Friday, March 11, 2005

Just breathe

March 3rd-4th:

Wednesday brought me to Una dt., Himachal Pradesh. Devinder Sharma's family hails from Nari, a village near Una, and his father, Bauji, still has a house there. Bauji runs a group EEG (Energy and Environment Group) there, which he started after his retirement from the army some 20 years ago. The group manages Self-Help Groups (SHG's) and a host of other things that I got to learn of during my stay. Bauji is 77 years young and an energetic advocate of Pranayama, a form of yoga that involves a lot of breathing and other exercises.

The first place we went to was Deri Baba Mandir, a temple in Nari. This temple was established about 500 years ago by a Maharaj-ji and has had a continuous line of priests (called Maharaj) who run it. It has a rich tradition of community volunteering – women from neighboring villages come in daily to clean the place and cook. A 'langar' or meal is offered in this temple as in gurdwaras. The unique feature of this langar is that it is 'akhand langar' or offered all the time. “No one is ever turned away from here hungry,” said an old man who volunteers there. Another tradition exists – that of offering the first harvest, be it wheat or vegetables, to the temple. This also helps maintain the langar. In the courtyard is an intertwined network of five peepal trees – 'panch peepal'. Legend is that 5 mahatmas had given up their lives there and thus the trees had sprung up. It is believed that circling the tree can cure people of a number of illnesses, even snakebite.

On leaving the temple, we visited a village library, one of 5 in the area, setup with help from the Rajiv Gandhi foundation. The library has books and receives newspapers and magazines. The latter, at least, are read by a wide range of people.

From there, we went to Shivbari, a Shiva temple in the area. Legend has it that the temple was built by Dronacharya of Mahabharata fame. The temple is surrounded by a thick forest for atleast a mile around. Wood is cut in this sacred grove only for cremations or for a temple puja. Local belief is that cutting it for any other purpose will harm the violator. Either his/her house will burn down or another such misfortune. According to the temple priest, this belief has kept the grove intact for centuries. This grove was the primary reason Devinder-ji wanted me to visit Una – to see what local beliefs can do for protection of biodiversity. Nice point, but I think this kind of situation, as well as the one at Deri Baba, cannot be easily replicated and should just be admired from afar.

Next, we went to the Community Hospital in Daulatpur, where Bauji is involved in a biowaste disposal scheme. One of his staff members, Bina, took me around and explained the system. Different color dustbins have been set up in the wards, clinics and operating rooms for different kinds of waste – needles and other sharp devices, plastics and biodegradable waste. The plastics, needles etc. are disinfected with bleaching powder and sold off to waste processing units. The biodegradable waste, which includes body parts - placentas, blood, teeth – and cotton etc. are dumped into composting pits. A few months later, the pits are emptied of the compost and filled again. This system as brought a radical change in the waste disposal system of the hospital – as the other doctors informed me, this system of waste disposal is mandated in Himachal Pradesh, but very few hospitals follow it. In fact, they are so happy with the setup that they will be paying Bina a salary so that she stays on at the hospital permanently.

Finally, in the evening, I met girls of a class that meets in one of the rooms in Bauji's house every day. These girls, in the age group 16-20, are being taught cooking, embroidery, painting and other domestic skills. The program is being funded by the Maharaj of Deri Baba Mandir. The Maharaj is highly supportive of Bauji's work and has asked him to start something new. Bauji thought about that all evening. He finally decided to start something for the senior citizens in the community - 'Buzurgon ke liye'. The program would be 6 months long, include a class of Pranayama and discussion of current affairs etc. Then all the attendees would be given a glass of milk.

Friday was a day of extreme relaxation, except for the morning. A women's day celebration was being organized in Una and Bauji suggested that I go, saying that it would be non-political. What he didn't tell me was that it was being organized by the Women's Wing of the BJP! The other staff members he asked to go grumbled that they were going to waste an entire day. But they stayed on. I slipped out at the earliest opportunity – anyway, the festivities were over an hour late as the chief guest hadn't yet arrived from Shimla. Bauji, waiting at an STD booth nearby, was scolded by one of his staff for accepting the invitation when he should have realized that the event would be political! We headed back to his house.

Later in the evening, Bauji said that the activities of EEG were being ramped down as there was no one to take his place at the head of the organization. Both his sons were established in Delhi and he hadn't found anyone with sufficient initiative in the area. Sad, but not tragic, given the relative well-being of the community. Of course, there are always things that need to be done, and most likely other groups will start working in the area, if they haven't already. Also, the house will possibly continue to be used for various community activities, if the past 2 days were any indication.

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