pilgrimage town of Vrindavan is the focus for a unique experiment in
conservation, in which environmentalists and religious leaders are working
side by side to reverse the dramatic decline of its forests, wildlife
and river. In so doing they are sending out a distress signal and a
call to action that is reverberating round the Hindu world.
| [WWF get involved] | [Entering
in the schools]
forms in the UK] | [Involving other agencies]
| [The Vrindavan Declaration]
story began in the 1980s when Sevak Sharan, a local retired engineer,
was made suddenly aware of the environmental danger threatening his
community. One day his peace was broken by the sound of three men cutting
down the only large tree left in the area, home to several peacocks.
He tried to stop them, but to no avail. He went to persuade their guru
to stop them, but he refused to get involved. Finally he reported the
incident to the police who also did nothing. By the next day the tree
was gone. Sevak resolved to do something.
"What was the use of my chanting and worship in the temples and bathing
daily in the Yamuna," he recalls, "If I couldn't protect these trees
and animals which were part of my devotion?"
Sevak began a campaign which took him to the state capital Lucknow and
the national capital Delhi in search of support. Meetings were organised
and promises made, ideas and concerns were set down on paper. But after
several years Sevak remained a lone voice and was beginning to lose
heart. Around this time I heard about him.
I had been visiting Vrindavan since the mid-seventies and had watched
its environmental problems develop. Rural India has faced transformations
in the last twenty years that took two hundred years to evolve in Europe.
The latest western technology now exists alongside rural life patterns
that have hardly changed in a thousand years. The resulting disparities
have created huge pressures on an unstable social infrastructure and
a fragile environment. In such circumstances, religion can have a powerful
role to play in setting an example and bringing people together, and
Vrindavan was an ideal place to encounter and work with its possibilities.
Together we gathered support in the community for an approach to WWF
International (World Wide Fund for Nature) for practical help. Through
the contacts which Sevak had already built up in the capitals, and my
international links, we were able to make a convincing case and in November
1991 the Vrindavan Forest Revival Project was launched, boldly funded
in its first year with £25,000 from WWF in Geneva.
main proposal to WWF, the World Wide Fund for Nature, was to organise
tree-planting along the parikrama, the seven-mile pilgrim path which
encircles Vrindavan. Every Hindu holy place has a parikrama around which
pilgrims walk to honour the sacred place and to symbolise the centering
of their lives about God. In focusing on this path WWF would involve
the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk the path as well as the
people in the ashrams and temples lining its route.
From the beginning the project caused a stir. At the opening ceremony
community leaders were quick to speak out in support and many made the
trip from Delhi. Even the State Minister for Energy unexpectedly turned
up to show his approval. But it quickly became clear that we would have
to be patient.
For example, it is estimated that for every ten trees planted in the
open by India's Forest Department only one survives. This is because
of brousing animals, careless drivers of tractors and bullock-carts,
theft of tree-guards, drought and heat, and in Vrindavan the biggest
menace of all, monkeys, who make short work of newly-planted trees due
to their love of new shoots, seeds and fruits.
The only way to overcome the tree failure-rate short of mounting armed
guards was to have the community looking after the trees as if they
were their own and feeling that they had a vested interest in their
survival. This, coupled with a sound maintenance plan, gave a survival
rate well above fifty per cent.
With this in mind WWF made education a priority from the start, particularly
with the young. They commissioned an environmental curriculum in Hindi
from the Centre for Environmental Education in Ahmedabad, based on the
religious and cultural traditions of Vrindavan, and by the second year
had appointed part-time 'Environment Teachers' in each of Vrindavan's
thirty-five schools and were running regular training workshops for
in the schools
early experiences showed the value of working in the schools. One was
when the teenage daughter of the head priest at Vrindavan's most orthodox
temple won a nature painting competition and declared publicly at her
award ceremony that she wanted to spend her life working to restore
the environment of Vrindavan. In so doing she set an important and influential
precedent among her peers and future community leaders.
The second cause for hope came when the community was asked to turn
out in protest at the bull-dozing of hundreds of established trees to
make way for a new road. To everyone's surprise and joy, hundreds of
school-children joined with their teachers in a peaceful but powerful
procession through the town centre. What was unique about this demonstration
is that it followed the time-honoured Vrindavan tradition of religious
street processions, with singing and musical instruments, but directed
this at a specific environmental issue. This potent combination of religion
and environment immediately brought to a halt the tree-destruction.
After seeing the progress of the project in its first two years WWF
India's incoming director, Samar Singh, raised its priority. He felt
that the combination of education, practical work and religious depth
gave it a special relevance to the Indian scene. He extended its programme
under the headings Greening, Cleaning and Education, re-named it the
Vrindavan Conservation Project to reflect its broadened remit, and formed
a community advisory committee to guide the project forward.
of Vrindavan forms in the UK
this time an international dimension to the Vrindavan project got underway
in Leicester, a British city with a roughly one-third Hindu population
from East Africa. Here we launched a group called Friends of Vrindavan,
partly to gather much-needed funds to support WWF's work but also to
forge practical, spiritual and cultural links between the two communities.
Over the last four years we have taken Hindu conservation to the Asian
community of Leicester and involved them in developing a 'Vrindavan
Gardens' in the main city park, and in organising a cycle expedition
to India to raise funds for Vrindavan.
The first Yamuna Cycle Expedition in October 1996 took forty riders
to India to cycle from the Himalayan source of the Yamuna River over
five hundred miles to Vrindavan. Apart from its tremendous value in
raising awareness and understanding among the participants and over
a thousand sponsors, it raised nearly £20,000 for work in Vrindavan.
Friends of Vrindavan continue organising this event.
the Vrindavan Conservation Project continues to flourish, funded by
WWF and more recently by ARC and Friends of Vrindavan, others are getting
involved. Sulabh International, India's largest development organisation,
have been given funding by the Government of India, as part of the national
Yamuna Action Plan to clean up the Yamuna River, to make Vrindavan one
of four settlements to target for sanitary rehabilitation and education,
including tackling the town's major problems of sewerage and waste disposal.
Another participant is the government of the state of Uttar Pradesh.
As a result of growing concern about the plight of Vrindavan they have
recently announced a grant of 40 crores of rupees (£8m) for restoring
the cultural and environmental heritage of the region around Vrindavan.
WWF India's 25th Anniversary Congress in 1994, a declaration written
by a senior religious figure of Vrindavan, Shrivatsa Goswami, was presented
to the President of India along with a sacred Kadam tree from Vrindavan.
The declaration explained how Lord Krishna had acted to restore the
ecological balance of Vrindavan, and underlined the community's commitment
to conserving their environment.
'Nature enjoys being enjoyed, but reacts furiously to exploitation.
Today's situation is caused by our separation from Krishna and his message
of commitment. Let us act on his message to play, not to exploit. '