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Jal Dindi: An annual river cruise

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FOR GOD'S SAKE: The villagers of Kavatha welcome the Jal Dindi troupe on its annual visit. The group carries a palanquin with holy water from 51 holy rivers and holy objects along with the message of river conservation. (Below) The river banks near Daund are lined with plastic waste

As far as reception parties went, this one was far off the wall. A dozen men squatted expectantly in the gloam, kitted out in the cotton ensemble of the varkari: pyjamas, boxy shirt and Gandhi cap. (Varkaris are devotees of the Bhakti movement in central India). The men were waiting for a travelling party to wash up on the banks of the river Bhima. After a while a flotilla bobbed around the bend, and the welcome party on shore broke into song - kirtans, actually.

Salutations rang out to the water-borne members of the non-profit Jal Dindi Pratishthan as they disembarked to touchingly sincere back-slapping and embraces. The villagers of Kavatha last met the Jal Dindi itinerants a year ago;this visitation being an annual affair. Every year, the day after Dussehra, an entourage from the non-profit in Pune sails up the Bhima on what, quite literally, is a jal dindi, a water pilgrimage. They carry with them a reliquary in the form of a boatshaped palanquin that contains a vessel of holy water from 51 holy rivers and forts in India, a veena, and paduka (wooden slippers symbolic of Sant Dnyaneshwar ) - objects regarded with fervid devotion here.

The metred percussion of cymbals and dhol thinned out and the palanquin was conveyed up a dirt track to the village temple, a train of exultant villagers in tow. In these parts, that was a red-carpet reception.

In the forecourt of the temple, around a hundred villagers were milling around. A dental camp conducted by the public service department of Pune's Bharati Vidyapeeth Dental College, in alliance with Jal Dindi, had just examined their last oral cavity and everyone was now taking ten. A fire was blazing to one side with a titanic vessel of baingan bartha on the boil for a communal dinner later. Each household in the village had contributed two rotis to the repast. The night's itinerary included a round of haripath (sundown spiritual song and dance), a volleyball match, and a snake show. What may have appeared to be a cultural salmagundi was actually a schedule of religion, sport, health and environmental propaganda - the first used as sort of decoy.

Kavatha, like 120 other villages down the river, had been introduced to volleyball when Jal Dindi gifted them its paraphernalia on one of their former visits. The sport has since become the preferred pastime here, and a factor responsible for the improved health and stamina of the village men, claimed one of them. The snake show was a stab at animal conservation - an attempt to reeducate people about snakes and bust old myths. The communal dinner was the final flourish in an effective, if superficial, exercise in social integration, where villagers and urbanites travelling with Jal Dindi sat together and banqueted. The men then bedded down in the foyer of the temple, and the women on the floor of a villager's house. Next morning, the Jal Dindi troupe sailed down to the next village in kayaks and canoes. Not quite your average river cruise.

Jal Dindi is a decade-old practice initiated by a gynecologist from Pune, Dr Viswas Yeole, who was looking for a sustainable, culturally compatible model for river conservation. A devout man himself, he realised the way to make a case for the river (and other freshwater sources) in these pious parts was to conflate conservation with spiritualism and popular culture - to create a modern tradition with roots in familiar orthodoxy that would, once again ascribe to the river, reverence. He didn't have to cast far for inspiration - the region's ritual vari, or pilgrimage, caught his eye.

Varkaris are not unaccustomed to holy treks. Every year, more than a million of them pad it to Pandharpur, abode of Lord Vitthal, or Pandurang, on biannual walking pilgrimages that they approach with a sense of blessed duty. Jal Dindi's water pilgrimage, from Alandi, another temple town near Pune, to Pandharpur in the district of Solapur, sought to ride this devotional current. For twelve days, and over 450 km on water, a fluid group of roughly 160 individuals - volunteers and villagers, unable to stay the whole course, hop on and off the boats - journey the rivers Indrayani and Bhima. The social agenda changes every year although the spiritual schedule stays more or less the same.

They collectively dock at about 50 villages along the river. Once the boats berth at a village, the group heads directly for the local temple, where the palanquin draws the village out. After they've made their genuflections, the non-profit proceeds to engage them in advocacy on the river's health and the need to keep it clean;they conduct health camps, plant trees, distribute solar lamps, books and sports equipment, and plant ideas and deposit resources that hope to improve the social and physical wellness of the village.

But for all its adventure and high-mindedness, the social pilgrimage has its critics. "It's more important to educate cities and not villages about river conservation, " believes Satish Tanksale, a retired mechanical engineer and sports enthusiast who joined the river expedition this year. "The cause of river conservation has to swell into a movement like Hazare's campaign against corruption, " he says. Indeed, if people have to be engaged, it is governments, industries and residents of cities. In an indictment of the city's culpability, the high tidal mark on both banks of Bhima is marked by an unbroken trail of plastic. From a distance they appear like flanks of white water birds. Closer up you see them for bleached, beached bags washed downriver.

Anil Patil, president of the Maharashtra Vikas Kendra, another NGO in Pune championing clean rivers, says by the time the Bhima flows downstream to Ujjani dam in Solapur (on the dindi's course), it contains deposits (largely untreated) from 15 sugar factories, 10 industrial estates, 12 municipal corporations, 10 nagar palikas and 200 villages. "How can intermittent intervention (like Jal Dindi's ) help the situation? The river won't change by bringing people to it for a few days, " he says, though acknowledging that India's rivers need Jal Dindi's soft crusade for river ecosystems as much as they do hard propaganda against pollution. "However, river ecosystems will only develop if pollution is first dealt with, " he points out.

Suneel Joshi, coordinator with another water body in Pune, Dr Rajendra Singh's Jal Biradari, says Jal Dindi has managed to create a groundswell of rural support and invented a novel way of uniting people with rivers. "All of Maharashtra's rivers are dead, " he charges. "People believe it is the government's duty to clean the rivers;governments believe the rivers will clean themselves. " What Jal Biradari has managed to achieve in Pune city by encouraging citizens to feel a sense of ownership towards their local rivers, Jal Dindi is on its way to accomplishing in the countryside. Indeed, in the common waters of conservation and pollution control advocacy, NGOs are often inspired by each other. "We plan to organise a Jalyatra (foot pilgrimage) from Bhimashankar to Ganagapur (in Karnataka) in the coming months. But unlike Jal Dindi, we will travel by road to riverside villages on this stretch and try to form village youth groups, apart from disseminating information about environmental laws and people's rights, " he says. "It will be an apolitical platform. "

Dr Yeole has tried to keep his organisation nonconfrontational;it challenges neither government, nor industry, nor even public. It functions on a different set of impulses, more cultural than critical. Yet, the stark facts of prevalent crises aren't lost on him. "The irony is, the city that pollutes the river doesn't drink from it, " he says. "The tragedy is the villagers, who have historically drawn their drinking water from the river, now cannot. " Bharat Taware, a 23-year-old from Kavatha, says there's no piped water in his village. No one dares drink the water from the river;the effluents and sewage from the sugar factories in the Upper Bhima have permanently corrupted it. So the villagers of Kavatha have to buy pirated water at Rs 15 for a 25-lt container. Every evening pick-up trucks travel 30 km to Daund and back for water siphoned from a leaky municipal water mains. "This is a dead river, " echoes Dr Yeole, as our canoe clips ahead on the flat trough. Fishermen are scarce here because fish are scarce. In the early years, Jal Dindi used to measure levels of pollution, but they gave up after they realised there was nothing new to report - pollution levels were going up and the government claimed to already know about it. A trained sailor, in 2002 Yeole set out with his tindal from the Pune Boat Club, Babanrao, to survey the river, section by section. He first woke up to the defilement of Pune's rivers when his 6-year-old son refused to sail with him on the Mula-Mutha confluence for fear of falling into its filth. Years later, when his mother passed away and he had to immerse her ashes in flowing water, Yeole couldn't find a clean river near Pune that was good enough. It was these incidents that brought the condition of the rivers to his attention. In 1996 he started the Clean River Committee with fellow activists. They contributed their own money, purchased boats, and set out to clean three of Pune's rivers by dredging water hyacinth and plastic, but four years back they gave up. "The scale of the problem was beyond any individual. This initiative needed the cooperation of the government, NGOs, industry and the public, " he admits, "No sooner would we clean one stretch, the tide would wash in more garbage. It dawned on me that you can't sectionalise a river, you have to treat it in its entirety. "

So while Jal Dindi follows the river into the country, its urban version, the Jal Maitri Yatra, sails from the mouth of Pune's rivers into the city. (The sight of people navigating Pune's filthy waters is enough to draw people's attention to them. ) In the city, the volunteers stop at schools, colleges and residential societies, to screen river-related documentaries and hold lecture on water conservation. But above all, they promote water sports like rowing and rafting and invite people to join them on the boats. "Bringing people on the river itself is a crucial step towards preservation, " says Yeole. He believes the key fault with government attempts at conservation is their inability to get the citizenry to participate. "Awareness is not everything, " he says.

Jal Dindi's success at involving the public, albeit a fraction of it, in river conservation, has earned it a chapter in a grade eight work experience textbook, as well as mention in the state government's book, Culture of Maharashtra. In addition, Dr Yeole has read two papers at the International Lake Conference, once in China, the second time in Jaipur. "This is a model that can easily be replicated on any fresh water body, " he maintains, adding that similar social cruises are to take place on the Godavari and Pravara rivers in Maharashtra. He believes change will come when people begin to take an interest in where their drinking water comes from, and when both the village and the city realise the river flows through their heart.

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