Pitcher of disquiet

It’s not just glory, Kumbh also deluges holy city with filth

By Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Friday 11 January 2013

It’s not just glory, Kumbh also deluges holy city with filth

Every city has something to boast of. My city has the Kumbh Mela (The Pitcher Fair) to boast of. If not for this periodic extravaganza of religious profanity, Allahabad would have been just another sleepy town choking in its own sewage and crumbling infrastructure. But it’s not. It is all geared up, dented and painted, ready to host yet another “largest-ever gathering of human beings for a single purpose in the history of mankind”. I was hardly two years old when, in 1989, the Guinness Book of World Records gave the event this hideously long tag line.

This is going to be my third Maha Kumbh; the festival falls every twelve years. Returning to the city, my pitcher of feelings is precariously poised between excitement and horror. Beyond the cosmic alignments and karmic salvation resides the earthly reality of Allahabad. Let me explain why. In the build up to the last Maha Kumbh in 2001, I lived in a dug up city for a year. Everything, from roads, sewers and power lines to water-pipes, was dug up and piled onto the non-existent sidewalks. But there was excitement and I hardly complained. All this was karma and in the willful suffering rested my reward in the form of a better city and a freedom from the cycle of rebirths. In my defence, I was just 13 and Allahabad a neglected old decaying city. Dreams and limelight were worth holding on for both of us.

The Kumbh of 1989, which had drained the city of all its resources during the two months of festivity, was no indicator for 2001. This Kumbh was the first in many aspects: the first post liberalization of India, first of the new millennium, first since the Internet revolution and first since the advent of private media. The small town has never taken the fancy of the world at this scale ever before. And never was Hinduism so shamelessly exposed and telecasted.

The unexpected global publicity swelled the pride of Allahabadis. It also brought along smooth roads and massive temporary infrastructure. War-scale public facilities were provided and efforts were made to keep the mela ground clean. Motor boats were stationed to catch the dead bodies and remains of the cremations performed upstream so that the Sangam area appeared clean. All the city sewers were redirected downstream of the Sangam area to keep the bathing ghats free of filth. But they barely sufficed, with the crowd bloated up four times the 1989 level. No one had expected this.

Nirvana a distant dream

Kumbh was no doubt a massive organisational achievement; it concluded without any stampede or disease outbreak. But it was no Olympics, which leaves a legacy of world class infrastructure. All development was temporary. The only permanent thing was the damage to the environment. Millions of people had gathered for the event and many of them lived on the riverside for months, producing garbage, faeces, urine, smoke from burning wood for food, scattering thousands and thousands tonnes of husk and straw for bedding during the cold winter days and nights. Same way, others residing within the city produced thousands of tonnes of garbage, putting heavy pressure on the already-overloaded and mostly dysfunctional water supply, sewers, drains, nullahs and landfills of the city.

The city and its people were left to embrace this and suffer with a smile. After all, it was our dharma to serve and provide for the pilgrims. Held prisoners in our own homes for the duration of the mela, many willfully sent their children away to other cities to spend the holy occasion so as to make room for guests. Outnumbered 1 to 33, local people also suffered from the shortage and high price of food and daily commodities. Travel within the city became a nightmare. As for the holy dip, only some very lucky ones managed to reach the revered spot after walking for 4-5 hours. Most of us never reached there, despite living at a stone’s throw from the rivers.

Things took a turn for the worse after the mela was over. The water, ground and air of the city was heavily polluted by the visitors, vendors and the administration itself. Thousands of tonnes of garbage, discarded goods, plastics/polythene were left over for us to deal with. People defecated, urinated, threw garbage everywhere.

Dead bodies of humans and animals floated in the rivers. The holy rivers themselves choked on the generous offerings from salvation-seeking devotees. The spirit of civic bodies and political and religious leaders, who ran from post to post to provide clean water at the Sangam for the mela, evaporated with the conclusion of the event. The city disappeared from the collective consciousness of Hinduism too and anger at the saddening state of rivers and the city was all but resigned only to be taken up again 12 years down the line.

The first major ripple of Kumbh to hit the city was worsening of the ground water quality. My house is located in the largest residential locality of Allahabad and it sits on top of land reclaimed from the Ganga. Water table is as high as 50 feet below ground in my locality. The insane mass composting on the river banks for Kumbh, spoilt our precious water source. Nearly 65 per cent people of the city depend on ground water. Even we had a 120 feet deep bore-well in our house, which we had to stop using right after Kumbh. Water which was good to drink pre-Kumbh was not even clean enough for washing clothes. It stank. In 2002 we decided to get a new bore well to meet our household water requirement. The ground was bored up to 250 feet, but the water quality was no better. We gave up after that.

The massive load of garbage choked the hurriedly diverted sewage lines. The result: in the monsoon of 2001, half of the city drowned with water levels rising up to 4 metre in low lying regions. Large scale camping on river bed had reduced its capacity to hold monsoon water. I enjoyed the sight of boats ferrying on our newly laid roads for over a week. Maybe this deluge was a blessing from mother Ganga, who wanted to thank us for our hospitality by giving us a visit. Maybe she felt bad that most of us could not reach her hallowed shores during the Kumbh.

Kumbh neither gave us a much needed public transport system, nor new hospitals or recreational space. All newly laid roads and lines were back to shambles within a year. But we become the vessel for the salvation of millions.

Temporary facelift

I can again hear the same buzz that was the source of my pride 12 years back. Only the hum is bigger and louder. But my past experience stops me from being as euphoric as I was in 2001. A near insane frenzy to be there anyhow without any concern or logic seems to have become the singular purpose of the gathering. If it is in its rightful place, it’s not pollution, be it humans or faeces. And to exploit the helpless is part of the dharma. There is no concept of carrying capacity. Citizens are again being sacrificed to appease Hinduism’s short lived cyclic love affair with the city. News of forceful evacuation of street vendors and roadside food joints, which have existed for generations and gave flavour to city’s streets, in name of beautification, is disheartening. Roads and sewage lines have again been broadened and beautified at the cost of city’s green cover. Hopefully this won’t translate into a season of jet skiing come monsoon.

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