Godmen and River Conservation

Though I am advanced in age I happen to be markedly irreligious or, one might say, unspiritual. I do not go to temples, do not observe any religious routine at home and, like numerous others, I do not go out to spiritual congregations where the so-called godmen give discourses day after day. Godmen, somehow or other, get my goat especially after that nasty old man – Asa Ram Bapu, a wolf in human shape – was caught indulging in nefarious activties and is now cooling his heels in Bhopal’s Central Jail. He is perhaps the worst of his kind.

 One thought once his serial crimes against women is known to the people they would stop flocking around godmen of any kind. Sadly that did not happen. People, it seems, are in dire need of ethical and moral instructions by someone who looks and adorns himself as a spiritual kind. There seems to be a dire need for ethical pep talk as our society is getting soaked in venality, Many of those who hear him with patience could well be venal and corrupt. I have a belief that whoever has a catch in his personality unfailingly goes after these religious sermons in the hope getting pardon from the Almighty.

Recently, a spiritual leader had come and lectured in Bhopal. He apparently has the local chief minister as one of his followers as the latter ceremoniously received him at the airport and attended his first discourse. His discourses were covered in the vernacular press. From what I saw in the papers reporting on his statements somehow impressed me. I thought what he said about conservation of rivers was a kind of a slap on the face of the chief minister who is currently  running “Narmada Seva Yatra” that is claimed to be one of the biggest river conservation campaigns in the world.

What Murari Bapu, the spiritual leader, said was that instead of worshipping the rivers, people should “love” them if they wanted to conserve them. Hindus have always had an inclination to worship rivers calling them ‘Ma” or mother. At the same time they would abuse the rivers by polluting them, pumping sewage into them or mining sand from their banks and even from midstream.

Virtually, every big river, from Ganga and Jamuna to Narmada and Godavari and from Krishna to Kaveri, all and many more are considered holy and “aartis” (Hindu ritualized worship with the help of a number of brass oil lamps) are held on their banks. Simultaneously religious mantras are chanted collectively or devotional songs are sung in chorus by the assembled congregation, often broadcast with the help of loudspeakers.

 I have had occasions to witness such performances at Haridwar and Varanasi on the banks of the Ganga. Despite them Ganga remains as filthy and as polluted as ever; clothes are washed in it using toxic soaps, sewage and industrial effluents are channelized into it and half burnt dead bodies are thrown into it in the belief that the departed soul will find salvation. The decades-old Ganga Action Plan yielded very little as people generally do not care for Ganga – in Murari Bapu’s words, they do not “love” it enough. They use it as a channel to dispose of waste and rubbish.

This is true of most of the so-called holy rivers. Just as worshipping rivers is not enough, taking care of them in the way of Narmada Seva Yatra is also not going to do any good to them. Such "yatras" are all political stunts..

If anything, sand mining in Narmada is the biggest cause of damage to the river and its ecology. The government of Madhya Pradesh has very cleverly skirted the issue and it has not mentioned a word in the “objectives” of the “Yatra” about banning illegal sand mining in, for example, Itarsi and Hoshangabad areas. That the River is being severely damaged because of the relentless sand mining does not seem to have registered with the government. Every other thing like flow of industrial effluents, encroachments destruction of forests, illegal tapping of its waters, etc. are mentioned but not sand mining.

One suspects, it has been omitted because political biggies are involved in exploiting this precious resource of the river. Unmindful of the damage it is doing to the river millions of tons of sand are excavated and dispersed to various parts of the state to feed the real estate industry. It is a big business; not only the illegal sand miners have been thriving, even the government officials working at various check points have prospered with the bribes that they get. Recent checks had revealed that among the illegal sand miners were many connected with politicians, even the ministers and their relatives.

Surprisingly it is not realised that Narmada cannot be conserved if it is stripped of its sands. One might establish sewage treatment plants wherever drains come and empty in the river, one might even take care of its catchments and plant a million trees on its banks but all these and many other steps would not be able to sustain the river unless sand mining in it is brought down to a sustainable level.

Smriti Kak Ramachandran, a journalist of note, had written in The Hindu that the environmental costs of illegal sand mining is far greater than what can be imagined. “From forcing the river to change its course, to affecting the groundwater tables and adversely impacting the habitat of micro-organisms, the ramifications of illegal sand mining are many.” Smt. Ramachandran has quoted Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan who says “Sand is important for ground water recharge, on a riverbed it acts as a link between the flowing river and the water table and is part of the aquifer.” Mr. Mishra also says that illegally dredged sand is equivalent to robbing water. Sand holds a lot of water and when it is mindlessly mined and loaded on trucks a lot of water is lost. Negative impact of illegal sand mining far outweighs the economic benefits, says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

Illegal mining of sand that is going on in a big way in the State in Chambal, Narmada or Betwa or numerous other rivers is likely to prove disastrous for the state in the long term. Agriculture might get adversely affected and the state may eventually turn out to be water-stressed. Sooner the government heeds the advice of Murari Bapu and starts respecting and loving the state’s rivers better it would be for the well-being of its people.


More by :  Proloy Bagchi

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