In Punjab’s Doaba region treated sewage is being used to grow crops thus turning waste into a highly useful entity.
“Pawan guru, pani pita, mata dharti mahat (Air is guru, water is father and earth is mother)” is howJapji Sahib, a Sikh prayer in the beginning of the Guru Granth Sahib, ends with. These words hold a special significance for Punjab, which derives its name from life-giving rivers, owes its fertility to them, and whose history is rooted in nature.
However, the state’s green ethos and credentials have taken a beating with its water bodies getting choked with industrial waste and domestic sewage. From being the food bowl of India, which fed the whole nation for decades, Punjab has little to cheer about today.
But all is not lost yet. There are men like Baba Seechewal, lovingly called Eco Baba, who are trying to reinforce the state’s green ethos into the popular conscience.
The religious leader has been trying to mobilise his army of followers with his message that religion should come out of temples and serve humanity. The message of Guru Nanak Dev resonates in the actions of his followers who have joined efforts to clean up Kali Bein, a tributary of river Beas.
Kali Bein holds a special place in Sikh religion as the first Sikh guru is believed to have received enlightenment after disappearing in its water for three days.
Kali Bein had been reeling under the impact of rapid urbanisation until it caught the attention of Baba Seechewal in 2000. Continuous efforts since then have not only rid the sewage-ridden and weed-choked waters of all the muck and pollutants,a permanent solution to sewage disposal has also been found.
In Sultanpur Lodhi, the seat of education and religion in Kapurthala district, a group of men can be seen emptying out a large cemented tank of silt with the help of a pulley system. The tank stores the sewage water which is cleaned through the sedimentation and decantation process. As the silt settles down at the bottom of the tank, water is diverted to the next reservoir. The dried silt is later used as manure in the fields while the recycled water is used to irrigate more than 500 acres of agricultural land through an 8-km-long underground pipeline thus thereby completing the cycle of production, consumption and regeneration.
Nearly 72 percent of the farmers in the area are using the recycled water from Kali Bein which had spelt trouble in the past. Since sewage water is high on nitrogen content, use of fertilisers in these fields has substantially gone down.
“Initially, there was a lot of apprehension among farmers but seeing the results, they could not but trust us. Since we are also offering free labour to lay down the pipeline, more farmers now want their fields to be on the supply line. However, there are geographical limitations and also the amount of sewage generated in the town is limited,” explains Satnam Singh, one of the kar sewaks at Baba Seechewal’s Nirmal Kuteya ashram.
Ranjit Singh, a young farmer who was the first to opt for the treated water, says the fertiliser use for various crops has since reduced by half while vegetables do not need any supplements now.
“Besides we are also saving on precious groundwater and electricity . Earlier, we used to be dependent on power supply whereas the treated sewage water is available 24X7 for free,” adds Ranjit. Though Sultanpur Lodhi already had a sewage treatment plant for long, it was lying idle owing to government apathy. Just like the other five towns and 43 villages along the banks of Kali Bein, sewage from Sultanpur Lodhi too was being discharged directly into the river.
“Cleaning up of Kali Bein could not be a permanent solution as long as dumping of untreated sewage water was on. This is why the initiative at Sultanpur Lodhi turned out to be a pathbreaker which was later replicated at Kapurthala and Dasuya towns. In fact, even the treatment plant at Dasuya was set up by the volunteers. The water from this plant is now irrigating fields spread in area of 5 km,” says Gurvinder Singh, another kar sewak.
Of the 43 villages which used to empty their sewage into the Kali Bein, 35 now have tanks and ponds which collect the waste for treatment and route it towards agricultural fields. Around 15 other villages have also adopted this approach for waste disposal. Ask Baba Seechwal about the initiative and he points towards the traditional community knowledge.
“When there was no tapped water and sewerage system, people used to defecate in the fields. In fact, if the planners had incorporated this idea into the modern sewerage system, we would not have been facing such a huge problem of waste disposal,” he says.
An additional benefit of reduction in inflow of sewage into the river has been the fall in the amount of silt which earlier used to settle down on the riverbed and block pores of the soil. This silt used to diminish the recharge capacity of the river resulting in depletion of groundwater in Kapurthala district and excessive water logging in Dasuya-Mukerian in absence of an outlet for surplus groundwater.
Today, thousands of hectares of agricultural land have been reclaimed in Dasuya-Mukerian while Kapurthala has witnessed a substantial rise in its water table.
However, it is still not a perfect system. The water treatment plants in the towns are run by their respective civic bodies which fall short of expectations. “A lot of pressure needs to be exerted on the authorities to keep the system up and running. If given a chance they would again start dumping the waste directly into the river,” says Seechewal. The scenario in villages is more satisfying since panchayats are deeply involved and people have realised the importance of proper waste disposal.
“The heartening fact is that after the word about the first few initiatives spread, villages took upon themselves to work out the recycling process in their areas. They have now started taking pride in their natural resources, which I am sure will last longer than the misguided policies of the authorities,” says Baba Seechewal. Since religion binds the thoughts here, Eco Baba’s optimism does not seem to be misplaced.