India has sufficient overall water supplies. Its problem stems almost entirely from poor management. The country’s legion of small farmers is digging ever-deeper wells instead of using modern irrigation methods, severely depleting the groundwater. Several of the largest cities, including Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai, and Chennai, may run out of groundwater within the next several years.
India failed to build adequate water treatment plants as its population surged, leading to filthy rivers and lakes. I had a dispiriting experience of this on a visit to Varanasi, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Its location on the banks of the Ganges River, one of the most revered spiritual destinations for Hindus, has been both a blessing and a curse. Each year millions of Hindu pilgrims come to Varanasi. They believe that bathing in the Ganges will absolve their sins and release them from the cycle of reincarnation. Many go there to die and have their cremated remains cast into the waters. The relatives of those who can’t afford cremation release the cadavers of their loved ones into the river directly.
Traveling with friends, I experienced the pathos of Varanasi firsthand. The narrow lanes of the old city are largely impassable, crowded with thousands of pilgrims. Elderly men and women, dressed in their shabby best clothes, lie in doorways along the tiny streets, waiting for death. Holy men called sadhus chant in their saffron loincloths. Cows, which are considered sacred, roam the streets eating trash and defecating.
Eager to escape the stench, we followed one of the more persistent “tour guides” to his small boat to view the city from the relative peace of the Ganges. The one-hour boat trip did not faze our guide in the least, but it shocked us. He cheerily showed us many lovely temples lining the banks and the platforms used for cremating bodies over open fires, called ghats. He pointed out the macabre sight of dozens of burning human bodies, as well as several cow carcasses in the water. I recoiled at a ghastly vision of a vulture feasting on a floating human corpse. Nearby a crowd of pilgrims bathed, some of them crouching down to defecate in the river. Our guide exclaimed, “You must take pictures! Holy Varanasi!” This was not the India we wanted to capture memories of, however, and we kept our cameras tucked away.