Cleaning India’s Holiest — And Most Polluted — River

Brooklyn, N.Y.—For millions of Hindus, the 1,500-mile-long Ganges River is the holiest river in India. Sadly, it’s also one of the world’s most polluted. New light will now be shed on this environmental catastrophe when Living River: The Ganges, a documentary directed and produced by Assistant Professor of Film Vinit Parmar screens on Monday, Feb. 27, at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

“The movie needed to be made, and I just happened to be on its path,” says Parmar, who went to India on a PSC-CUNY research grant to film a short PSA commercial, which evolved into a movie about the tremendous pollution of the Ganges River.

Parmar’s movie has received many distinguished awards, but the director doesn’t want to make a cent on the film. He thinks that this kind of documentary is meaningless without action. That is why he will donate all profits to organizations that bring awareness to water pollution in India.

Parmar believes that proper education can change the way people in India see the alarming problem of water contamination. “Old habits die hard,” he says about the unproductive efforts of educating older generations of Indians. “But what it can change is the minds of little kids.”

Filming the movie was an adventure for Parmar, who, despite being Indian, had to learn a new dialect in order to interview the villagers. He went to the places where only locals were able to reach. He was also taken hostage by 10 drunken men, but the most shocking element of Parmar’s venture was the smell of the river.

“It was awful!” he states. “I couldn’t breathe! I held my camera and my nose at the same time. It is the kind of smell that would eat into the back of your throat. I would walk away and I would smell it for days.”

The odor comes from the industrial zones located by the river that are inaccessible to public. While producing metal works and leather, the businesses generate toxins, which they later dump into the river. The practices are considered illegal, but the business owners are usually too poor to invest in ecologic equipment and prevention.

While only 40 percent of the pollution of the Ganges River comes from industrial waste, the toxins they produce are very dangerous to the people and environment, Parmar says. The other 60 percent of the pollution is domestic waste, which he called waste pumped “straight from the toilet to the river.”

Parmar’s undergraduate degree in chemistry as well as his knowledge about Indian culture helped with understanding the core of the problem.

“When people want to see water pollution, they simply go to the river and talk to the people. I talked to the polluters,” Parmar says. After doing additional research and conducting the interviews, he realized that low-wage laborers manage to survive only at the cost of forsaking their religious beliefs.

“The holy water is used in the way that is not holy,” Parmar says, explaining that Indians belonging to the lowest caste slaughter cows that are holy in order to make leather goods, and then use the holy river to clean after the unholy act of killing cows. The same people later perform their religious rituals in the river that has 200 times more fecal bacteria than the maximum tolerable levels.

“People believe that if they go to the Ganges River they will be rescued,” Parmar says. “They take a dip in the water so they won’t get cancer. The irony is that they might get cancer after being in such polluted water.”

In addition to screening the documentary at the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Parmar plans to show the movie in the Indian communities in Queens and Long Island, where he could collect money that would go back to India.

“I am honored to show this film so that in some way the river may have a voice,” Parmar said.