Green Sant

Balbir Singh Seechewal is a man with a mission. By spreading the message of conservation and education in the hinterlands of Punjab, this environmentalist has given a new meaning to spirituality, reports Roopinder Singh

IT is the sangat (people) and without them I would not have been able to achieve anything, says Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal. Recently, Time magazine named Sant Seechewal as one of the activist “Heroes of the Environment – 2008”. This has again brought into focus the work done under the leadership of the 46-year-old sant, who marries spirituality with eco-friendliness and activism.

He is a man with a mission, one that entails changing the mindset of the people and taking them back to their natural spiritual traditions. Yet, by no means is he an ivory tower idealist or a zealot. He is a practical man with much to show as achievements.

His last name represents the village he was born in, son of the late Chanan Singh and Chanan Kaur. They were farmers and he often joined his two brothers in tilling the land. When he started, he just knew what had to be done, the social or religious significance of his work struck him later.

“It was the fact that we were polluting the environment and when we think of it, we go back to Guru Nanak’s bani which states: ‘The wind is our guru, water is father, and the earth, mother.’

“We can’t get anything done without getting to the root of the malaise (polluting attitude). After all, it is a matter of how you interact with Nature: ‘Jeha ann, teha mann’ (what you eat determines how you think.)

“We know that the past can’t be undone, but if we remain indifferent, how will we be able to face our future generations? The cleaning up of environs was simply something that needed to be done and we decided to do it. When you have the will and take a decision to do something like this, God gives you ways and means to do it.”

Sant Seechewal was a second year student in DAV College, Nakodar, studying political science, economics and Punjabi, when he met Sant Avtar Singh in 1981. “Both of us got down from the same bus and met on the road. I found his presence compelling and just went with him to the dera,” he recollects. His life changed, he found meaning in it and stayed on at Nirmal Kutiya in Seechewal, succeeded him on June 6, 1988.

The beginning

In the mid-1990s, Sant Seechewal started by cleaning up his own village that had a population of 1,500 and its environs, including Balmiki Mohalla. “We started by involving the women and their children and men, too, joined in later. We cleaned up the village every Sunday. When the upper caste people went to clean up the area, they disparaged the lack of cleanliness in the houses, and some of them were even verbally aggressive. When the Balmikis came and complained, I told them that this was unfortunate but only to be expected because until then they had been going to the houses of others to do the cleaning and when these people came to their houses, there was bound to be some noise.

“Why don’t you clean up the place before they come, so that they don’t have anything to say,” Seechewal told them, and it worked. Politeness and courtesy were the plus points of his volunteers. Open confrontations were avoided. If they saw someone easing himself by the roadside, the volunteers would politely ask him if he could let them know what time he would do the deed the next day, so that they could clean up after him. A remarkably effective method — more so in villages where everyone knows everyone.

Before 2000, they had installed sewerage, waste was being recycled in the village and the recycled water was being used for agriculture.

The sant preaches the importance of having a clear path and definite goal in life. “There can be no development without a path. Our village was isolated because sand dunes covered the path to the village, and people, too, blocked it by pushing sand on it. Once the paths were opened, people had more interaction with each other, they became accessible and by achieving something that they had hoped the government to do, they became more empowered. If you have the raasta (path) you move towards development, your children go to school, you take your produce to the market and people come to you.”

The villagers also built a road from Lohian to Jalandhar and it is 20 km shorter than the official route. Like the spinal cord, it joined many link roads and made people of two districts, Hoshiarpur and Kapurthala, interact more with each other.

Social reformer

There are always problems when you mobilise so many people. Sant Seechewal, too, has had his share of controversies. People who felt that this new activist threatened the traditional power equations assaulted him and his followers.

While he and his volunteers were building a road, people came up to him and complained about one volunteer: “How can you allow such a person to be around you, he drinks and he is an addict.”

“I would tell them that the man had put in hard labour along with the rest of the people; he had behaved well and responded to being appreciated for his work.

“Why should we ostracise those whom we consider bad? If we want to get someone out of the muck, we must get into it and help them get out. We shouldn’t preach from ivory towers, we must interact with them at ground level and channel their energy and help them interact with society.”

People also commented that men and women volunteers worked together without any untoward incident. In fact, their working together brought about a social change in the attitude of the younger people who got over gender biases and had friendly interaction with one another.

“The issue is not boys and girls working together, it is what they are doing? They are not dancing, they come with the feeling of cleaning up a sacred river, and their minds are clean. When we have a common , noble goal of doing seva, nothing can go wrong. Gurbani gives equal rights to women, and such projects can’t be successful without them.”

Kali Bein project

In 2002, the then President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam visited the Kali Bein project. He was impressed by what he saw and started quoting the example in his speeches, propelling this experiment onto the national, and international, consciousness.

Kali Bein has historical significance as Guru Nanak Dev had attained enlightenment there. The 160-km-long rivulet originates from Wadhya village in Hoshiarpur district and joins the Beas River near the Harike lake. It had been reduced to a dirty drain because of neglect, misuse of water and pollution. The untreated effluents of six towns and around 40 villages were poured into it, along with industrial waste and pollutants from factories upstream.

Sant Seechewal took up the task of cleaning up the rivulet, using his base as the starting point. Meetings were organised, local people were sensitised and here again religious metaphors were used liberally since they found a ready resonance in the people of the area. When Sant Seechewal speaks, he uses many eco-friendly quotations from Gurbani.

The task was not an easy one. The moribund bureaucracy was a bane, towns and industries did not want to invest in sewerage or waste treatment plants and no one likes his interest to be threatened. However, these environmentalists would take a break and gather their forces and take up the task again, till the difference they were making was visible to everyone.

After Kalam’s visit, especially when he called it as one of the nine achievements of India, the word about this transformation spread far and wide, and this empowered the people to do more.

Today, the Kali Bein is pristine, it has beautiful gardens on its banks and many trees have been planted, and tended to, by the volunteers.

Political link

The political side to the sant comes out when you realise that he has been unanimously elected as sarpanch of the village twice. “I was asked, ‘why do you want to become a sarpanch?’ I replied that the people and the village needed it. If someone is a member of a political party he can’t be independent in his decisions and a sarpanch must be unbiased. We sort out most of the problems of the village in the panchayat.”

During the last Assembly elections, the village organised a common stage where all candidates addressed the villagers for around 10-15 minutes each, and at the end of the session the villagers were asked to vote for the person of their choice. “People said they would never come together on stage, but I knew that they would if they wanted the votes of the village.”

Mission education

Primary education is what the sant is focusing on now. “We keep on saying that population is a burden on the nation, but people are our greatest resource. We must educate them. I want people who pick up kuda (trash) to learn computers,” says Sant Seechewal, whose followers maintain websites that give information about him and his work. We have a computer lab in Sultanpur and are giving training to around 150 poor children. What was the awareness about the environment around a decade ago? Today, it is a subject that is taught to children.”

He runs a number of educational institutions that lay stress on making children self-reliant. “The children work with their hands right from the primary level, why should we wait for the senior classes for them to start vocational education? By that time they get lazy and don’t want to work.”

As a busy Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal gets up to go on with his next appointment, he leaves you energised and motivated about his causes. You understand how he motivates hundreds of thousands of people, gets them to give a part of themselves to a process that makes the world around them better, and enriches them in so many ways.

This article was published in The Tribune on October 19, 2008