“I don’t worship Gods,” he told me, “I worship rivers.”

Akshay was an experienced rafter, mountaineer, and river guide who had spent half of his life on the Ganga’s waters, camping along her shores, ferrying other explorers down her winding paths.

“I’ve grown up with this river,” he said. “So for me, I think she’s gentle, but also very powerful. If you don’t respect her, she will not forgive you.”

35 years ago, the rafting industry in India began with two groups of environmentalists who self-imposed strict regulations on trash, safety, even toilets. Everything was done to leave as little an imprint as possible, to enjoy the Ganga’s waters and surrounding nature.

But more businesses started to spring up. The government began issuing licences without regulating the environmental impact camping and rafting on the river created. Today, there are more than 70 rafting companies.

“Anybody can start an adventure company. You don’t need qualifications, you don’t need to be environmentally conscious, you don’t need any first aid licenses,” he said. Overtourism, we are suffering to the core. There needs to be somebody in the government who says ‘Bus.’ Stop--that’s it.

“I’ve actually become a sceptic, all these years, you know? I guess the age is just catching up with me...a lot more needs to be done. And we need to do it fast. We’re losing ground.”

So, what’s the solution to all the challenges facing the Ganga?

“Education, enforcement, regulation,” he said. “Get the state to start acting.”

And to do so, there’s a fundamental need for people to develop a sense of ownership.

“I think people need to feel like they belong. They need to take pride in their city...if you involve them in the decision-making process, you will have some beautiful ideas coming out.”

He mentioned Indore, a city with almost two million people, which was awarded “cleanest city in the country” by the Clean India campaign’s “Swachh Sarvekshan” for the second time in a row.

“They take pride in it. There is a sense of ownership,” he explained. “The police won’t stop you, but if I’m throwing a cigarette butte down, [someone] will come over and say please pick it up right now.”

Photo courtesy of Lillygol Sedaghat.

Which means there is hope for the Ganga too.

“That’s the uniting factor--it’s got the potential to unite religions, unite castes, and it has the potential to cleanse,” he said. “I have seen people being transformed when we go to a religious ceremony. There is a spiritual transformation in these people...and this is a river that has the power to do that.”

After, as I walked through the wet grass to my room, I thought about the effect the river had on our group.

She’d driven us through storms, confounded us, drew our attention to her power and movement.

She was the reason we came together. She was the reason scientists and storytellers from different places joined forces.

She is a unifying force. A hotspot for biodiversity. A mechanism for waste management and a lifesource for agriculture.

She is the Ganga.

And we need to protect and maintain her.

Post written by Lillygol Sedaghat and edited by Cory Howell.

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