Is the Ganga a revered river because it is economically important or is it economically important because it is revered? This is a crucial question, wrapped in philosophy and enveloped in the mists of time, and yet one that has a contemporary resonance. The Ganga’s economic and social impact on India and indeed the Indian subcontinent is what warrants its cleaning, renewal and optimal utilisation as a river, a water resource, a waterway, natural capital as it were, for the 500 million Indians—one in three of all citizens—who live in the Ganga basin.
The basin covers 8,60,000 square kilometres (twice the size of Germany) in 11 of India’s 29 states. Forty per cent of the country’s GDP is generated here. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal are not just part of the Ganga basin, but sites of India’s deepest developmental challenges. Some 200 million Indians in the Ganga basin live in poverty. Add Bangladesh and Nepal, and the numbers worsen.