Earlier this year in February, Ruby Tavener – one of OzGREEN’s youth ambassadors travelled with fellow ambassador Ali Thwaits and CEO Sue Lennox to India and Nepal to help train 30 new Youth Leading the World facilitators. Now back in Australia and beginning university, Ruby reflects on her experience.
“It’s all a little bit blurry if I’m honest. A month, so full of new experiences and emotions, new people and new places, it’s hard to preserve each day as their own. When I think back on OzGREEN’s 2016 Varanasi trip, I remember how dearly I came to care about everyone at the Sankat Mochan Foundation, and of course Ali and Sue, I recall the feeling of watching the sun rise over Ganga, my first rickshaw ride, the sadness and pain I felt when I saw Nagwa Nalla- a massive drain outlet into Ganga. I’ll never forget the bubbling methane, the bottomless blackness of the river. I think about the joy I felt at the end of each training day, how proud and honored I felt to simply be there, the unreal sight of the Himalayas.
I think of how powerful being apart of OzGREEN makes me feel, overseas and in Australia. Just the other day, I flooded my newly rented, and carpeted apartment because I forgot I had a bath running- I felt like I was failing ‘adult’ life. Then I remembered what I did in Febuary, what OzGREEN allowed me to realise that I’m capable of, what I’m going to do.
OzGREEN has inspired me to take a step forward in my life and future career as a humanitarian. I had deferred my university studies, however after this experience I couldn’t imagine spending a whole year doing nothing. I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the social and environmental tragedies of the world. What I can do is start studying International Development Studies- a bachelor degree that will continue to inspire me as much as OzGreen has.”
The OzGREEN movement, that you are a part of, is inspiring young people across Australia and globally. But in the coming years we will need your help if we want to reach more young people like Ruby.
The day that we left Australia, the Adani mine (biggest coal mine in the world) who's building will destroy the Barrier Reef and cause climate chaos, was approved.
The original cause for this trip to India- a year and a half ago- was the alarming news that the Ganga was going to be turned into a transport harbour for mega coal barrages. When the news of this went away, we calmed down.
However now, as the Adani mine has been approved and stories of mega coal ports have began to float around India, I am lead to ponder on the question- Where is the Adani coal going?
The story is that there are plans for barrages to be build on Ganga, the river is to be dredged to a depth of 5metres deep and 50metres wide, so as to allow the shipping of coal in mega ships up river to mega coal ports.
If this takes place it won't matter what work is done here at Sankat Mochan Foundation, it will not matter how hard the youth fight and protest for effective sewage treatment systems, it won't even matter if Varanasi has the best sewage treatment systems in the world.
The development would cause environmental chaos and destroy the cultural integrity of Mother Ganga.
The conservation of the barrier reef has been a cause close to my heart- thinking about the Adani Mine brings literal tears to my eyes. Where are we headed? Into a world of climate catastrophe, a world without Australia's beautiful Barrier Reef, without India's cherished and vitally needed Mother Ganga.
I don't know about you, but that is not where I want to be.
We do not need a river of sewage, we do not need coal.
We need awareness, we need united action.
This afternoon, a few minutes before we leave for the airport, we send prayers out to Ganga. Holding my candle, I look down into the water; diluted sewage lapping up against the littered banks, malla's sinking into an abyss of pollution.
Slowly placing my candle into the water, I pray for Ganga. I am not and never have been a religious person, but in this moment, with tears in my eyes and an emptiness in my heart, I pray for Ganga and for my beloved Barrier Reef. I pray for the millions of people and animals who rely on Ganga for life, for the eco-systems within the Barrier Reef. I pray for those who have dedicated their lives to these causes, and to those who are blissfully- or perhaps ignorantly- unaware. I pray for the future, my future
In the previous 10 days I have sat in on countless meetings- most of which I was silent, just trying to understand what was going on, who was who- I have witnessed the horrifying reality of Varanasi's sewage flow into the river, I have been emotionally torn down, met wonderful friends, experienced the deep spiritual culture of India, and been inspired again and again by the people around me.
Unlike me, Sue has been apart of this family from the very beginning. She has seen 25 years of water testing, campaigning, achievements, and disheartening non-achievements. She has held this cause closely in her heart for 25 years.
After 25 years it is only now that we have discovered an arising fundamental problem:
People do not understand that when they flush their toilet, it goes directly through large pipes, and often small broken pipes, and into the river.
What we need- I am saying "we" as humanity as a whole, because this is not an Indian problem, it is a global crisis- we need to differentiate between cosmetic cleaning and removing and treating the sewage in Ganga.
Thousands of litres of sewage flooding into Ganga every day; 40 million people relying on the water for life; the only sewage treatment plants implemented in the last 25 years do not work; people believing that the river is clean, because the ghats are clean and there is a new blue boat picking up rubbish in the water.
This is too big. Where is the hope?
As corny and cliche as you may think this sounds: the hope, I believe, is in all of us. There can be no denying that.
This is not an unsolvable problem, the technology required is out there. The difficult part is spreading awareness and thorough understanding of the issue, then using that global awareness to influence institutions with power.
Community action = government action.
Sitting, blessed, in Mahant Ji's new and renovated 'thrown room' (basically a beautiful meeting room), Sue hums and the softness fills my ears.
A few days earlier an American singer song writer - Betsy Rose - came to stay at Tulsi Ghat. On the second day of our facilitator training, at the end of an intense day of training and brain storming and planning, Betsy Rose sat down with our trainees. And then she sang. She sang "We Will Overcome", a song of resilience and perseverance. In no time at all everyone was singing along, then modifying the song to suit Ganga, then singing again in Hindi.
The words echoed through the room, out onto Ganga and then into the foggy nights sky:
Ganga hogi saaf, Ganga hogi saaf,
ham karenge pryas saath saath,
oh man me hai vishvas,
pura hai vishvas,
Ganga hogi saaf saath saath
I watched how the energy changed, how the students beamed with anticipation and inspiration. Whatever heaviness and sorrow that was left after discussing our concerns was now gone, the mood was shifted- all through song. How divine.
Since that night, this Ganga song has come to represent everything we are working towards. It has become an embodiment of Sankat Mochan's values.
Now, sitting in Mahant Ji's thrown room, or preparing breakfast, or perhaps simply sitting by Ganga, the song is subconsciously hummed- following our travels with encouragement, reinforcing the harmonious nature of our campaign, the togetherness of our cause.
There are certain key figures at Sankat Mochan Foundation, I have come to understand. While I haven't been here nearly long enough to pass judgements, the strong, dedicated and passionate work ethic of these men have become obvious to me. Up all night working, barely home or with family, a constant level of stress- who would do this to themselves?
Environmental activists apparently- what a crazy lot.
Because the Ganga must be free of sewage.
Three of these key figures joined us yesterday afternoon (Gopal Ji, RK Ji, and Pandey Ji)- the third day of Facilitator Training. To begin, outside looking over a million dollar view of the Ganga, we played a game- A Big Wind Blows. Basically, the game consisted of one person standing in the middle of the rest of the group (whom are circled around him/her on chairs). The person in the middle will state "a big wind blows for" and then something sustainable they do: eg, a big wind blows for those who have solar panels on their roof. If this statement is true for you, you must get up and run towards a new chair. Inevitably, one person misses out on a chair and the process starts again.
The first round went and people ran and jumped and dived everywhere attempting to find a seat, it was Gopal Ji who was left in the middle. In my week of staying at Tulsi Ghat, I had not yet seen such a large and playful smile come from Gopal Ji. After a few moments of trial and error and students explaining the game in Hindi to Gopal Ji, laughing along with him, the next round went and this time it was RK Ji left in the middle of the circle, students giggling at him, an even larger smile again, an special brightness in his eyes.
Whilst trying to run and find a safe seat myself, I observed the loose playfulness in their movements. Their smiles were almost larger than the students. How heartwarming such childish fun could be; how wonderfully reassuring to see that even in the midst of an environmental/humanitarian crisis, these dedicated men could release their stress, let go of such overwhelming responsibility and, even if just for a moment, enjoy a delightful game of Big Wind Blows.
A little while on, we got the two students to speak to their peers about what they had witnessed yesterday, the surprise and pain they had felt. How excellent it was to see the participants listening intently and reacting with such understanding when it was their own friends informing them.
For me, this reinforced the significance of what Youth Leading the World believes- that young people have substantial power when it comes to spreading awareness. Simply because we are the future. Who better to talk about the future of Ganga than those who will be there to live along side it's future?
8am sharp we were out on the boat, keen to get water testing; our group included a university student and a year 11 year student, both whom have been attending our Youth Leading the World Facilitator Training this week.
There are 33 drains, all which flow directly into the Ganga. On this day, we took samples from 6 areas.
It was the Varuna River where I first felt physically ill. We had passed the city Ghats, gone under the bridge and arrived in the village area. Looking out to the river, away from the city, the water was an eery white-grey; methane bubbling all around the boat.
In order to correctly collect data from the samples, when water is taken from the river (50 cm's down- as this is the level at which people bath), two chemicals are mixed with the sample to fix the oxygen levels in the water. Usually, the water will turn a orange/brown colour. However, the water at Varuna turned a blanket white. No lab work was needed, this water had a dissolved oxygen level of 0. Solid sewage.
Back past the city Ghats we went, back past our home at Tulsi Ghat and on towards the upstream drains. Nagwa Nalla, meaning drain in English, was originally called Assi River. Anyone who has laid eyes on this once called 'river' will understand the reasoning behind the change of name. This was no river- it was the largest drain I had ever seen, flowing directly into the upstream of the Ganga.
And then I heard a disturbing thing. The law student who had accompanied us, the student who had, a day before, listening intently at our Facilitator Training as we delivered the hard facts, the science and statistics of the pollution of the river, said that he had no idea this was happening. Unable to believe that this system of sewage management was a reality, I saw the horror on his face.
If Lalit could be so oblivious about the state of the water- a committed/passionate/active law student- how many more people are there?
Later on at the banks of the river on Tulsi Ghat, the high school student joining us began to sing "Ganga will be clean", encouraging others to join. A nearby man took notice and said "but Modi Ji has already cleaned the Ganga".
The fact that sewage makes up 95% of the pollution in the river is not in the face of every day people. Unfortunately what is in their face is rubbish, rubbish on the Ghats. And so, to those millions of people who don't understand the science behind the pollution of the river, they turn to blame the physical rubbish and dirt on the Ghat, the soap of those who bath, the stray dogs' filth. Which in reality only make up 5% of this detrimental issue.
Prime Minister Modi Ji's campaign was built, in Varanasi, on the good-willed platform of cleaning Ganga. As an initiative of this he came to Assi Ghat and shovelled dirt away from the Ghat- a symbolic gesture of the governments good intention for the future.
So far however, no substantial effective change has occurred. What has emerged among people is a dangerous and confused misconception that the cosmetic cleaning of the Ghats is cleaning the Ganga.
How can we encourage the government to act on their promises when even the most educated of people do not understand that when you flush your toilet, it goes directly into Ganga Ji?
Today was so foggy I couldn't see the other side of the river.
We ran our first day of Youth Leading the World Facilitator Training. University students from BHU and students from TVN joined in; around 30 people in total. While for me, the language barrier was difficult and exhausting, the passion and energy of the students was more inspiring.
After our brain storming session, the top concerns were:
- illegal construction on river banks/commercialisation of Ghats
- discharge of sewage
- land degradation
- lack of awareness and responsibility
- climate change
- insecurity of food/water
- industrial waste
- lack of implementation of government policies and action
- loss of biodiversity
- wealth gap
- over dependence on fossil fuels
- loss of cultural heritage
One of the most crucial parts of the day for me was the Pulse of the Planet. This is one of the only times when the participants listen, rather than joining in. The Pulse of the Planet is a presentation whereby we metaphorically take the pulse of the world- going through large scale global issues of poverty, climate change, biodiversity loss, deforestation etc. Here, the participants learn things that they may never have been told before- I sure hadn't before my first Youth Leading the World- such as:
- 1% of people own 40% of wealth and 50% of people own 1% of wealth
- we are on track for a 4 degree Celsius temperature rise by the year 2100
- current sewage treatment plants implemented by the government do not work
By the end of the presentation everyone- including the facilitators such as Ali, Sue and myself, who have done this for years and heard the presentation countless times- are feeling overwhelmed, small, drained and torn down. It is very important for us to really hear the pulse of the planet, to really listen to its pain, and to then feel that pain ourselves. We than utilise these feelings for positive and passionate action.
Sue Lennox and Catherine Porter both spoke at a conference at BHU university today- along side many esteemed professionals. Sue and Catherine spoke about the future of Varanasi and of course, the Ganga.
Before heading off to the university, we went to get pizza at a lovely little cafe on Assi Ghat. As we began to walk home, with me holding the left-overs in a pizza box, a young girl (possibly only 7 or 8) holding a very small baby approached me and began to follow. While I had no idea of what she was saying, it was blindingly obvious that she and the child needed food. Turning to face her I saw people all around, looking at me- a skinny elderly man stretched his arm out to me, begging. a young boy bounced around me, repeating the same sort of thing as the young girl.
The pizza cost me $4, I wasn't hungry anymore and I could very easily buy another tomorrow- or get food elsewhere. Despite this I froze, distressed. I had never seen desperation like this. Poverty was all around me and all I had was one small pizza.
After distributing the pizza, I realised that not only were these people hungry, they too, like millions of others, relied on the water of the river to survive. I am a wealthy westerner in comparison and surely there is more than a $4 pizza that I have to give. Feeling emotionally deflated, and yet impassioned, I promised myself that I would dedicate all of my being to getting the sewage out of Ganga.
It's fascinating the way that India can tear you apart, and then put you back together again.
While most of the conference was in Hindi, and therefore I understood absolutely none of it, I was able to observe the reactions of the audience, or the people on the panels. The passionate hand gestures, the raised voices accompanied by a round of applause from the audience, the head movements, the ushered words of approval.
The cleaning of the Ganga, the introduction of more sustainable ways of living, improved sewage and waste management- a clean, happy, healthy future for Varanasi. This is what everyone wants.
So why is it not happening?
There is a simple solution, with 101 complications.
As human beings, we have faced challenges 100 times more complicated than this before however.
If India can send a rocket to Mars, then India- and the rest of the world leaders for that matter- get the sewage out of Ganga!
After a rather sickening 9 hour plane trip (and my first over-seas trip) we were greeted at the airport in the most beautiful way. A group of men from the Clean Gompti Campaign, had driven over an hour to greet us, met us with bright smiles, warm and welcoming hand shakes and lovely smelling flower mala's. Before I even had a chance to feel culture shock, we were so heartwarmingly welcomed and honoured. It only took a few minutes for me to see the significance and importance of the work we would be doing, and the gratitude that of the local people.