The True Pilgrims

More than 1200 people from Kerala have joined the Art of Living Pampa River Cleaning Project.

In February 2014, an elephant was found dead in the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The post-mortem revealed huge piles of waste — including polythene bags, aluminum foil and wrappers in her abdomen.

"We have always used the water from holy rivers like Ganga and Yamuna to purify ourselves, but today we have reached a point where we have to purify this water. So, we are waging a war against pollution in our rivers. Millions have been spent on cleaning our rivers, but nothing has happened. The government alone cannot do it. We will have to come together. I invite industry, civil society and the government to take it as an emergency."

– Gurudev

Pampa is the third longest river of Kerala and the primary source of water for Central Travancore in Kerala. Over 50 drinking water supply projects, benefiting 30 lakh people in Pathanamthitta and Aleppuzha districts of Kerala, depend on the river. Apart from this, the river water is used to irrigate an estimated 37,300 hectares of land. The river is revered as the Dakshina Ganga and flows along the banks of the sacred Sabrimala temple. Over 5 crore pilgrims visit the Sabrimala temple annually to take a dip in the holy water of the river.

When you visit the Sabarimala temple, it is hard to miss the sights and smells of the garbage problem caused by people, especially during the 2-month long Sabarimala pilgrimage. To add to this, local people throw clothes in the river, pollute it with factory waste, wash clothes, and use the river as a toilet. This poses a serious threat to the wildlife and ecology of the Reserve. It is a health hazard to the lakhs of pilgrims who visit, and the population downstream, dependent on the river for water.

In recent years, the river has been getting steadily polluted owing to a multitude of factors, like illegal sand mining, dumping of waste by pilgrims, flow of sewage from towns and settlements and a fast-growing water weed. Due to illegal sand mining, Pampa has almost lost its water-holding capacity in the past four decades. The riverbed has sunk by 4.5 to 10 meters along various stretches of the river, even going three meters below the mean sea level in some places. This has led to ground water depletion and salinity intrusion.

The existing sewage treatment plant has a capacity of 1.5 MLD (million lakh liters per day) and is not sufficient to handle sewage generated from Pampa. So, a major part of the sewage goes to the river untreated. During the Sabarimala festival season, coliform bacteria in the Pampa river water was found to be up to three lakh per 100 ml, indicating a high level of sewage pollution.

Holy Pampa Cleaning Project Highlights

  • Over 1500 volunteers from 14 districts involved
  • 120 tons of Solid Waste Material removed
  • Approximately 25,000 pilgrims sensitized
  • Around 30,000 pamphlets distributed

To counter this, The Art of Living launched the Holy Pampa Cleaning Project. Love and respect for nature is one of the main teachings of the Great Lord Ayappa. And through this campaign, 12 to 85 year olds are serving that reminder to all. The first phase of the campaign was launched on 12th April, 2014.

Humanitarian and Founder of The Art of Living, Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, voiced his concern about the pollution of the River Pampa to Kerala Chief Minister, Oommen Chandy, during his visit to Trivandrum in 2014.

Hearing the spiritual leader's message to save the river and wildlife sanctuary, The Art of Living volunteers swung into action. Vinod Nair, an Art of Living faculty, coordinated the project. While most of us are left grappling with a problem of this proportion, Mr. Nair and his team adopted a systematic approach to the cleanup.

A project coordination team was formed to study the impact of pollution and current wastage cleaning system. It was found that the level of pollution in the Pampa can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, severe diarrhea, nausea, serious liver damage and associated headaches and fatigue. The team discussed the project with Sabarimala Devaswom officials, engineers, Forest officers, Police officers, judges, advocates, local authorities and activists.

The team found that improper disposal of waste peaked during first three days of the Kolla Varsham calendar, when pilgrims visited Sabarimala temple. Awareness, activism and actual cleaning of the river were planned to coincide with the days of the pilgrimage. While the blueprint for cleaning was being drawn, manpower to execute it was mobilized.

The Art of Living has scores of centers across Kerala where participants who have undergone the Happiness Program meet once a week for a yoga and Sudarshan Kriya session. Mr. Nair says that these centers were the biggest strength of the project. While people attend the Happiness Program to understand their own mind and emotions, service is one of the cornerstones of the program. When one feels more energetic and empowered, he or she automatically becomes more sensitive to the needs of people and nature.

Centers from each district took the responsibility to clean the river every month on a Rota system. 1,500 volunteers travelled up to 450 kilometers to conduct the river cleaning and awareness programs. The volunteers formed groups of five and went to different parts of the river to clean it.

The volunteers removed over 30 tons of garbage manually from the river in the 5 phases, put them in sacks and transported them by tractors to the Sabarimala Sanitation Society, to be disposed of properly. Encapsulating the project, Vinod Nair states, “Even after 5 phases of cleaning, some sections of the river are dirty, including the source. We have been able to raise awareness among the pilgrims and locals. We have spread awareness to over 25,000 people.”

“An awareness program was also started for the pilgrims from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The Art of Living has taken an educative method for dealing with this issue where it begins,” said Advocate Sriprakash, State Executive Member of the Youth Leadership Training Program.

K Babu, Special Commissioner of Devaswom Board appointed by the High Court of Kerala said, "The Art of Living’s intervention in Pampa River in Sabarimala has reduced pollution of the river by 80 per cent."

By Shatakshi Chaudhry

Reported by Unnikrishnan Vijayanpillai & Vishnu Manoharan (YLTP Documentation Team).