Last week, a large number of local residents of Ballabhgarh block of Faridabad district in Haryana were spotted thronging to the local railway station where one Mineral Water Baba was reported to be camping for the day.
The Baba—whose real name is Bhupendra Motalia—is a young man in his early 20s and hails from the Mautala Khurd village in Rewari district of Haryana. His claim to fame is said to be his miraculous ability to treat any kind of ailment with a sealed bottle of mineral water, which he enriches by whispering a few holy mantras.
The Baba is currently touring Haryana and Rajasthan. He sets up a temporary camp with his followers in villages where he has acquired a huge following in a short time. News of the Baba’s imminent arrival spreads through word of mouth and the sick and needy throng to his camps. They are followed by a number of mineral water sellers with their push carts; all the vendors report brisk sales.
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Kamala, one such female vendor told a Hindustan correspondent that as soon as she heard of the Baba’s arrival at Ballabhgarh, she ordered extra mineral water and by the evening she had sold nearly 150 bottles. She said that the rush of patients was so heavy that the kiosk inside the railway station ran out of bottled water within hours of the Baba’s arrival.
According to the Baba, bottled mineral water is holier than all types of free running water and alone fit for empowerment by holy mantras. The genesis of his magical chants is interesting and markedly multi-faith. The Baba claims that his guru, one Ishfaq Ali of Javasar village in Jhunjhnu district of Rajasthan, first introduced him to several magical ayats (verses) from the Quran and some mantras from the Gita. By chanting these in a particular sequence, he can impart curative properties to ordinary bottled water.
Money is also obviously flowing in and the Baba has set up a permanent office in Dharuheda village by the name of Om Sai Ram Astha Samiti. His followers claim that the Baba’s fame is spreading across the seas now and he is getting requests from the US for telephonic cure through the magical mantras.
When the Baba’s clinic gets going , devotee after devotee comes in holding the mandatory sealed bottle of mineral water. The Baba first breaks the seal, sprinkles some water over the patient’s face and whispers the magical mantras into the remaining water in the bottle. The potion is then fit for drinking as a medicine. Vinita, a young woman from Bharatpur in Rajasthan, who has been following the Baba ever since he first administered the sanctified water to her in Rewari, says he made her feel better immediately.
The story of the Baba’s success is somewhere also the story of the failure of both India’s public health care and water management systems, particularly in arid states such as Haryana and Rajasthan. Most ailments in these places, especially in the rural areas, are traceable to poor quality drinking water.
According to health workers, nearly 40% of chronic ailments in India can be cured if only the state could ensure supply of safe drinking water. Given the lack of government health care facilities in the neighbourhood, sick villagers have no choice but to go to local quacks or seek out Babas and witch doctors.
Poor health statistics may be certainly connected with poverty, but they are also impacted by the abysmal state of local dispensaries and primary health care centres, and a near total lack of basic information about health care practices and personal hygiene.
As for safe drinking water, it is a commodity fast disappearing not only from small districts and block headquarters, but also posh colonies in metros such as Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore. Ironically, as the choice for expensive and fancy plumbing equipment widens for the rich, there are complaints that actual supply of water in well-equipped bathrooms and modular kitchens is almost down to a trickle everywhere.
According to a report of the Planninng Commission’s expert group on groundwater management and ownership, overexploitation of groundwater by farmers and builders, who are using borewells to siphon out the limited resource, has resulted in 54% of the blocks in six northern states, including Haryana and Rajasthan, becoming increasingly arid. Such aridity is also closely associated with worsening water quality, reflected in the rising levels of fluoride, arsenic and iron in local water.
Both Haryana and Rajasthan are comparatively rich states, but like affluent Delhi and Mumbai, they are also periodically facing outbreaks of diseases such as hepatitis and colitis, caused by contaminated water. Since water supply is the responsibility of the states, we also need to take a close look at most regulatory departments. Most of them are almost dysfunctional. And community-based localized water management systems that could prod the local officials into repairing faulty pipelines, nabbing owners of unauthorized borewells and supplying water in tankers have not yet taken shape.
The water mafia, on the other hand, has seized control of the meagre water resources and is selling water at a premium during the summer months.
The maverick Mineral Water Baba blowing into bottles of mineral water is actually a terrifying symbol. He spells the tip of the iceberg of a looming groundwater crisis in the entire northern region.
“How he cures, I do not know,” says one patient of the Baba. “We have all just come here to be cured. Because our elders say when there is no dava (medicine), dua (prayers) alone may work.”
Mrinal Pande likes to take readers behind the reported news in her fortnightly column. She is chief editor of Hindustan. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org