Shraddha Shukla, 11, will embark upon one of the greatest challenges of her life – a 550km swim down India's Ganges river. The journey will begin in Shukla’s home of Kanpur and end in the pilgrimage city of Varanasi.
However, this swim will be more than just an impressive physical feat. It will shine a light to a cause dear to her and several other Indians’ hearts, a bid to clean the Ganges river.
For Hindus, the Ganges is one of the holiest rivers. It is believed to pour down from the top knot of Hindu deity Lord Shiva’s, and then make its way down the Himalayas. But over the years, the Ganges has become one of the most polluted bodies of water on Earth.
Raised in Kanpur’s Cantonment, the Shukla, lovingly nicknamed ‘Nanhi Jalpari’ or ‘Little Mermaid’, has been swimming since she was one.
“I am not nervous. I am excited and confident of completing the challenge,” Shukla tells Hindustan Times.
Despite her young age, Shukla is somewhat a veteran of long-distance swimming. “She swam 10km from Ganga Barrage to Siddhnath ghat at age six and 6km from Kanpur to Unnao a year later”, and at age nine, “she swam to Allahabad from Massacre ghat in less than a week” reports the Hindustan Times.
Shukla is expected to cover the full distance of her swim within 10 days, and will aim to swim seven hours per day. To keep her as safe as possible throughout her journey, four guards will accompany her via boat.
She will also be swimming within an underwater steel net, aimed to keep crocodiles that live in parts of the river at bay.
“She will swim between the net; it will keep her safe. She is not scared. All she has on her mind is the record,” Shukla's father says.
Though hundreds of Indians regularly bathe and perform rituals in the Ganges, Dr Ian Wright from University of Western Sydney’s School of Natural Science is still concerned for Shukla’s health, given the river's high pollution levels.
“I have a 10-year-old son – close to the age of Shraddha. There is no way I would allow my son to do this. I am in awe of Shraddha and wish her the best for such an ambitious feat of physical endurance. I just hope that her immune system can cope,” he says.
Dr Wright is both an expert on water pollution, waterways, and a keen swimmer. He says though Shukla will be protected from “fast and unpredictable currents” as well as crocodiles when swimming within her cage, he is more concerned about “infection from water contamination”.
“Swimmers cannot help but swallow some water as they swim. In water of doubtful quality, I swim with my head above water – to minimise eye, ear, nose and throat infections. With debris in the water, I am worried about cuts and grazes and a possible entry point for infection.
“The Ganges is well known to be highly polluted with human and animal wastes. Immersion in that water for 10 days with seven hours a day of swimming – this sounds like the perfect recipe to develop pick up a water-borne disease,” he says.
Shukla says this won’t be the end for her, and hopes to someday swim competitively on an international scale.
“After this, I will focus on achieving my dream of going to the Olympics and swimming through the English Channel,” says Shukla.
In the meanwhile, there’s a bid to see Shukla awarded with breaking an international record once she completes her Ganges swim.
“We will send all footages to chief minister Akhilesh Yadav and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and appeal them to refer her name for an international record,” says Kuljeet Kaur, president of the Indian Women’s Social Action Committee.