Pilgrims progressing – From polluters to protectors of the Pampa

The riverine journey of commitment, commitment and continued commitment

The Art of Living’s historic campaign for cleaning the Pampa River in Kerala has met with resounding success. People across the state are now joining the initiative in a do-or-die spirit of volunteerism, to restore the sanctity of the holy river. Unravelling the inside story.

Revered as the Dakshin Ganga (Ganges of the South), the holy Pampa is renowned for its immense spiritual significance. The famous Sabarimala temple dedicated to Lord Ayyappa is located on the banks of this holy river. Over 5 crore pilgrims visit every year to take a ‘holy’ dip in the river before proceeding to the sacred temple. Pampa is also the lifeline for 30 lakh people across six districts of Travancore. Kuttanad, an important rice cultivating area in Kerala, receives its irrigation water from the river.

The sorry state of Pampa

It is sad and disturbing that a river of such great importance is fast becoming a near-stagnant cesspool of filth and garbage. All sorts of dirt - from empty plastic bottles and plastic covers, to clothes, food waste and even human waste - are being accumulated on the riverbed. In fact, when an elephant died in Periyar Tiger Reserve last year, the post-mortem revealed huge piles of waste in its abdomen, including polythene bags, aluminium foil and wrappers. Forest experts said the waste must have come from the litter that pilgrims leave behind when they come to Sabarimala. The death is a grim pointer to the impact of plastic waste on the region’s wildlife and ecology.

As if this were not enough, The Kerala State Pollution Control Board has confirmed the presence of faecal Coliform bacteria in the river water that has touched alarming levels (3, 00000/100ml), thereby posing serious health and environmental hazards. The big question is - can the Pampa be saved?

Yes – by a people’s movement that removes 600 tonnes of garbage

Vava Suresh, Chairman, Pampa Cleaning Project affirms that it can. Vinod Nair, Vice-Chairman, Pampa Cleaning Project says, “The Art of Living has been ceaselessly working to clean the Pampa river. Thus far, 600 tonnes of garbage have been removed. Besides, our innovative strategies for raising awareness about the Pampa have evoked an overwhelming response from the masses. We have directly reached out to over twenty lakh people who are now a part of a mass movement.” The public outcry has also invited the attention of the Central Government that is now contemplating declaring Sabarimala as a ‘National Pilgrim Centre’. “Talks are on and hopefully, the breakthrough will come soon,” exclaims the Vice-Chairman with a hint of pride.

Where ignorance triumphs

Sabarimala is one of the most visited pilgrim centres of the world with an estimated 200 million devotees coming every year. While the pilgrimage season starts in November and ends in mid-January, the temple is closed during the rest of the year except for the first five days of every Malayalam month and during the middle of April. Pampa serves as a base station for the pilgrimage as motor vehicles are allowed only up to the holy river. From here, pilgrims have to climb the 4km long steep stretch to reach the temple that is situated amidst 18 hills in the Periyar Tiger Reserve Forest.

“There is no adequate accommodation and sanitation facility at Sannidanam, the temple premises of Sabarimala. This is the reason, why the pilgrims depend exclusively on the Pampa River in the upper and middle reaches for bathing and personal needs,” continues the Vice-Chairman. “Many people even resort to open air defecation, all the more reason for heavy pollution in the river during the festival months. Plus, the solid waste and a good amount of sewage wastes generated around the temple area ultimately reach the Pampa River.”

The main reason, however, behind the contamination of the holy river is the dumping of loads of clothes and other materials (plastic carry bags, empty bottles, food wastes) by millions of pilgrims. Elaborating further, Vava Suresh, Chairman, Pampa Cleaning Project says, “According to a ritual started a few years ago, pilgrims are supposed to discard their clothes while taking a dip in the Pampa River. They believe, this will bring them some spiritual merit. So as millions of people abandon their clothes in the river, it naturally becomes a major environmental concern for the river system. Even the natural flow of the river gets blocked by the cloth piles, and in no time, Pampa is full of stinking clothes! Realising the gravity of the situation, we launched the Pampa Cleaning Project in April 2014,” states the Chairman.

Reclaiming the Pampa – The journey of redemption begins

Cleaning the Pampa was an uphill task - as was stopping some 200 million pilgrims from dumping clothes. A comprehensive action plan was formulated to mobilise the workforce towards this task. From each district, a team of volunteers took the collective responsibility of cleaning the river every month on a Rota system. The first mass-cleaning started with 1500 volunteers pitching in their efforts. The entire team was divided into four groups, with each group being delegated a particular portion of the river for cleaning. After working tirelessly for 12 hours, truckloads of muck and stinking clothes were recovered from the river. A volunteer from Mallapuram says, “It was shocking to see the real face of our holy Pampa, though I had no inhibitions in removing the dirt and trash. Each one of us is here to contribute his bit, and we will continue till our mission is accomplished.”

In the following month, thousands of volunteers from another district got together for the next phase of cleaning. This time the focus was also on clearing up the forest area with support from the Forest Department. Every time, after the peak pilgrimage is over, the banks of the Pampa and the forest area become a dump yard “So it was imperative to clean the forest area as well,” says Nagraj, Assistant Conservator of Forests (Pampa Control Room). “Raising awareness on cleanliness was also a part of the programme.”

Adult Education - sensitising the millions of pilgrims

The cleaning process has continued ever since. What started as a concerted effort of a few hundred volunteers snowballed into a huge movement of 8000 volunteers involved in direct action. The next big step was to create awareness through the Guru Swamis (pilgrims who have visited Sabarimala 18 times) of neighboring states as most of the pilgrims visit these Gurus. One of the most daunting challenges was educating the millions of pilgrims against the custom of dumping clothes in the river. Pilgrims were arriving from Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. They did not understand one common language. “So we developed an effective strategy of communicating with them in their respective local languages,” quips Vinod Nair. “Pamphlets were printed in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam and English with simple messages on saving the Pampa River. The pamphlets were then distributed to pilgrims at railway stations, bus stands and streets outside the Pampa cleaning area to raise awareness.

Pamphlets are never distributed at the cleaning sites, as they add to the garbage problem in the area. The idea was to sensitise people without hurting their religious sentiments. “We put up banners, posters and flex boards in multiple languages across roads that led to Sabarimala. In addition, volunteers, with placards, were deployed at various places in Pampa. An estimated five lakh devotees read the placards, in our first round of our campaign,’’ adds the Vice-Chairman.

Unfolding the Action Plan

The campaign gathered more momentum, with the approach being direct communication. Volunteers talked one- on- one with pilgrims.  Recorded messages in various languages were played across many mini loudspeakers from time to time. It created a huge impact on the pilgrims as they gradually stopped discarding clothes in the Holy River.

Volunteer Ashwin from Kerala says, “More interesting was the way we were trained to communicate the messages in local languages like Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. It was amusing, speaking to individuals or groups as per their language preference. At one point of time we were doing this for 24 hours, convincing people and making them see reason. This way we were able to target 30 lakh people. I personally interacted with thousands. We spoke on the existing problems and the immediate need to work together to deal with the pollution issue. The bureaucracy also supported us by broadcasting short messages or talks by District Collectors and District Forest Officers on the Public Announcement System. With our orchestrated efforts, skilled strategies and right implementation, the movement became a huge success. Many citizens of Kerala came forward and joined our initiative.”

The true pilgrims of Sabarimala

Sabarimala was on the threshold of a big change. Slowly, the pilgrims were realising that everyone was becoming a victim of a meaningless custom that propelled them to dump clothes and pollute the holy river.

Surmounting any challenge requires not just ample perseverance and skill but also a steely determination to tackle any adversity that comes to the fore. Volunteers of the Art of Living have showed tremendous courage and resilience while facing the odds. “Our volunteers, including women, have been travelling more than 470 Kms. to reach the project sight. The nearest railway station is 93 Km and nearest city is 65 km away from the project sight, In the later months, the State Government extended their support by providing two special KSRTC buses for the transportation of volunteers between the railway station of Chengannur and Pampa, that was inclusive of 50 Kms. of travel through forests. A 1000 square feet temporary tin shed was put up for the volunteers with basic electricity.

Taking the challenges – head on

There were no toilets in the tin shed, so while men managed to travel long distances, women volunteers adjusted themselves in the makeshift toilets that were constructed by the volunteers themselves. The climate was extreme, ranging from blazing hot during daytime to freezing cold during the nights. What was more, during the monsoons, they worked in a swelling river, and continued the clean-up operations.

A female volunteer Sheila from Kerala says, “Our resolve to help people lead better lives, kept our spirits high. We were constantly inspired by our senior instructors to hold our nerves, take challenges head on and move gracefully through the times with a smile on our face. The success was worth the ordeal.”

Scores of YLTP youth volunteer to revive the Pampa

Humanitarian and Spiritual leader Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar says, “Every community, every faith, people of all age groups, rural or urban - they are all part of us and they all belong to us. The sense of the entire humanity being one family, of belonging to each other, is essential for us to have an ethical and just society.” The Art of Living with its presence in155 countries has for 35 years been involved in undertaking humanitarian initiatives across the world, with a special focus on youth empowerment.

Its Youth Leadership Training Programs (YLTP) are popular all over the world and are known to transform the life of youngsters in such a way that they can achieve personal excellence in every aspect of life and simultaneously feel responsible for tackling the multiple and threatening challenges that stare us in the face.  In Kerala, scores of youngsters have undergone the YLTP programs and volunteered for the Pampa Cleaning Project.

Chandu Kollam, YLTP coordinator for Kollam, Kerala says, “The tremendous energy and enthusiasm that is a characteristic of the youth has great potential to create a positive transformation in this world. During the execution of the Pampa Cleaning project, we urged and motivated youths to come forward and create a world of peace, happiness and cleanliness. Over 500 youngsters attended our YLTP programs and felt inspired to become a part of the Pampa initiative. These 500 catapulted themselves into action and reached out to thousands of people, emphasising the need for coming together to revive the glory of the Pampa River. When one feels more energetic and empowered, he or she automatically becomes more sensitive to the needs of people and nature. So, in a big way, the contribution of the YLTP team in the Pampa Cleaning Project has been the cornerstone for success.”

Technology to support the torchbearers’ unflagging efforts

Summing up, Vinod Nair says “We propose to have a 24-hour service, in Sabarimala, for spreading awareness, in which our volunteers will work in shifts. Most importantly, we are preparing a strong social media platform to address the issue and use technology for activism through Whatsapp and other messenger services.

“When humanitarian leader Gurudev visited Kerala, two years ago, he had expressed his concern about the Pampa River, and a movement was born. Today, we are the torchbearers of this movement and will continue with our crusade for reviving and rejuvenating the Holy Pampa river,” the Vice- Chairman concludes on a resolute note.