Indian NGOs Use Religion to Help Clean Polluted Rivers
The Yamuna, a tributary of the Ganges River, is India’s most polluted and one of the most toxic waterways in the world. Yet for the 80% of Indians who are Hindu, the river is sacred. She is a goddess--daughter of Surya the Sungod and sister of Yama, the god of death--infused with the same divine spirit that interconnects all living things.
“Yamuna is believed to free one of the fear of death, yet because of pollution and obstruction of Her flow, She is dying—and causing the deaths of many who rely on Her waters,” explained Shanti, a representative of the non-profit organization Ganga Action.
This irony is not lost on many of Delhi’s environmental activists. Faced with a growing list of issues and frustrated by the pace of change, secular organizations have begun emphasizing the spiritual importance of the natural world as a call for action.
Religious reverence for nature is intuitive for the majority of Indian citizens. Hinduism’s ancient texts, the Vedas, describe the natural world as inhabiting the same spiritual space as humans. Experts believe that bringing religion into the environmental movement in India is currently an underutilized—and effective—tool.
Shanti’s organization, Ganga Action was formed by Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji and launched in 2010 by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It unites economists, scientists, environmentalists and agriculturalists with saints, scholars, and yogis to clean up the Ganges, India’s largest and most sacred river.
The solution to India’s polluted waters, Shanti said, “has to be both--both the emphasis on spirituality, as well as emphasis on just pure environmental awareness and education.”
But the task is tricky, Shanti said, Hindus often get defensive when they are told that the Ganges, a river that is praised for its purifying effects, is polluted.
“But when they are given the facts of how many people are dying each year from waterborne diseases,” she said, “how stretches of Yamuna support no life--and haven't for over a decade--and all the other horrors of pollution affecting these rivers, they cannot help but see the truth.”
Every year, over one million adults and two million children die from waterborne illnesses in the Ganga Basin alone.
Swechha, a youth-focused NGO that is engaged in environmental issues, agrees that spiritual awareness is central to its goal.
“We are not a religious organization,” said Amrita Anand, a project coordinator for the Delhi-based NGO. “We don’t make the kids pray or go to temple. But we do facilitate a spiritual connection that deepens their relationship to the river.”
Swechha takes young people on pilgrimage-type trips from Yamuna’s source near the Himalayan mountains back down to Delhi. Organizers hope that these twelve-day tours, called Yamuna Yatra, will foster a bond to nature that will encourage environmental stewardship as the children grow into adulthood.
Beyond the physical piles of trash that are a common sight, India’s rivers suffer from a failing on an institutional level. The capital’s lack of an efficient solid waste management system is a major impediment to clean rivers.
A study conducted over two years by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) and UNICEF called “Yamuna, the Poisoned River,” asserted that “rampant industrial pollution and untreated sewage is choking the river.”
“After the Yamuna leaves Delhi, its one hundred percent sewage,” said Madhu Kishwar, the founder of Manushi, a Delhi-based human rights organization. “There should never be a situation where sewage and drinking water mix.”
The Delhi Jah Board, the governmental department charged with providing the capital with clean drinking water, promised to make vast strides toward cleaning up the Yamuna in 2012. In January, they set a deadline for the end of the year to ensure that no untreated sewage goes into the river. It’s an ambitious project that requires a serious commitment.
But Kishwar says the government has made many promises about environmental initiatives that it has yet to carry through.
While it will take reform on an institutional level to develop an effective waste management system and fix the sewage problem, activists say inroads can be made on a grassroots level and religion has been a significant resource.
In their ongoing campaign to save the Asian elephant from extinction, The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) appeals to the faith of villagers who live adjacent to protected areas. The NGO often works through the local religious leaders to spread their message of conservation.
“People listen to religious leaders. Sometimes the only way to reach people [in certain villages] is by appealing to their spirituality,” said Joydeep Bose, a project coordinator for WWF.
Bose explains that it can be difficult to get people to rally behind conservation efforts, especially when available resources are limited. For the villagers who live in rural areas, conservation seems abstract compared to the tangible assets of forests or farmland. Faith can help assign greater value to targeted protection zones.
The WWF’s work in saving elephant habitats has help from another auspicious link to faith: Ganesha, one of Hinduism’s most popular deities, has the head of an elephant.
“It is a natural link that people make,” Bose said, “We want to protect an animal that we recognize as a god.”
Ganga Action’s path of action also mixes the pragmatic with the metaphysical: it offers wastewater, solid waste, agricultural, and ecological management solutions. But emphasizing the river’s holiness in their outreach campaigns is just as important, Shanti believes.
“No one would ever go into a temple and leave their trash, defecate in public, or any other activity like that.“ said Shanti from Ganga Action. “If we start to transform in people's minds that the banks of Ganga and her tributaries are temples not toilets, there may start to be a shift in the way we treat our rivers."
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