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Cleansing the soul of Punjab: Review by S.Ravi (The Hindu)

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As CMS Vatavaran Film Festival opens this week, we pick film that reflect the state of environment in the country

Cleansing the soul of Punjab

With 16 per cent of the global population but only four per cent of the world’s fresh water, the concern for the rapidly deteriorating condition of water bodies in India needs no special emphasis. But these are just numbers that can be tossed during debates and meetings. On the ground you need to motivate people to save their lifelines. Something like what Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal’s is doing in a village in Punjab. Lacing his message in the form of keertans he strikes an instant chord with people to save Sutlej. With the media’s attention on governmental works to clean major rivers like Ganga and Yamuna, society’s efforts to clean smaller water bodies often remain out of focus. Surendra Manan’s film The Battle Begins highlights this collective action to stop pollution of river and water bodies.

Revolving around Sant Seechewal, the film depicts how this unusual holy man in Punjab developed a bond with sufferers of contaminated water, sensitised them, rekindled their hope and readied them to take direct action. The film traces how industrial and domestic affluent and sewerage in Jalandhar and Ludhiana are released into open drains with the municipal authorities either having limited or no capacity to treat them. While passing through several villages, hamlets and towns, the drains become the source of stench, diseases and unhygienic conditions and when they meet Sutlej and Beas, they wreck havoc by polluting two major sources of potable water in the State.

“I zeroed on Punjab – the land of five rivers – which in the past was the main source of clean and potable water in North India. Today the blessing has turned into a curse,” says Surendra. The film highlights violation of indigenous right of people to clean drinking water forcing them to turn to bottled water, lack of environmental justice and missing corporate accountability. “Sant Seechewal through his campaign drew attention to the conspiracy of turning a precious natural source into a commodity and the unconstitutional, illegal, immoral and anti-nature activity of dumping non-treated waste into the water bodies,” explains Surendra. Sant addresses massive gatherings organised by his followers along the route of the drains to create awareness.

Not limited to mouthing concerns, Sant and his followers checked the contamination levels using TDS meters revealing the presence of metals like nickel, chromium, zinc, ferrous, sulphur, phosphate and chloride in the underground and flowing river water.

Sant’s campaign is not confined to Punjab as he has also reached out to four districts of Rajasthan who receive the Sutlej and Beas water through feeder canals. He remarks just as people irrespective of their religion and region require clean water so do birds, animals and plants. Sant uses simple techniques to treat water in Gurayan village entailing passing it through trenches with filters and collecting it in a pond. This is subsequently pumped out and churned. Removing the forth it is let out in a open from where it is moved to another field through underground pipe and then another. The filter water is used for irrigation resulting in abundance of crops without using fertilisers.

With demonstrations, memorandum and petitions failing, the campaign turns to direct action with people gathering at Kala Singha to block the drain – a place where the waste are dumped in the drains by the industries. “This action was justified and it resulted in installation of a treatment plant there,” remarks Surendra. “With administrative orders and court directions been ignored, such peaceful and non-violent campaigns are necessary to demonstrate public resentment.”

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