Varanasi is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for the Hindus. Photograph: (AFP)
The Prime Minister has saluted the volunteers, but they haven't been able to make any headway with the local civic authorities
The tumultuous Ganga of the Himalayas finds peace, like many a wandering soul, in Varanasi, one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities of the world. Believed to be ruled by Lord Vishwanath, Varanasi is one of the holiest pilgrimage sites for Hindus.
As per the Hindu belief system, a person can achieve salvation and freedom from the perpetually-spinning wheel of life and death merely by dying in Varanasi. For centuries, people have been coming to the city to spend the twilight phase of their lives, hoping for deliverance. Hindus from across the country visit Varanasi to cremate recently-deceased loved ones with the same goal in mind.
The Ganga in Varanasi bears the brunt of nurturing one of the holiest and most polluted cities in the country. The many ghats of Ganga symbolically tell a sordid story of life and death. Burning pyres, ritualistic waste, human and animal excreta dot the ghats and make one wonder about this strange conundrum of purity. How can a place be so holy and so filthy and polluted at the same time?
Bestselling author Amish Tripathi of the Meluha trilogy fame shares his thoughts on people's attitude towards the environment. "In the traditional Indian way, nature was not meant to be mindlessly exploited. It was treated as nurturer, Mother Nature." But how do we then end up destroying Mother Ganga? Tripathi, whose family roots are in Varanasi, replies, "It's not just about Ganga, our overall attitude towards nature has undergone change. Even when it comes to cleaning and conservation, our approach now is that we are doing something to 'protect nature'. This is childish and immature. We are not protecting nature, we are protecting ourselves by being concerned about it."
This very thought perhaps drove a young woman from Nagaland to devote her life to the cleaning of Varanasi. Since 2013, Temsutula Imsong has been cleaning the Ganga ghats. Her Mission Parijaat found resonance with many a concerned resident and slowly it became a revolution.
Beginning from Prabhu Ghat, which in her own words was like "an open defecation ground", Imsong's cleanliness drive has now spread across the country under the name of Shramdaan (the gift of physical labour). Imsong is all praise for the expanding base of volunteers who tirelessly work towards making their cities, and country, cleaner. "If you don't want to clean up, it's okay. At least don't litter," says a zealous Imsong.
Tarun Kumar, Deputy Commandant, Indo-Tibetan Border Police, has led two sailing expeditions on the course of Ganga in 2012 and 2015. The expeditions were to spread awareness about the necessity of conserving and cleaning the river. He shares how at some stretches in Uttar Pradesh the river is already dead. During the 2015 expedition, his team got in touch with Imsong and her group of volunteers upon reaching Varanasi. "It was the best effort we came across in the entire stretch of 2,250 kilometres," says Kumar. No wonder he too is a Shramdaani today.
Recognising her efforts in line with the Swachha Bharat Mission, prime minister Narendra Modi has felicitated Imsong along with her committed group of volunteers. He tweeted in 2015, "This effort by Temsutula Imsong & the entire team to clean the Ghats in Varanasi is phenomenal! I salute them."
It is unfortunate, therefore, when these same volunteers complain of systemic apathy. They claim to receive a lukewarm response from the local civic authorities. Pavan Raj, a volunteer, shares how the municipal officials do not even visit the ghats to take stock of the situation. When they are approached for infrastructural requirements, all they do is promise. Raj says, "They say it (materials like dustbins or cleaning equipment) has been issued but don't even come to check whether it has reached the ghats."
Another volunteer, Ashutosh Dixit, shares how even the pilgrims don't co-operate when they are stopped from littering around the ghats.
If the Prime Minister's own Lok Sabha constituency suffers from systemic inertia and public apathy despite his pat on the back to people like Imsong, what hope do other places have?