Like the Kumbh, Every Day

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Kumbh Mela at the banks of Ganga,( photo by: Martje van der Heide)

When we got closer I saw that the bridge at the confluence was not a bridge:  It was a line stitched together from hundreds of little boats full of people.  Our own little boat went straight for it and docked at what looked like a slightly more important boat.  I then realized this was the place to take a dip…

Before coming to the Maha Kumbh mela, I had firmly decided I was not going to take a dip.  The water would be too dirty, and what I had heard about the number of people sounded overwhelming.  Frankly, I was a little scared.

Onno takes a dip in the holy GangesWhen we reached the other boat, I had no hesitation.  I went in and took my dip, went under three times…. It felt very different than I had imagined.  It felt fresh…..

The trip almost did not happen.  When we heard about the tragedy at Allahabad railway station on Sunday, we thought we could not go.  My thoughts are with the victims and their families.  At the same time, I am so happy we did not cancel.

The Kumbh has been described as many things: the greatest gathering of human beings on the planet, the greatest show on earth, the largest pilgrimage in history, among others.Morning dip at the Ganges   What impressed me the most, however, was the incredible logistical effort.  The Kumbh is a temporary city of well over a million inhabitants.  It has innumerable tents, electricity poles, cell phone towers, sanitation, solid waste management, soup kitchens, security, a lost and found system, staging areas to stagger the people coming to the water, a post office, at least six temporary bridges,  I could go on….  And all of it works! 

Kumbh MelaAnd the water: sure it is not perfectly clean, but how could it be so fresh given what we know about pollution in the Ganga and the Yamuna?  Turns out this took months of preparation: staggering shut downs of industries up stream, managing the flow, and a huge awareness campaign against plastic bags to name a few things.  This effort also, it works!

Coming back to Delhi, I felt immensely energized.  Maybe it was my dip… But I think what it was having seen what the Government of UP achieved in organizing this event and at least temporarily cleaning up the Ganga.  This is like organizing the Olympics and cleaning up the Thames at the same time!  It may be temporary, for two months only, but it works!

So next time someone tells me it is not possible to improve services in UP or to clean up the Ganga, I will know what to say: it is immensely difficult but it is possible.  What we have to do is harness the energy of the Kumbh and translate it into a sustained effort.  It is not really that different from what the Kumbh itself aims to do with the drop that fell out of that urn…. If we believe it, it can be done! 

Photographs courtesy: Martje van der Heide

Holy Dip at the Kumbh mela Morning dip at the Ganges Pontoon Bridge on the Ganges

Read more on how the Word Bank is supporting the government of India’s vision for the clean-up and conservation of the Ganga.

View a slideshow with more pictures of the Ganga.

Visit the National Ganga River Basin Authority website.


Onno Ruhl

Country Director, World Bank India

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