On Jan. 5, 2011, a meeting was held on a frosty morning in Jai Singh Ghera between well-wrapped members of the Vrindavan community and a group of scholars from the Yale University Forum on Religion and Ecology and the school of South Indian Religions and Ecology and University of North Texas.
The American visitors had finished a two-day seminar in New Delhi at the TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) of Tata Technological Research University, where they met with scientists to discuss how there could be a confluence of their two realms of expertise.
David L. Haberman, professor of comparative religion at Indiana University, and author of Yamuna, River of Love in an Age of Pollution, introduced the meeting. He said that the scholars had come in the hope of establishing relationships between the local community and NGOs and the scientists of TERI, who are becoming interested in the issues of the Yamuna.
The questions he asked were, “Why is the river contaminated? Why have projects like the Yamuna Action Plan (YAP) failed? What can be done to return the Yamuna to its pristine state? The TERI scientists are young and enthusiastic and want to come and visit. What kind of information can they provide, or how can the local people work together with them?”
John Grim, is a senior lecturer and scholar at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He also spoke of the Delhi workshop at TERI, confluence of scientific people and students of religion and the environment. Many cultures historically have a connection to the land and water, but with the pressures of modernization find their culture itself under attack and attempt to preserve it. “different dance but the same dance.”
Furthermore, he spoke of the necessity for talk. “I don’t believe it when people say we don’t need to talk and just go to action. Talk, breath and words, all mean something. They are the ground we stand on.”
He said that there is a feeling of excitement among the scientists about these issues. Even the TERI Vice-chancellor came and listened to the discussions. They have an “initiative on water” which he said should become an “initiative on the Yamuna.”
Chandra Prasad Sharma, secretary of the Panda Union and professor at the Sanskrit Mahavidyalaya, pointed out that all sampradayas held the Yamuna in veneration, as a participant and so concerted action is possible. He pointed out the well-known facts, which were to come up again and again in the meeting, that the Yamuna water belongs to all the places that lie along its route to Allahabad, but most of the water is siphoned off for irrigation before Delhi, and Delhi takes whatever is left. There must be an equitable division of the Yamuna water resources so that Uttar Pradesh gets its fair share.
Bhakti Alok Paramadvaiti Maharaj said that India is in a record-setting time—record numbers and extreme growth. But the Yamuna water we see on the surface is not the whole story, the ground waters, which help to restore the Yamuna’s flow, are being depleted at such a rapid rate that within ten years it is quite probable that there will be no drinking water, no water at all, in Vrindavan what to speak of restoring the Yamuna. Water harvesting is a great need at the moment.
“After Sonia Bihar in Delhi, the water is completely gone. Everything after that is contaminated drain water. There are so many things needed. We are in state of emergency, but few people are ready to make radical changes that are needed,” Paramadvaiti Maharaj said.
Bihari Lal Vashishta, National Spokesman for the Brahman Maha Sabha spoke of the failure of the Gokul Barrage: “It was to supply drinking water to Vrindavan and Mathura, but it has not been helpful, as it only causes dirty stewage water to accumulate. We need to block drains from entering Yamuna. This needs enforcement, but what can ordinary people do? Enforcing compliance is the government’s job.”
Jagannath Poddar of Friends of Vrindavan said that many tasks had been done through court injunction like stopping the bridge and some cutting of trees, but it is not so good for improving things.
Acharya Naresh Narain suggested that dredging of the Yamuna bed is needed. Making it deeper will help to retain and purify water. He further said that industries are a greater source of pollution than the prasad like flowers, etc. He nevertheless said that farmers need water for irrigation and their needs must be taken into account.
Lokesh Dixit said, “We have created the problem, we have to fix it. We must make a committee, organize and act. He recommended that visitors write the Ministry of Environment and make recommendations for implementation.”
Mary Evelyn Tucker answered to this and said that TERI/Yale/Vrindavan declaration will be sent to government after the meetings. Prof. Tucker is head of the Yale University, World Religion and Ecology project at Harvard. She has published seven books based on conferences held at Harvard on each of the various religions and their history and connection to environment, etc.
She lauded the Yale-TERI connection. “This is a historic moment. The TERI scientists are forming a new kind of alliance. We hope to bring together with university powers. Scientists can make a critical difference. They understand the religious component involved in any such effort. These scientists can come to Vrindavan, meet and talk to the local people, and then go back and make contacts with the government.”
“Yale has a new and very strong interest in India and representatives of the will come for further meetings,” she added.
Balkrishna Gautam said that though Vrindavan is only contributing a small portion of the waste that goes into the Yamuna. There are so much industrial waste and so on that goes in. Even so, so much money was given to Vrindavan for local purification projects and for public participation and awareness (PPA), but to very little effect.
Ramdevananda Saraswati said, “I have walked all the way from Yamunotri to Triveni at Prayag, so I have seen the situation. At Yamunotri they have now built so many ashrams and guest houses, who even there pour their sewage into the river. So the pollution starts right at the source. The entire Yamuna from beginning to end needs to be purified. At the Hathani Kund barrage the water is already polluted. Perhaps a separate channel can be created to keep the clean water separate from the waste.”
Several people pointed out that the Tamil Nadu and Karnatak governments on Supreme Court command came to an agreement about sharing the Godavari River waters.
Others who were there included: Omendra Shrivastav, who runs the Friends of Vrindavan program for collecting and disposing of biohazardous waste from the hospitals throughout the Agra-Hathras-Mathura areas, Acharya Vivek, Bihari Lal Vashisht, National spokesman for the Brahman Maha Sabha from Delhi, George James, professor of environmental philosophy at University of North Texas, Vidisha Kumar, a graduate student at the University of North Texas working on the interface of religion and the environment, Christopher Key Chapple, professor of comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He is the author of numerous books and editor of Yoga and Ecology and Hinduism and Ecology, etc. Luc Stevens, mechanical engineer, working on cleaning waste water and preventing it from going into the Yamuna. Lokesh Dixit, who was formerly on the staff of Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, and currently works for the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce.
After the meeting Ramdevananda Saraswati, Phuldol Bihari Das Babaji, President of All-India Sant Samiti, Mahant Satchitananda Dasji, President of Chatuh Sampradaya Sadhu Samaj, Jagannath Poddar, Acharya Naresh Narain and Bihari Lal Vashisth, decided to form a Yamuna Bachao Andolan, which will be a registered trust.