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“Sea to Source: Ganges” Team Members Discuss Working Within the Cultural Epicenter That Is India and Bangladesh

The "Sea to Source: Ganges" post-monsoon expedition focuses on informing and identifying solutions to help tackle the global plastic crisis. In this post, members of the expedition's socioeconomic team share their perspective from the field.

Over the past few weeks, you’ve heard from teams covering plastic pollution from the perspectives of water and land during our landmark “Sea to Source: Ganges” expedition. Today, we learn about working within the fabric of society that drives communities in India and Bangladesh and the significance of our plastic pollution research from the expedition’s socioeconomic team. Note: We’ve honored using “Ganga,” the local term for the Ganges river, in this blog post. 

If Varanasi is the heart of India, then the flowing water of the Ganga is its soul. Varanasi is an intoxication of life, death, rituals, healing, history, spirituality, food, religion and of course folktale. As you experience the journey along the 84 ghats that connect the land and its people to the Ganga, you experience an entire lifetime in a matter of hours. It is a sensory experience that belongs to the more than one million inhabitants of Varanasi and draws in millions of people all over the world every year. Therefore, an unavoidable consequence is the use of single-use plastic. 

Sunrise
Sunrise at Assi Ghat, Varanasi. Photo taken by Surshti Patel.

Plastic is a social issue. It is complex by nature and origin, underpinned by population growth, necessity, habit and innovation. It’s a powerful material that’s driven a global industry of recycling (both formal, informal and reuse). In India, plastic is a relatively youthful material, introduced in many areas approximately 20-25 years ago. Since that time, plastic usage quickly spread through urban and rural areas alike, replacing traditional alternatives such as clay, iron, steel and cotton. It’s relatively short use in India is hammered home linguistically; there is no Hindi translation for the word plastic.

Members of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” post-monsoon expedition team
Members of the “Sea to Source: Ganges” post-monsoon expedition team pose on the train journey from Bihar to Varanasi. The past monsoon season was described as one of the most unusual in decades. The season witnessed a serious amount of rainfall in a very short time period, affecting thousands of people. Photo courtesy of Heather Koldewey


The socioeconomic science team  traveled along the Ganga, a route that brought us to rural India and Bangladesh following the monsoon season. Our goal was to apply a holistic, mixed methods approach to understand the basic W’s of the plastic consumption: who is using plastic, what types of plastic are used, why do individuals use plastic, and how do people dispose of their plastic waste. These questions will ultimately inform our understanding, and later on, our recommendations of solutions that can be driven by the people of India and Bangladesh.

Scientists conducts interview
Hina Khatoon, a member of the socioeconomic team, conducts a household interview. Photo by Heather Koldewey.

At each expedition site, across six to seven days, we ran a series of household surveys, focus group discussions, workshops, community meetings and education sessions. Each activity is aimed at collecting pertinent information that will eventually help us understand the community’s plastic consumption. The areas we visited were extremely remote, but often picturesque sites with untouched beauty. That often meant we worked long days with limited facilities, far from any amenities. It was crucial that we had a base while we worked in the field. Our work would not be possible without the support of the incredible Felis Creations team (Naresh, Bablu, Prakash, Dharmpal and Viru). They set up a mobile kitchen that provided the research team and participants hot meals, plastic-free snacks, drinking water and logistical support.

Kitchen set-up
A mobile kitchen team set-up. Photo by Surshti Patel.


Interacting with the thousands of people who live along the Ganga taught us an incredible amount about the interconnectedness of people, plastics, poverty and inclusive solutions. We spoke to as many voices, and communities, as we could — from the fishing communities in Bihar, to the mountain communities in Uttarkhand. We worked to build an inclusive dialogue that spanned geographical and social lines.

The Wildlife Institute of India is leading Jalaj, an initiative that provides education and awareness on a boat.
The Wildlife Institute of India is leading Jalaj, an initiative that provides education and awareness on a boat. The center also provides local communities, in particular women, opportunities for livelihood development. For visitors of Varanasi, the boat provides tours along the river, handmade organic products and beauty services. Photo by Heather Koldewey.

During the expedition, it was clear that the Ganga and its many tributaries are a lifeline and purification system, providing a waste management service for millions of people that live in India and Bangladesh. In recent years both the governments and people of India and Bangladesh have taken monumental steps to assist in the global fight against plastic pollution, laying the pathway for our collective future of a cleaner and healthier Ganga. 

There’s a famous saying that only those called by destiny to Varanasi will ever find themselves there. Our team had the privilege of visiting and immersing ourselves into the culture of Varanasi (and various areas of India and Bangladesh). We look forward to unpacking our research and working with others to create valuable solutions.

Keep reading: Go behind the scenes with the Sea to Source: Ganges land team

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