January 17, 2013
By Joanna Sugden
Wall Street Journal
The Kumbh Mela, perhaps the largest religious gathering on Earth, began Monday in Allahabad, a city in northern India’s Uttar Pradesh state.
Between 80 and 100 million Hindus are expected to take part in the 55-day festival, bathing at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, sacred rivers believed to cleanse sin and enable devotees to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
These waters are also some of the most polluted in the world, according to conservation groups. The Ganges alone receives 2.9 billion liters of sewage a day along its 1,557 mile length. That’s enough sewage to fill 1,600 Olympic-size swimming pools every day.
Environmentalists and religious leaders, concerned about the impact of such vast numbers of pilgrims camping on 20 square miles of floodplain, are hoping to appeal to the religious consciences of the visitors and encourage them to become more eco-conscious.
For the first time at a Kumbh Mela, which takes place every three years, there is a “Green Camp” for pilgrims. The camp is backed by India’s newly formed Green Pilgrimage Network, which aims to protect pilgrimage sites and make them more environmentally sustainable.
“We started with the concept that we should make this the green Kumbh Mela,” said Chidanand Saraswati, a Hindu swami, or holy man, who is leading the eco-friendly camp — Global Sangam — on the banks of the Ganges.
“Hindus have always cared for the environment but people have started to forget because of population growth and lack of resources,” said the swami, who is also leader of the Parmarth Niketan an ashram in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
“But when they see their leaders and their gurus going in the green direction, they will follow,” he told The Wall Street Journal’s India Real Time. The camp is using recyclable steel plates and utensils instead of plastic. It also has eco toilets, filtered drinking water instead of plastic bottles and will organize litter picking collections and tree planning along the banks of the sacred river.
The local government and the High Court in Allahabad have also banned the use of plastic bags at the festival for the first time.
Gopal Patel, who is documenting the environmental impact of the Mela as project manager for the U.K.-based Bhumi Project , said he was encouraged by the efforts of the authorities to make the pilgrimage more environmentally conscious. “It’s all looking quite clean at the moment but there’s a desperate need for more toilets,” Mr. Patel said in a telephone interview from the Kumbh Mela site.
The Mela administration, led by the Commissioner of Allahabad, has installed 35,000 individual toilets at the site, up from just over 20,000 at Allahabad’s last Kumbh Mela in 2001. The Kumbh Mela rotates between four cities – Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain.
Government estimates suggest that 8.3 million more pilgrims will attend on the six main bathing days than in 2001, when a total of 80 million gathered at the Allahabad confluence, where Hindus believe a mythical river, Saraswati, intersects with the Ganges and Yamuna.
Kumbh, which means pot, is named after the pitcher carrying the nectar of immortality that Hindus say was spilled by the deities in a fight with the demons when they lived on earth. Hindus say the nectar dropped at four different spots on rivers across India: on the Ganges in Haridwar; the Shipra in Ujjain; the Godavari in Nasik; and at the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati in Allahabad.
During the festival when the moon, sun and Jupiter are in a specific alignment, it is believed that the spiritual properties of the water are one thousand times more potent. The most auspicious days for bathing attract the most pilgrims, who bathe before dawn believing that is when the greatest cleansing is available.
“Mobility has increased so much, people have so much disposable income to spend on travel and it’s putting so much pressure on infrastructure and the sewage systems can’t cope,” said Mr. Patel, who is a founder member of the Green Pilgrimage Network, which was set up in October 2012 at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad.
“Religious towns in the West are given so much protection but in India that’s not the case. They are seen as places to make money,” he said. “They are being lost to business and commerce.”
A report by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India estimates that the Mela will generate $2.2billion of income for the city and create thousands of jobs.
But there hasn’t been a report on its impact on the environment. Successive attempts to clean up the Ganges since 1985 when the first Ganga Action Plan was put in place have failed.
Less than half the funds — $462,000 out of $1.2million — allocated for the restoration of the river until March 2011 in the central government’s national river conservation plan was spent. Politicians on the parliamentary standing committee for environment and forests blamed this on poor coordination between agencies.
Rana Singh, a professor of cultural geography and heritage studies at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, and campaigner for a cleaner Ganges, said “bureaucratic and administrative delays” were preventing the funds from being allocated quickly.
Delays in procuring land from farmers for sewage treatment plants have also stalled the clean up process, according to reports in the Indian media.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Environment wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Kusum Vyas, founder and president of a U.S.-based environmental group called Living Planet Foundation, is holding a conference at the Mela to raise awareness on the plight of the rivers at the Triveni Sangam (three river confluence.)
“The rising population, illegal sand mining and dams cause a lot of stress on the environment and the rivers are the biggest casualties,” Ms. Vyas said. “It’s a lack of awareness, there has never been a campaign from the bottom up to educate people.”
Ms. Vyas is also the founder of the first Green Kumbh Yatra, which she describes as “the Olympic Torch for the Kumbh Mela.” The yatra, or journey, involves a pot that has traveled since October from Hyderabad to Allahabad via Gujarat, carried by foot and train.
“It is being taken from village to village to educate people about why they should not throw garbage into the rivers,” she said in a telephone interview from her office in the U.S.
Victoria Finlay director of communications for the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, which along with the United Nations Development Program is supporting the Green Pilgrimage Network, adds: “You can have lots of rules about separating waste and initiatives about recycling, but underlying it you need an ethos which says that in order to have a good pilgrimage you have to have a pilgrimage that is good for the Earth.”
Joanna Sugden is freelance journalist living in Delhi. Before coming to India in 2011 she spent four-and-a-half years as a reporter at The Times of London, covering religion and education. You can follow her on Twitter @jhsugden.