With a history of curing big diseases, research in Ganga’s water can unlock a door to the value of bacteriophage in our ancient river systems and spur fresh conservation efforts
Not even a hundred years ago, the water of the Ganga river contained the “Ninja virus.” Ninja, as we all know, means warrior. Scientists call them bacteriophages and the people of India call it Gangtva.
Gangtva is the main element of the Ganga due to which the water of the river never gets spoilt even if it is kept for months.
There was a time when this bacteriophage was found in four major rivers of the world but over the centuries, due to the material pursuits of mankind, the remaining three rivers and their civilisations vanished. Until about 20 years ago, this Ninja virus was present in the six tributaries of the Ganga. Then we built a dam named Tehri and diverted the confluence of two streams, the Bhagirathi and the Bhilangana, into the lake made for the dam.
The result was that the bacteriophage present here got destroyed in the still water of the lake. Significantly, Gangtva still exists in the Bhagirathi upstream.
This element is also found in the Alaknanda, Mandakini and Pinder rivers. But it has reduced so much in its strength that its capacity to clean the dirty water has become ineffective. And yet again, the reason for this change is the stagnation of the river water.
Nevertheless, some of the historical facts that still make us proud of the Ganga are that Mughal emperor Akbar used to drink Ganga water only and the British used to carry the Ganga water in vats during their voyages because it did not go bad for months. However, in an increasingly scientific world, the scientific aspects of this water have not been discussed too often.
In the shadow of the Coronavirus, we must try to understand its scientific side as well.
Over a hundred years ago, there was a major outbreak of the dreaded cholera in the States of Bihar and Bengal. Such was the fear of the disease at that time (because it was highly infectious and much like the COVID-19 of today, they did not have an effective cure for it), that people thought they would catch the disease if they touched the corpse.
People were throwing corpses by the thousands into the Ganga as no one was willing to cremate them out of fear of contracting cholera.
At that time, a British scientist Hakins, who was doing research in India, feared that cholera would spread everywhere along the banks of the Ganga river. But after a while he noticed that nothing of this sort had happened.
Intrigued by this phenomenon, he researched and found that cholera bacteria could not survive in the Ganga water and something was destroying it.
As this research progressed, it was found that even the bacteria of dysentery, meningitis, tuberculosis and severe diseases could not survive in the water of the Ganga.
This research was going on to reconstruct the medical importance of Ganga but before it ended, the world saw the invention of antibiotics, which turned out to be the cure for most diseases known to man at that time. This magical discovery pushed back the research work on the Ganga water. Ironically, over the ages, people developed antibiotic resistance due to its overuse and senseless self-medication by people. As a result, we increased the doses of antibiotic that we consume and accordingly the disease-causing bacteria also increased its strength. Consequently, scientists all around world are facing the biggest challenge of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Now scientists and doctors are once again looking towards the Ganga. But today’s sad truth is that the Ganga water around Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna and Kolkata has not been able to kill any bacteria. On the contrary, some new and dangerous findings are coming out from areas around Kanpur.
Scientists from the Indian Institute of Toxicology Research, IITR, Lucknow, on the basis of their experiments on the Ganga water, claim that they have found a bad bacteria, which is responsible for producing diarrhoea, blood dysentery and typhoid. And this bacteria is rapidly growing in the water from Bithur to Shuklaganj in Kanpur.
But these findings are in areas where the water is most polluted and stagnant.
Devendra Swarup Bhargava, a scientist associated with IIT Roorkee, has researched that Ganga’s Gangtva still exists and is present in its foothills. He said that the Ganga has the ability to absorb oxygen. Some research has also found that bacteriophages are also effective on some viruses.
Dr Bhargava wanted to do research on the virus itself but he was not supported by the Government in this effort.
Regarding the Coronavirus, Dr Bhargava claims that chlorine is most capable of protecting humans against this virus. Therefore, its use should be increased at the Government level. The Institute of Microbial Studies, in its research on the Ganga water at Rudraprayag and Devprayag, found that 17 types of viruses were found in the water here, which are capable of killing bad bacteria. However, the water in these places is also not considered completely pure. The National Environmental Research Institute (NEERI) did huge research on the capabilities of Ganga water, which found that it has the potential to kill 20 diseases, but this report was not allowed to be published under pressure from antibiotic companies and the scientists who were involved in the research had to give it up.
The Corona crisis is a clear indication that in future, too, mankind could face many unknown bacteria and viruses. We would not even know what they are and how many would be deadly. Investment on virus research is needed today.
Nature has honoured us with the most magnificent river on Earth and we could not even handle it. All the scientists working in this field believe that the Ganga will enable us to fight every biological battle if we just let it flow.
(The writer is a military veteran and founder of Atulya Ganga)