From cremating unclaimed cadavers found floating in the Ganges to helping activate dysfunctional sewage treatment plants along its course, Vikas Chandra a.k.a. Guddu Baba has dedicated himself to to cleaning up the holy river. This is his awe-inspiring story.
“Millions of people revere her as Ganga Maa (Mother Ganga), we need to make her sacred again,” he stressed.
Chandra’s mission began in 1998. “A middle-aged man was bathing in the sewage-filled waters of river Ganga in Patna, when Chandra, an environmental activist, chanced upon him. “He told me that he was there to perform his wife’s last rites. But he did not have the money for a boat ride to the main stream of the river, which was cleaner,” Chandra recalled.
The incident shocked Chandra and built up his resolve to fight for a cleaner Ganga.
“I lost my mother when I was just four. Since then, I have considered the earth as my mother and I have been a dutiful son of Ganga Ma too. I could not bear to see the river in such a filthy and unholy state and hence decided to dedicate my life to cleaning up the holy river, ” said Chandra.
His crusade for a cleaner Ganga started with the Ganga Bachao Andolan in 2000. The aim was to draw the attention of the authorities towards the appalling condition of the holy river — the sewage, the filth, the floating dead bodies on the river banks.
He went on a 48-hour fast in Patna. Later, he organised various campaigns and rallies in order to drum up public support for his cause. His efforts were not in vain and he went on to file his first Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Patna High Court in July 2000, holding the State and the Centre (and other departments) responsible for the horrifying condition of the river.
His efforts took a more aggressive turn when he found hundreds of dead bodies lying on the banks of the river near the Patna Medical College and Hospital (PMCH).
“The sight was disgusting. The bodies emitted a foul smell, some had even been ravaged by dogs and other scavengers. I wrote to the state government to arrange for the respectful cremation of those dead bodies as I believe everybody deserves that much,” he said.
PMCH denied dumping the bodies in the river and and claimed that the dead bodies were flowing from Danapur (a place that lay upstream) “However, the dead bodies showed clear marks of post mortem having been performed on them. So we continued our fight for a proper cremation for those unclaimed dead bodies,” recalls Chandra.
He clicked pictures of three bodies and organised a human chain of about 100 people who in turn, carried those photographs across the streets of Patna asking the government to cremate the dead respectfully.
His efforts paid off when the High Court finally took notice of the issue after a long fight and passed an order in March 2001 that the unclaimed bodies were the responsibility of the state government. PMCH decided to pay Rs. 300 for the cremation ceremony of each dead body and increased the amount to Rs. 1,000 in 2007.
Later, Rogi Kalyan Samiti, a state-administered organisation, also decided to provide money for the cremation of unclaimed bodies.
So far, Chandra has filed over 38 PILs in the High Court and other courts in connection with this issue. Today, he claims that there are no dead bodies found in the holy river in Patna.
He also focused attention on the dumping of medical waste into the river. Now, an incinerator has been installed for the treatment of waste near PMCH.
That is not all. Chandra has also played a pivotal role in reviving three dysfunctional sewage treatment plants set up in 1986 under the Late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s Ganga Action plan. Today, the STPs at Beur, Saidpur and Pahari are functional again, thanks to Chandra.
“These three plants treat 105 mld sewage water every day. Since these plants are very old, their capacity has decreased over time, but it is still better than having them lying dysfunctional,” pointed out Chandra.
Today, he is not alone in his cause. There is an army of equally dedicated volunteers who work with him on a regular basis to keep the holy river clean.
Together, they ensure that people do not defecate near the river. These volunteers also pick up plastic and other waste from the river banks and support Chandra in all his endeavours.
The activist admits his journey has often, been a challenging one. “I have received several threats and been pressured to stop, but I am determined to make a difference and nothing can stop me from doing that,” he stressed. Chandra, in fact, has been so committed to his cause that he only got married this year in July, at the age of 52. But he continues to give his all to this mission.
He once received a prize money of Rs. 5 lakhs from a renowned media group in 2009. The entire prize amount was used to scale up his project.
Chandra, who hails from Allahabad, is a double post graduate in public administration and political science. He has also worked as a priest. “I haven’t received any other help, monetary or otherwise. I put in whatever I earn as a teacher and priest. Lack of funds has never come as an impediment to my work. I am strictly against the NGO culture and do not believe in charity. This is purely voluntary work and I don’t ask for donations,” he said.
His supporters help him pay for the court fees and other basic costs attached to his mission.
Today, the Ganga is slowly but surely regaining the status of a clean river. But Chandra is not willing to rest. He still has miles to go with his mission, he added.
As part of our video series #BetterDays, we will be doing a docu-film on Guddu Baba along with Lara & Patrick from Bem-Te-Vi Producoes. This is our first ever crowd-funded video project and if you wish to make a contribution towards it, click here
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