How many odds can a man face, how much work can he do? Again and again, there comes an intrepid soul to show others the limitless possibilities of human achievement. The latest is a godman from Punjab who is also a warrior against environmental degradation. Without any help from the government, he has brought back to life an entire river over 100 miles long. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal embarked on a mission to clean up the Kali Bein, a tributary of the Beas river in Doaba region. The outlook was bleak — what was once considered a sacred river had been nearly done to death by industrial effluents, domestic sewage, garbage and silt. Parts of the river had gone dry for many years, while other parts frequently overflowed into surrounding areas and caused extensive water-logging. Resolving to take matters into his own hands, Sant Seechewal mobilized a team of volunteers and kick-started an awareness drive. Local people were told how rampant pollution had been choking their holy river to death, and what had to be done to revive it. They were taught not to dump their waste into the river, but to dispose it elsewhere where it could be treated. Money for the campaign was raised from villages along the river. The volunteers then waded into the filthy waters, clearing out tonnes of rubbish along with silt and water hyacinth. Once the tural springs were restored, the river filled up again along its entire length.
Meanwhile, a beautification phase was undertaken — brick roads were laid along the river bank, fruit and flowering trees were planted, bathing ghats were built. After 15 years, Kali Bein is now teeming with life. Thanks to the cleanliness drive, thousands of hectares of land have been reclaimed from water-logging in Hoshiarpur district and desertification in Kapurthala district. The threat of flash floods has receded in the confluence of Beas and Satluj rivers. Sant Seechewal, also known as ‘Eco Baba’, is now a leading environmentalist feted in the country and abroad. He has been broad-basing his campaign along several fronts — developing an underground sewerage system with the Punjab government to treat sewage water turally and use it for irrigation; fabricating a machine to separately treat polythene, glass and metals from garbage; and setting up nurseries to distribute free of cost over one lakh saplings among the local people. Even the Central government has reportedly sought his inputs in its efforts to begin cleaning up the Ganges. Appreciating Sant Seechewal’s mission helps us put in perspective the herculean efforts of environmental crusader Jadav ‘Molai’ Payeng, the country’s Forest Man. If Eco Baba Seechewal has brought back to life a river, Forest Man Payeng has single-handedly grown a 550 hectare forest on the sand bars of the Brahmaputra at Kokilamukh.
Beginning with some bamboo saplings in 1979, Payeng planted thousands of valuable local trees over the decades to build up a thriving ecosystem. Even Royal Bengal tigers, rhinos, elephants and large apes have been known to make Molai’s Forest their home. Jadav Payeng has lived to earn the worldwide acclaim that is rightfully his. But the country has only lately woken up to the single-minded exploits of its Mountain Man, Bihar’s Dashrath Manjhi who passed away in 2007. The film ‘Manjhi - The Mountain Man’ released last year brought to screen the story of a landless laborer of the lowly Musahar caste, who cut a path right through a rocky hill with only chisel, hammer and crowbar. It took 22 years for Manjhi to carve the path that on completion would be 360 feet long, 30 feet wide and 25 feet high. Thanks to it, villagers from the remote Atri block of Gaya can pass through the Gehlour hills to Wazirganj with its hospitals, schools and government offices. A once arduous journey of around 75 kms over or round the hill was reduced to only a few kilometers. And Manjhi did this because he did not want other villagers to suffer as he had, when his wife died due to lack of medical care too far away in Wazirganj. The country’s political masters never tire of exhorting the people during election time how ‘every vote matters’. But it is for the people to realize, at all times, that each and every one of them matters. Whether it is battling climate change, cleaning up our habitat, working for the betterment of an entire people or any great purpose — what one man or woman can do will keep surprising us.