More than 10 crore people thronged the confluence of the Ganga, Yamuna and the Saraswati for the Maha Kumbh in Allahabad in 2013 to take a dip in the frigid holy waters to wash off their sins. In 2001, this number stood at about five crore.
The doubling of the footfall at the Kumbh is symbolic of the widespread popularity of the event that now has the pride of place in UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But the Uttar Pradesh government doesn't want to leave anything to chance. It has therefore immersed itself in an overdrive to popularise and publicise the already widely popular Kumbh Mela.
Not content with making a recently released logo for Kumbh Mela part of all its correspondences, the government has now issued orders to display the logo at cinema halls across the state right after the national anthem is played.
Kumbh Mela is part of the ancient cultural traditions that India is extremely proud of. Tourists from across the world gather to take in part of it. The event made it to the UNESCO's list because it is the "largest peaceful congregation of pilgrims on earth", and "encapsulates the science of astronomy, astrology, spirituality, ritualistic traditions, and social and cultural customs and practices, making it extremely rich in knowledge".
Against this background, the government's efforts to spread awareness about the event (to be held in January 2019) seem utterly misplaced. The authorities have turned a blind eye to the fact that Kumbh faces an imminent threat and if immediate steps are not taken to remedy it, we could well be left with nothing but regret. The threat to Kumbh is posed by what we have collectively done to our rivers on the banks of which this event is observed year after year.
The government expects 12 crore people to visit Allahabad in January 2019 to take part of the festivities. While the government is talking of turning the event into an "enhanced pilgrimage experience", there is little being done to tackle the ecological footprint a congregation, as huge as this is being planned, is set to leave in its wake.
Our rivers are shrinking, its waters turning dangerously poisonous.
This doesn't bode well for events such as Kumbh Mela and Chhath celebrations that are centered around rivers and water bodies. And we have all reasons to be alarmed.
In 2013, when millions congregated at Allahabad for a dip in the Ganga, they did not know that water was artificially being pumped into the river to ensure a pious "pilgrimage experience". Nearly 60 days later, when the pilgrims had returned home, the sight of the river was pitiable. Since the water pumped into the river was not part of the natural flow, it turned into stagnant pools into which trash, most of it left behind by people, piled up. The problem, however, is not unique to Allahabad. In 2015, Ramkund in Nashik (Maharashtra), dried up threatening the ritual of purification in flowing water.
According to a report prepared by Indian Institute of Technology, water flow of our holy rivers is under threat.
The UP government has planned an outlay of about Rs 2,500 crore to make the 2019 Kumbh a success, some of this money may actually go into arranging and pumping water into the river but how long can a river survive on such artificial arrangements is not difficult to fathom. Also, such temporary arrangements amount to playing with the sentiments of those looking to wash off their sins in holy waters.
While the authorities try to encourage more and more people to come and be part of the Kumbh Mela, it is incumbent upon the government to ensure that our customs and rituals are conducive to the environment.
Protecting rivers is not something the government can do alone. People's participation is needed, too, for any such effort to be deemed successful. The Yogi Adityanath government should start talking about how the organisers and the visitors together can ensure that our rivers are not harmed. They are our lifelines. The government can start a discourse.
As for popularising the event agoes, the government just needs to remind itself that Kumbh Mela is an event of international repute, it needs no logos to draw people to it. More than people, a Kumbh will need a river to sustain it. It is the conservation of the river that needs to be the talking point.