When TIME magazine came out with their “Heroes of the Environment” section back in 2008, Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal was the only Indian to make it to the list. Seechewal, also known as the "Eco Baba" is credited with cleaning the Kali Bein, a tributary of the River Beas in Punjab.
Seechewal began the project along with a few volunteers in 2008, finally giving Punjab back a pristine tributary eight years later. For his volunteers and him, who’re ingrained in the practice of “sewa” (voluntary service), the work had a spiritual purpose. People from more than 24 villages joined the movement, cleared the riverbed of hyacinth and silt, and built a lovely riverbank.
The government didn’t even help with an awareness campaign, so Seechewal launched his own, encouraging villagers to throw and treat their waste differently. The outcome was amazing — a government order to divert the water from a nearby canal was received and the natural springs were revived again. For some time in 2008, the river was thriving, enjoying its second lease of life. It had even turned into a picnic spot.
But here’s the twist. After Kali Bein was cleaned up, it became dirty again. In fact, just last month, five quintals of dead fish were found in the river. The good news is that Seechwal and team are still dedicated to the cause. Even though the municipal council (MC) and Punjab Pollution Control Board (PPCB) can barely see eye-to-eye on anything, Seechewal and his people are doing whatever they can to keep the river clean. While MC and PPCB take their battles to court, this Padma Shri awardee is cleaning out dead fish by the trolley-load. With limited resources, and almost no help from the government, Seechewal is operating just the way he did when he first started out in 2000. He still spends his time doing hard physical work at the river bank, and making requests to irrigation ministers and deputy commissioners. Months go by and little happens.
How Kali Bein could have gotten so dirty, despite being considered sacred, is strange. That's of course if you ignore the fate of the Ganga! Kali Bein is only a 99-mile-long (160 km) river-turned-drain into which six towns and 40 villages empty their waste. Dried portions, parched farmlands, polluted groundwater and lethal diseases define the river. She needs a miracle again, and thankfully she’ll get it in Seechewal.
Technically, getting the wrongdoers to book should be simple now because under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, release of polluted water into the river is banned. Directives get passed, interviews get taken and articles get published, but the story doesn’t change too much on the ground. Last year, around this time, former transport minister Ajit Sigh Kohar had said that ahead of the Assembly elections, the government would clean the river up in 20 days because then Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal wanted to inaugurate it on 31 May 2016. If the lure of votes can’t get the job done, we suppose you need a god-man.
Seechewal hasn’t given up. His spirituality keeps him sane. In an interview with TIME, he’d said that one of his favourite verses from the Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, is about the elements. "The wind is our guru," it reads, "water is father, and the earth, mother.” What is ironic is that the worst affected stretch of the river is the area near Gurudwara Ber Sahib, where devotees go for a holy dip.
Kali Bein’s current state may be troubled, but that doesn’t mean that Seechewal’s ways aren’t worthy. If all goes well, Nitish Kumar is all set to replicate Seechewal’s model in Bihar.