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Lifeline of the People

“The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever changing, ever flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga.” Jawaharlal Nehru, First Prime Minister of India, Born in Allahabad along the banks of Ganga

Besides being a spiritual and cultural center for the people in India, the Ganga is a true lifeline for the people who inhabit her banks. There are over thirty cities, seventy towns and thousands of villages along the Ganga’s banks. Within the plain of the river, more than 450 million people depend on the waters of Ganga for every aspect of their life (1).


lifeline-2Throughout the entire length of Ganga, many rely on the river for agriculture. Since ancient times, people have used the Ganga for irrigation of crops, either by using the natural flooding patterns of the river or by developing gravity irrigation canals. In fact, this use is described in Indian scriptures from more than 2,000 years ago (2). The irrigation canals along the Ganga were highly developed by the Muslim rulers from the 12th century onwards, and then were further extended by the British. Two main canals from the river are the Upper Ganga Canal, which begins at Haridwar, and the Lower Ganga Canal, which begins at Naraura. Between these two canals and their many branches, approximately 17,815 kilometers (11,070 miles) in India are irrigated (3).

In Uttar Pradesh and the Ganga-Yamuna Doab (the land between the two rivers), nearly 70% of the population is involved either directly or indirectly in agriculture (4). The Ganga basin is a key part of agricultural industries in India and Bangladesh, and the area it covers is often referred to as the “bread basket of India.” Farmers grow crops such as rice, lentils, sugarcane, maize, sorghum (jowar), oil seeds (mustard, sesame, linseed and rapeseed, among others), potatoes, cotton and wheat. In swamps and lakes found along the Ganga, farmers also grow legumes, chilies and jute, providing not only a source of food but also their main source of income. In fact, the jute industry is the most prominent industry in West Bengal, with fifty-nine of the seventy-three total jute mills in India being located in the state. The Gangetic plain also provides fertile ground for animal husbandry where people raise cattle, buffalo, goats and other animals.

In the last three decades agriculture has shifted more from subsistence farming to commerical farming (5). Consequently, the demand for Ganga’s waters has become even greater and thus the need to protect and practice sustainable management of the river has become very important.


Along the length of Ganga, but particularly in the river’s delta region, fish make up an integral part of the inhabitants’ diets. Ganga is regarded as the backbone of freshwater fishing in India, providing thousands of people in hundreds of fishing communities with both food and a source of income. Thousands of people and an entire way of life completely depend on the Ganga to survive.

Use of Natural Flora and Fauna Around the Ganga

lifeline-3A large number of plants that naturally grow along the Ganga are of great economic and medicinal importance for the people who live near the river’s banks. For example, the Ganga-Shivalik region of the Ganga basin is referred to as “a treasure house of drugs,” with approximately 450 different medicinal plants growing within the area, some of which are extremely rare. These plants have been used in Ayurvedic medicine (the ancient traditional system of medicine in India dating back to the Vedic period) for thousands of years, and many people who live in these areas where the plants grow have a working knowledge of these medicinal plants. Besides using them for their own personal uses, many have even set up businesses to collect and sell the medicines they make from the plants (6).


lifeline-4The river Ganga and some of her tributaries (especially in the east) have been used as important navigation and transportation routes since ancient times. Before the invention of the railway system in India, the Ganga was used to transport goods from as far as Kolkata to Delhi. Since the construction of railways running across all of north India, as well as changes in the flow of the river, the use of Ganga and its tributaries for navigation routes has decreased. However, there is still a heavy reliance on Ganga for the carrying of goods in the delta regions, such as West Bengal and Bangladesh, where jute, tea, grain and other agricultural and rural products are produced.


lifeline-5A newly-developed way that the Ganga has provided for the people of India is through tourism. Each year, millions of people – both from India and abroad – travel to the banks of Ganga as part of their pilgrimage to holy places and temples and to take dips in the Ganga. This influx of tourists and pilgrims has provided a new source of income to local people living along the river’s banks.


1″Ganga Case Study.” Living Waters Programme, WWF. Click here to read this study.

2 Ahmad, N. and Lodrick, D.O. “Ganges River.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Click here to read this article.

3 Ibid.

4 Rehman, H., Wehab, A., and Asif. “Agricultural Productivity and Productivity Regions in Ganga-Yamuna Doab.” Click here to read this study.

5 Ibid.

6 Krishna Murti, C.R. The Ganga, A Scientific Study. New Delhi: Ganga Project Directorate, 1991. p. 190.