Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

INDIA-ENVIRONMENT: Recalling Myths to Heal a Polluted River

Daniel Haber

VRINDAVAN, India, Feb 6 1997 (IPS) - Since time immemorial, India’s rivers have been considered sacred and extolled in hymns — “O Ganga and Yamuna … may your waters flow over me.”

In Vrindavan, a pilgrim town on the River Yamuna, local residents and devotees consider the river as their own mother. When they go for a ritual bath, they pray for forgiveness for putting their foot in the river as it is considered an offence to touch a sacred object or person with one’s foot.

However, with India’s rivers becoming receptacles of effluents and toxic waste, anyone foolhardy enough to set a foot into the Yamuna which also flows through the Indian capital, 150 kms north of here, is likely to get black with sludge.

Where once the sacred waters were used in temple worship and piously sipped, now the imbiber of untreated Yamuna water would be courting certain cholera and other waterborne diseases — the river’s coliform count from human and animal waste in the Delhi area, for instance, is 1,000 more than the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) prescribed safe levels.

Due to the wastes from 50,000 industries and sewage from eight million inhabitants living on the banks of the river which originates in the Himalayas, the Yamuna, like many of India’s rivers has now become a vast sewer.

Thousands of years ago, according to Hindu mythology, the Yamuna river was also polluted — due to a water dragon named Kaliya whose noxious fumes caused fish to die, birds to fall out of the air, and cattle to keel over. The cowherd boy-god Krishna jumped into the murky waters, and subdued the serpent by dancing on his hoods — and forced the serpent out to the sea.

Today, only the legend is remembered. Vrindavan’s famous forests and groves have all but vanished. Its sacred river and ground water reserves have been depleted and is now contaminated with sewage. Its eroded soil, littered with excrement and rubbish picked over by pigs, stray dogs and cows are all telltale signs of an over-stressed, neglected environment due to the thousands of careless pilgrims who visit each year.

In July 1991, the World Wide Fund for Nature-(WWF)India along with other concerned parties started to work with the residents of Vrindavan to mobilise and try to save what remains of its environment.

This, it was hoped would lead to actual restoration and conservation by the community. Progress has been slow and critics have accused the local WWF staff of lining their pockets with foreign funds coming from the Switzerland-based organisation.

The focus was on the 11-km sacred ‘parikrama’ or pilgrimage route encircling Vrindavan, which is virtually bereft of trees and groves.

On a typical holiday weekend when busloads of pious picnickers come in from Delhi, two pudgy schoolchildren are seen walking along the sandy ‘parikrama’ trail munching potato chips and discarding the empty foil wrappers on the ground along with the other plastic debris.

Observing this, Dhyana Devi, a young local girl, picks up the discarded wrappers, much to the embarrassment of the day trippers. She volunteers that she had learnt from a WWF meeting in her school that it was this kind of carelessness that is polluting Vrindavan and the Yamuna.

Another devotee shakes his head and chips in — perhaps referring to the boom in housing construction by outsiders — “Every day Vrindavan is becoming more and more like Delhi”. The Indian capital is the country’s fastest growing city and one of its most polluted.

Like Dhyana, Vrindavan’s children have been the most supportive force for the campaign for a cleaner environment. The WWF Education Officer Devendra Kumar Sharma tirelessly visits schools in the area trying to educate the teachers and students about the need for environmental responsibility. WWF India has created educational programmes for them — art competitions, debates, school plays and rallies — which have succeeded in gaining regular support from schools and parents.

WWF’s strategy at focussing on schoolchildren was due in part, as Anup Sharma, director of the Vrindavan Conservation Project admits, “to counteract the apathy and lack of community awareness”.

The three main problems that the WWF would like to address are: cleaning the Yamuna, that includes the untreated sewage; clearing the rubbish from the streets and banning plastic bags; and reforestation, particularly along the ‘parikrama’ trail, which is the most visible and successful programme.

“A sense of community responsibility is the most serious problem we face,” says Sharma. “Most people just don’t care about the community as a whole. They think that just because they pay taxes (which many of them don’t), it is up to the municipality to clean up their garbage and pollution.” Most Hindus while fastidious in their personal habits of ritual cleanliness, are notoriously callous about their environment.

“We point out to their children that Krishna was the original conservationist — who cleared the polluted water and the air, and worshipped cows, land and the Goverdhan mountain,” Sharma says.

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