How much can one person change the environment? In the case of Sant Balbir Singh Seechewal, enough to alter the course of a 100-mile river, the Kali Bein.
The alteration made was not to the river’s physical direction but to the course of its life and its relationship to its surrounding inhabitants. The Kali Bein is a tributary of the Beas River in northern India and considered holy by devotees of the Sikh religion. The river flows through the Indian state of Punjab, whose population is primarily sikh, and in the years when the water was clean it nurtured the soil and replenished the region’s groundwater.
Punjab is the most fertile region in India and is considered the nation’s breadbasket. Yet overdevelopment and high demands on its watershed combined to ravage rivers like the Kali Bein. For decades, industrial and agricultural waste accumulated in the river. Six towns and over 40 villages dumped their waste into it. Over time, parts of the Kali Bein were blocked up, choked into filthy drains that parched farmland and contaminated the groundwater, spreading diseases where they did not spread drought.
In 2000, Balbir Singh Seechewal, a Punjabi environmentalist, set out to restore the holy river. Sometimes called Eco Baba (“baba” serving as a regional honorific meaning “wise older man” or “spiritual master”), the Sikh Seechewal enlisted local residents to help him in his quest. In Sikh tradition, voluntary service is called “kar sewa” or “kar seva” and is often drawn upon to build places of worship.
The Kali Bein definitely fit that bill. As Seechewal told Time, his veneration for the Punjabi river stems from one of his favorite verses in the Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book: “The wind is our guru, water is father, and the earth, mother.”
With his volunteers, Seechewal began educating locals about the importance of the riverine ecosystem. As he built grassroots support for a cleaner river, Seechewal appealed to local governments for help in stopping dirty runoff from entering the Kali Bein. These appeals failed, causing Seechewal and his followers to double their efforts amongst the locals. They appealed to villagers to stop sending their sewage and waste into the Kali Bein, and after building a significant following, they began to clean the river themselves. Funds raised from more than 24 villages allowed them to purchase equipment to clear the refuse from the riverbed, as well as the hyacinths and silt that had built up over the years.
Seechewal eventually obtained a government order to divert water from a nearby canal, helping to restore the flow of the Kali Bein. According to the India Times, “With restoration of its water flow, thousands of hectares of land have been reclaimed from water-logging in Tehsil Dasuya of Hoshiarpur District, from desertification in Kapurthala district, and from floods in the Mand area of confluence of Beas and Satluj rivers.”
In the aftermath, riverbanks and roads were built up alongside the river and some villages have revived their traditional methods of waste disposal and treatment. The river itself became once again a place for devout Sikhs to bathe during religious festivals.
“We have proved that it is possible to restore our rivers to a pristine condition if we all come together,” Seechewal told Time in 2008. The Eco Baba then turned his attention on the tanneries and factories that dispose of their untreated waste into local rivers.
Seechewal continues to devote himself to ecological and human rights in India, establishing plant nurseries as well as schools and technical centers. He also works to combat poverty and violence against women.
However, Seechewal’s work with the Kali Bein is not yet complete. The river still faces threats of contamination from polluted runoff. In 2013, a massive fish die off occurred in the Kali Bein after a drop in water level caused toxic chemicals from the Sutlej River to wash into the Bein. The Times of India reported that polluted water was also entering the Bein from a sewage treatment plant in Kapurthala, despite a ban on such actions by the Kapurthala deputy commissioner.