Haridwar: Giant billboards showing a sadhu on the march, staff in hand, against the backdrop of the melting whiteness of a glacier greeted visitors to Haridwar a few months ago, marking a change from the usual religious exhortations. Soham Baba, the man depicted in the hoardings, had more earthly concerns.
Haridwar’s billboards usually announce—in loud saffron text—political gatherings, yoga classes or discounts on spoken English courses, apart from religious ceremonies around town.
When Soham Baba made his appearance, the saffron gave way to green. Climate change and its effects have coloured much of the religious discourse at the Kumbh mela, the massive religious congregation of Hindus held once every 12 years that runs 14 January to 28 April.
Earthly matters: 1. This is 40-year-old Soham Baba’s first appearance at the Kumbh. He runs the Netherlands-based Soham Baba Mission, a spiritual organization with chapters in 120 countries. Its slogan is ecologically apposite: recycle, renew, rejuvenate. 2. A billboard featuring Soham Baba with the message: “Stop global warming, save the glaciers, save the Himalayas and the earth.” 3. “We must protect water bodies. If we don’t, there will be decay, floods, earthquakes,” warns Swami Nischalanand Saraswati Dev, the Shankaracharya at the Purvamnay Govardhan Math at Puri, whose camp at the Kumbh attracts the largest number of devotees. 4. Another self-styled green guru, Pilot Baba, addresses a group of people on global warming and the threat it holds for the coming generation. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
The religious event, which mostly sees a large contingent of holy men propagating matters of faith, is no longer limited to sermons on loudspeakers, ritualistic dips in the Ganga river and mass dinners for the faithful. It has been turning eco-friendly, driven by growing environmental concerns in Uttarakhand over the construction of dams and gross over-pollution of the river considered holy by Hindus. The various religious camps that have set up at the Kumbh are seeking to mobilize pilgrims through tree plantation and garbage collection drives.
The first Soham Baba billboard, replete with environmental slogans, read: “Save the earth from climate change. Plant trees.”
What began as a trickle of humanity to the baba’s sprawling camp has built up into a steady stream of pilgrims who are seeking green guidance or are just plain curious.
This is the first time that the holy man, named Sudeep Anandgiri at birth, is making an appearance at the Kumbh. The 40-year-old runs the Netherlands-based Soham Baba Mission (SBM), a spiritual organization with chapters in 120 countries. Its slogan is ecologically apposite: recycle, renew, rejuvenate.
Action on climate change needs to be used as a tool for religion to make better contemporary sense, the baba says. “All saints will have to come out of the sermon mode and offer to people, especially youth, their support to relevant issues,” he explains.
The saint, who says he is a trained neurosurgeon, practices what he preaches, offering water in small clay pitchers and pointing to the use of bamboo at his camp, apart from the absence of loudspeakers.
“Sixteen years ago, I told everyone that glaciers are melting. No one believed me. There are many caves where ice can no more be found. There are mountain deserts where you could once find water. But it’s never too late to begin. This is the right place and the right time,” he says, as a group of women visitors approach him with garlands.
One of them tells him she came after seeing his posters.
“Do you understand what I am saying there? If you can, plant a tree for every dip you take in the Ganga,” he tells her, handing out a booklet on conservation. It lays out simple green tips—use solar energy, ban plastic, plant trees.
The baba’s mission is engaged in other eco-friendly exercises, besides seeking to preach to the faithful. Inside the camp stands a van loaded with bags of bleaching powder ordered by the SBM for sanitizing surrounding areas and a small placard announcing the quality control cell of the mission that promotes organic foods.
The mission has launched an initiative in Haridwar known as the Friends of Environment Project (FoEP) jointly with the Pilot Baba Camp, another spiritual group. FoEP volunteers, mostly local youth, clear up litter from the river bed, plant trees and install garbage bins.
Somewhere between the local marketplace and Har Ki Pauri, the bank of the Ganga where Hindus believe a bath during the Kumbh washes sins away, Ved Prakash Tripathi talks of his own moment of anxiety about climate change. About two years ago, cracks appeared in the ground in Hamirpur district, a couple of hours from Mahoba where he stays.
“No earthquakes, it just happened on its own. Trees have been drying up, animals have been dying from thirst,” says Tripathi, who tills a 10 acre plot of land for a living.
He talks about the mud banks he created on his land in Mahoba, where it doesn’t rain enough any more. “In four-five years, it rained (last year) but the water held back by the mud banks dried in 15 days,” he says.
Mahoba is one of the 13 drought-hit districts in the Bundelkhand region (seven of them in Uttar Pradesh and six in Madhya Pradesh), notorious for illegal and excessive mining activities resulting in large-scale deforestation, flash floods and drought. The federal United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress party has approved a special Rs7,266 crore package for Bundelkhand to implement a drought mitigation strategy.
The relief plan for the region, said to be Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s brainchild, has however become hostage to the rivalry between his Congress party and Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party.
Tripathi and many like him are turning to faith in adversity. He came to the Kumbh as a volunteer for Swami Nischalanand Saraswati Dev, the Shankaracharya, or supreme religious guru of the Hindus, at the Purvamnay Govardhan Math at Puri. Though the farmer doesn’t understand much about climate change, he now knows it has everything to do with what’s been happening back home.
The Shankaracharya, whose camp sees the largest stream of pilgrims at the three-month event, flares up at the mention of dams, currently a controversial issue in Uttarakhand, often referred to as “Land of the Gods” because of a multitude of Hindu pilgrimage spots.
Inside a bamboo hut, the Shankracharya delays lunch to discuss the Ganga with devotees who have queued up for an audience with him. “All the construction in the name of development would bring destruction. We must protect water bodies. If we don’t, there will be decay, floods, earthquakes,” he warns.
Protests against several power projects along the Ganga have united Hindu organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Ganga Raksha Manch with environmentalists. The Uttarakhand state government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, on the other hand, wants to harness the hydroelectric potential of water bodies to make Uttarakhand an “energy state” in the next 10 years. The conservation groups seem to be gaining the upper hand: two projects—Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati—were stalled last year due to mounting opposition.
The environmental opposition stems partly from the effects of the Tehri dam, which led the relocation of 40 villages after it started functioning in 2006.
“Dam authorities do not release any water during the day which affects the flow (that’s) further limited by the Bhim Gowda barrage in Haridwar,” says Ravi Chopra, environment scientist with the Dehradun-based People’s Science Institute, a policy and research institute, and member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, an empowered planning, financing, monitoring and coordinating authority.
The Himalayan glaciers in the region have been thinning, says Chopra, who goes on trekking field trips in the area as part of his research. Twenty years ago, he says, the snow on the Himalayas did not appear like a tattered piece of fabric as it does now. Chopra says the science behind the environmental damage caused by river barrages is elementary—dams deplete rivers; drying rivers heat up valleys and affect plant productivity; the hot air from the valleys threatens glaciers.
With religious groups adding their voice to the rhetoric on climate change and the issue threatening to become a critical factor in influencing votes, administrative decisions have started paying the environmental lobby greater heed.
Though Uttarakhand environment ministry officials declined to comment, given the controversial nature of the subject, the Union government last week shelved both Pala Maneri and Bhairon Ghati river barrage projects in the state, according to The Times of India newspaper.