India’s wildest and least explored state, isn’t just called the land of the rising sun for no reason. Arunachal Pradesh’s pristine beauty and lush greenery still remains beyond tourism’s reach. And this can only be a blessing in disguise. Especially with numerous rivers that bless this state with their abundance, it becomes essential to keep these rivers from the reach of miscreants.
The scenic Art of Living Ashram is situated along the bank of the river Jullang. Few river panoramas are as awe-inspiring as this one. Anyone who has sat on the banks of a river and gazed at the flowing water can testify to this. Given the serenity this can offer, its hardly surprising that Ashrams and other retreat centres are situated adjacent to a water body.
The sound of the flowing Jullang river, however, is not the only sound that emanates from the quiet surroundings of the Ashram. Even in the darkness one can hear noises that seem out of place in the setting – the sound of vehicles – trucks plying behind the Ashram in the river bed. One wonders what are city trucks doing in such a place. The reach of man can never be underestimated. Its common knowledge that river beds are the source of sand, gravel, and stones that are required for construction activity ranging from roads to bridges and buildings. Excessive quarrying for stones and gravel in the river bed can, however, have long term severe negative impact on the environment. This includes excessive erosion of the river banks leading to landslides and other damage to property. There is a sincere effort in other parts of the world to ensure economics and nature coexist. The Art of Living Foundation has been working incessantly for the last 35 years to serve mankind and nature alike.
Gurudev Sri Sri Ravi Shankar has always championed the cause of the environment in today’s times. The 40 odd rivers that are rejuvenated in India today stand testimony to his and the organisation’s commitment, along with its teachers and volunteers who have contributed relentlessly to this cause.
One such champion is Swami Bhavyatej, who is currently in charge of the Arunachal Ashram. He had been observing the mining activity for some time. He had assumed that it was being done with the proper authority, since it was being done openly but started becoming concerned at the sheer scale of excavation. When the Ashram boundary wall was constructed a few years back there was more than thirty feet distance between the wall and the edge of the river. Over time, the Jullang river slowly ate away at the river edge to the point that it is now eroding the foundations of the boundary wall! Parts of the Ashram boundary have surrendered to the raging water in the last couple of years. Twice, sections of the boundary wall have been rebuilt at considerable cost. A stretch of about sixty metres of the boundary wall is currently damaged and is in need of repair. Is this just a natural phenomenon due to excess rains? Is it due to natural changes in the river flow due to landslides upstream? Arunachal Pradesh being a hilly region is prone to landslides and other such disturbances. Or is it due to the human activity in the river bed that was causing changes in the span of a few years that nature took millions of years to make.
Swamiji decided to inspect the activity himself. He politely talked to the truck drivers and other people engaged in the quarrying to be mindful of property near the river banks and how the boundary wall had been damaged in the past by the water. Of course, polite request fell on deaf ears. Subsequently, at a meeting with the Deputy Commissioner of Itanagar, Swamiji, requested a review of the mining in the area.
Officers visited the site to inspect the river and the surrounding area. They communicated that the quarrying activity was definitely excessive and illegal since the area in question was not “notified” for legal mining of river minerals. Coincidentally, while the review was being conducted, the Deputy Commissioner was transferred to Delhi. I assume it was a routine transfer but the timing did seem strange. Was it possible that invisible hands were at work?
A word here about how things run in Arunachal. The official writ is largely ignored in many matters. If a piece of land is unused, anyone who starts using is, for whatever purpose, since the owner doesn’t need it currently, becomes the unofficial owner of the land.
Finally in the face of determined enquiries by Swamiji and in light of the official review report, the district administration had no choice but to pass an order banning the illegal mining. The order was passed under section 144 of the criminal code. Once the order was communicated to the people engaged in the said mining, truck traffic greatly reduced, though it did not completely stop.
The river mining activity was being carried out by local politicians and thugs. Within days the Ashram was visited by people of various hues, explaining how the mining ban was affecting their livelihood, how people’s construction projects were on hold because the supply of raw materials had stopped and how poor labourers would lose their jobs. The visitors were accompanied by mining officers. It seemed as if the official machinery did not want to enforce the order at all.
Swamiji was handed a copy of a letter on their behalf saying that mining be allowed for personal use and that it would not affect the environment is any way and wanted his signature on it. Swami ji flatly refused. He explained that the order had been passed by the district administration, based on a review by their expert committee and that the Art of Living had nothing to do with it. He also suggested that they should petition the DC office to legalise and regulate the mining activity in the area and issue proper permits so that the activity could be carried out in a sustainable manner. Even after the order banning illegal mining was issued, enforcement was halfhearted at best. Activity continued in a distance. One day, Swami ji saw a truck parked in the river bed about half a mile away from the Ashram. The mining officer was called but initially did not answer the phone. Swami ji went up to the people loading the truck and explained the mining order. In the meantime, the officer had arrived as well. This happened a number of times in the first few days.
It seemed as if the Art of Living was in charge of enforcing the order also. Swami ji joked that the district administration should be paying the Art of Living for doing their job! Swami ji was told a number of times that he had to “live with the neighbours” and as long as mining did not happen immediately behind the Ashram it should not be a problem. This was by the district officer in charge of enforcing the order. Swami ji said “The whole river is mine!”. Since the order mentions nothing about the Art of Living campus it needed to be enforced wherever illegal activity was happening
At a followup meeting with the Deputy Commissioner, Swamiji mentioned that the order had been partially enforced and some activity was still ongoing. The concerned officer was summoned but on questioning gave excuses saying that development work needs sand and gravel from the river. After the meeting, outside in the parking lot, things got a little heated. The said officer confronted Swamiji. “Why are you always complaining?!”, “Nothing will happen! I will not visit the area again to enforce the order” “You will have trouble with the local people!” Swamiji didn’t back down and told him that we will not be cowed down, that we were not afraid and that he should not threaten us. I personally felt a little scared by this exchange and also wondered why Swamiji had to make this matter so personal. Maybe it wasn’t personal and it just seemed that way to me. Or maybe it was : I said to Swamiji – “I have not felt afraid in a long time and have forgotten how it felt like”.
Swamiji smiled and said that “It is all a game”.
This exchange was communicated to the Deputy Commissioner who replied saying that he would resolve the matter peacefully. The next day, an official complaint was lodged with State officials regarding the concerned district officer. I realised that by this time my fear had vanished and I had started participating fully in the process. I wondered how this was going to unfold. Time will tell.
At this time when the Art of Living World Culture Festival is again in the news for “damaging the Yamuna flood plains”, and all the good work that the Art of Living has done to rejuvenate 27 rivers in the South of the country seems to have been forgotten, the Jullang river is an Art of Living story that is not making the news. But what is doing the rounds is the fiction that the NGT and the likes have made up. For me, it is absurd to even hear that a man and his organisation that has invested so much in creating a better world can be accused of something like this. As I witnessed this story unfold with my own eyes, I found it quite ironic that the Art of Living people were going out of their way to fight for nature here in Arunachal disregarding personal safety. The story of this Swamiji is only one amongst many. There are many champions like this around the world who mirror their leader, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s, vision and conviction to create harmony, inside out.
Dr Rajesh Kumar
Art of Living Happiness Teacher
B.Tech. Computer Science. (IIT Kharagpur 2002)
Ph.D. Computer Engineering. (Carnegie Mellon Univ, USA 2007)