Unholy mess, holy cry - Save Ganga
At the Maha Kumbh mela in Allahabad as millions of pilgrims take the holy dip, the Ganga waters continue to turn murky. But a movement is being spearheaded by the sadhus and seers themselves along with Ganga activists to save India's lifeline. Sujoy Dhar reports.
At the ongoing Maha Kumbh mela in Allahabad, the world's largest congregation of humans, millions of Indian and thousands of foreigners join the Hindu sadhus and seers in taking that lifetime plunge at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and the invisible Saraswati.
While the holy men, including the hordes of naga sadhus (naked monks), jump into the river with battle cries like Har Har Mahadev, the devout pilgrim braves the elements of an unforgiving winter and a near stampede at the makeshift tent city of Kumbh Nagari to take a dip of faith in the water that is visibly murky on the days like Mauni Amavasya (Feb 10 this time) when around 35 million bathed on a single day to earn their little salvation.
Maha Kumbh pilgrims on the banks
Every pilgrim indeed hopes to wash away his sin on the holy bathing days of the Maha Kumbh that concludes on March 10 with the Maha Shivratri bathing. But with every washing away of sin, another is generated as it adds to the pollution of the water. Though the pilgrims take the dip of faith, many know that the water in which they want to wash away their sins and escape rebirth is not clean.
Reports in mainstream media quoting the Central Pollution Control Board says since the Kumbh mela started on January 14 this year with the Makar Sankranti Snan, the level of the Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) — used to measure the level of organic pollution in the water — had increased to 7.4 milligram per litre at the ground zero of the bathing- the Sangam, The pollution level before Jan 14 was 4.4 milligram per litre, slightly more than the national standard for bathing quality of water of 3 milligram per litre.
But while the holy dip at the mela site may not be that holy for the skin and overall health, the sadhus and seers who converged there in thousands are vocal too to stop the pollution of Ganga and halt the construction of big dams in the Himalayas from where the river originates.
For example, the movement for a cleaner Ganga is spearheaded by the group led by Jagatguru Sankaryacharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati. The movement's most vocal face is the 80-year-old Jagadguru's principal disciple Swami Avimukteshwaranand.
Speaking to TWF, Swami Avimukteshwaranand-ji says: "While everyone says we want nirmal and abiral (clean and uninterrupted) flow of Ganga when it comes to work they are no where to be seen."
Swami Avimukteshwaran is vocal about Ganga pollution
"There is a lack of will. Right now the biggest step would be to immediately stop the construction of 70 dams," he adds.
"The drains which are leading to the Ganga across its course should be diverted and river and sewage should be separated. The number of canals that pour into Ganga should be reduced," he says.
According to the seer, the ownership of Ganga should be restored to her.
"We hear about the World Bank loans to cleanse and save Ganga but then Ganga herself has such natural resources from where the money can come. The culture behind Ganga is huge.
There's a need to awaken people's representatives. Dams are like noose hanging round the neck of Ganga. They are causing irreparable damage to the river," he says.
According to leading Ganga activists, the pollution in Ganga is largely caused by the big dams which are destroying the character of the water of India's national river.
While Valentine's Day is often opposed with violence by various saffron political groups and thought police communities, at the Maha Kumbh this year, the day was picked up by spiritual guru Chidanand Saraswati of Ganga Action Parivar (GAP) to spread a different message.
Along with others he participated in a Green Kumbh initiative.
"The Ganga must be allowed to flourish if India is to flourish. Everyone can contribute to serve the Ganga - whether it is planting a tree, prohibiting plastic or picking up trash. Make Ganga your green Valentine everyday," Chidanand Saraswati, president of Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh, told his followers and pilgrims who gathered at Kumbh.
At Kumbh, GAP is uniting saints and spiritual leaders to collectively spread to all devotees and pilgrims the importance of living "green" and the crucial need to restore and protect Ganga and her tributaries.
In a unique show of communal harmony, the initiative also saw Muslim clerics joining the Hindu sadhus. For example the All India Imams Association chief Imam Umer Ahmed Iliasi, visited the Kumbha Mela and met Swami Chidanand Saraswati to pledge their support for the cause of the save Ganga campaign.
Seers have joined environmentalists against construction of hydel power projects in Ganga's Himalayan course and against discharge of pollutants in the waters.
Mauni Amavasya bathing
Ganga river, along its 2510 km stretch, irrigates 40 percent of India's land and directly serves around 500 million people who live along the banks
I D Shukla of National Academy of Sciences, which is camping at Maha Kumbh to spread awareness, says: "We are raising awareness about Ganga constantly here at Kumbh. There should be no use of soap, flowers, empty bottles and no corpse or carcass should be floated on the river and we are trying to spread that message."
"It is sad that crocodiles and dolphins in the river have almost disappeared. So we are making people aware about the threats from the big dams on Ganga," says Shukla, adding "A lot of it depends on the government's will to set things right and save the river."
India's veteran water conservationist Rajinder Singh, known as Waterman, has made strong appeal against big dams and have been mobilizing pilgrims across India in his movement.
In March last year, he along with other members had decided to resign from the Ganga panel of the Prime Minister expressing outrage over the government's insensitivity towards a fast-unto-death by Dr G D Agarwal, an environmental engineer who is now known as Swami Gyan Swarup Sanand after he adopted the life of a monk.
Singh, who heads Ganga Mukti Sangram (Struggle to Save Ganga), says: "There should be no dams in the Ganga because the silt of Ganga has special character and owing to the dams the silts get deposited upstream leading to the algal growth in the waters that changes the water character."
"Even at its confluence with the sea at Ganga Sagar in West Bengal when it pours into the Bay of Bengal the effect of the pollution is being felt. The Ganga Sagar islands which are threatened by climate change are more vulnerable because the silt that was present in the water earlier is no longer there to buttress the landmass," says Singh.
According to him the construction of Tehri Dam in Bhagirathi River, which is also a part of Ganga, in Tehri region of Uttarakhand state for a hydel project has almost killed the river.
With the Maha Kumbh turning into a holy battle ground for Save Ganga cries, the river might just hope for some environment friendly ears of the government to listen and act. --IBNS