Democratic Action in Varanasi (and some old tunes!)

What started out as a natural instinct for community service has turned into so much more.  This is isn’t the first time that’s happened on a yoga sojourn to India.  But what’s happening in Varanasi this time is something very special indeed.

On November 20th, 2011, I’ll be joined by hundreds of community members, foreign and local, to clean the river Ganges as well as the surrounding alleyways and streets.  The list of organizations supporting us is now very long, and includes other non-profits like Jago Banaras, religious groups of all faiths, schools like WH Smith and Sunbeam and media outlets like Gandiv, the Hindustan Times and the Sahara Network. 

It’s going to be a great day for the city’s sense of unity and cooperation.

But the question we’ve all been asking for the last few weeks of planning: what happens after the big day?  How could one day possibly make a difference in this mammoth task of cleaning one of the oldest living cities in India?

An Idealist’s Vision

Speaking to the citizens of this town, I’m starting to form a vision for what this project, Kashi Ganga Cleanup, could really mean in the longterm.

First and foremost, Jago Banaras is drafting a petition to stop the plastic bags from being important into Varanasi.  We’re hoping this will serve as a wakeup call to the government.  To encourage good habits, we’re looking for sponsors to place bins throughout town, and praying they won’t be stolen or destroyed.  And as a call for social awareness, fliers in Hindi have now been drafted for city-wide promotion not only of the project, but to spread the word about the following facts:

  1. Plastic bags are banned in Varanasi but are still being imported without regulation. These bags find their way into the rivers and breakdown in the waters.
  2. 1000 babies die in India everyday from diarrhea.
  3. The Ganga in Varanasi has 3000 times the safe levels of sewage for bathing.
  4. This is due to the 24 open sewage pipes flowing into the river.
  5. People living along the Ganges have higher rates of cancer and enteric disease.
  6. India is the world’s largest democracy.
  7. It is a citizen’s democratic responsibility to
    • Protest when the government isn’t doing its job in providing basic needs
    • Take action through petitions
    • Organize town meetings
    • Support private groups sponsoring social service

    8.  Elected politicians are not royalty; they’re public officials and servants of their constituents.

The research and ideas on this flier were born of several meetings with active leaders in the community, as well as with citizens on the street.

I couldn’t believe Varanasi doesn’t have an equivalent to the American Town Hall Meeting.  It’s where the action goes down!

I Believe the Children Are Our Future

Another way I’m hoping to make an impact is by reaching out to the children of Varanasi, to ensure they have the big-picture perspective on what it means not only to be a responsible member of your local community, but to be a responsible member of the global community.  At the time of writing, I’m tentatively scheduled to speak at three schools in the area, and hope to initiate interdisciplinary projects based on the ideas of pollution, the environment, civic duty, and human rights.

What’s Freedom Got To Do With It?

India is now the biggest democracy in the world, and according to the IMF, the fourth fastest growing economy in the world.  To prevent the economy from running away with basic human rights, it’s absolutely vital Indian citizens remain informed and take action against violations of their basic human rights.  70 years after the end of colonial rule, India is enjoying a kind of freedom that engenders mass development, and, unfortunately, deeply embedded corruption.  The call to action is already out there – and here in Varanasi, it’s really amazing to see solid results.

But if it were all about freedom, we’d be facing a full-fledged Democrazy. 

India has the opportunity to redefine what it means to live in a democracy today.  With an internet user base of 100 million, the country now stands third in the world in terms of the number of people surfing the net.   There’s no excuse for being in the dark on important issues.

The Right to Clean Water

According to Wikipedia, in November 2002, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights issued a non-binding comment affirming that access to water was a human right:  The human right to water is indispensable for leading a life in human dignity. It is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.”

This principle was reaffirmed at the 3rd and 4th World Water Councils in 2003 and 2006. This marks a departure from the conclusions of the 2nd World Water Forum in The Hague in 2000, which stated that water was a commodity to be bought and sold, not a right.

Recently the World Bank pledged over $1 billion to India to clean up the Ma Ganga.  This project we’re working on is just a small part in the big picture, but I have to believe that every little bit counts.  That to keep the momentum going, we need every act to step up and step in.  Even if it means literally stepping into that nasty river and picking out the trash

Rollin’ on the River

Perspectives are inevitably distorted by cultural relativism.  Afterall, I come from a place that was built on the pioneering mindset, “You can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.”  Whereas religious loyalty here often results in the mantra, “No point in trying, it’s all up to God anyway.”  My irreverent wording is clear evidence of a biased undertone, I’m aware.

But with the insight and knowledge of the Kashi Ganga Cleanup committee, it feels like we’re getting through to the community.  And this one day of seva may serve as another catalyst in the global green movement here in Varanasi.  After November 20th, it’s in the hands of the citizens!

 More Good News of the day from Varanasi:

The city government is making moves to clean up human poop on the streets:

So what do you think?  Is there any point in initiating a cleanup that lasts one day?  Could a foreigner really offer any valuable perspective on a community’s needs or responsibilities?



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