India: Vrindavan Conservation Project
The sacred Yamuna River is now five per cent water and 95 per cent dirt," laments Banwari Lal Pathak, one of Vrindavan's leading senior statesmen. "People take sacred baths in the river, but how sacred can a bath be if the water is filthy? Vrindavan's pollution and loss of trees are terrible omens."
Vrindavan, revered by Hindus as the idyllic birthplace of Lord Krishna, faces environmental problems usually associated with less holy sites. The irony is that in their search for spiritual blessings, the millions of pilgrims who visit Vrindavan have destroyed the natural beauty that made Vrindavan special in the first place.
Most of the visitors to this holy Indian city (more people go to Vrindavan than visit the Taj Mahal, about 100 kilometres to the south) walk the parikrama, a 12rkilometre holy pilgrimage path around Vrindavan. It is not necessarily an uplifting experience. Pilgrims on this route are forced to walk barefoot for several kilometres on burning asphalt while dodging traffic. In some sections the parikrama is lined with newly constructed ashrams and shops. In other places, as they tread on fetid waste, pilgrims risk picking up a multitude of parasites.
WWF's initial action in 1991 was to plant trees along the parikrama. Subsequently, working more closely with a wide range of community leaders, the WWFrsponsored regreening scheme has catalyzed a burgeoning community conservation effort.
Swami Ratandas Ji Maharaji notes that trees are more than trees in this part of India; they are monks who haven't finished praying and who requested to be reincarnated in a forest. He has offered his temple's land and services for a tree nursery. "Plants are revered," he explains. "We felt we should contribute to the community - many ashrams are eager to take part."
This "everyone has a role to play" attitude is recognized by the Uttar Pradesh state government, which recently passed a resolution that environment and spiritual beliefs should be part of the formal school curriculum.
"This came about partly due to WWF's helping to increase awareness of nature's importance," observed Dr Vinod Banerjee, State Secretary for the Uttar Pradesh Teacher Association and a member of the WWF Vrindavan Advisory Council. "The energy is there."
Working closely with a variety of partners, WWF expects conservation efforts to spread to other towns in the Braj region. Other plans: working with other pilgrimagersite communities suffering environmental problems, establishrment of a sacred forest network, and expansion into pollution and water issues.
The Vrindavan Conservation Project might be summed up by this scene: Two Vrindavan toddlers join forces to lug a halfrfilled bucket of water to care for "their" tree in a tennis courtrsize park built on the site of a former dump. "We encouraged the government to put in a water pipe and we provided the saplings," says Sanjay Rattan, the WWF project director. "But as you can see, the people themselves take responsibility for keeping them alive."
Swami Raman Das, a sadhu, or holy man who lives on the parikrama, puts it another way: "Every human being can perform miracles." To Learn more about the WWF