Environment activist from Punjab Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal was conferred the Padma Shri this year for infusing life into Kali Bein, a 160-km rivulet where Guru Nanak is believed to have earned enlightenment about 517 years ago.
It took the 55-year-old, who is also referred as Eco Baba, 16 years of voluntary service to rejuvenate the rivulet, which was reduced to a “filthy drain.” He also beautified the river banks and also built bathing ghats and brick roads.
The rivulet rises from Hoshiarpur district of Punjab before flowing into the confluence of the Sutlej and Beas.
“It’s indeed a great achievement. Seechewal has re-emphasised the power of voluntary effort on such a mammoth scale,” said river expert Kalyan Rudra.
That’s hardly an exaggeration. In 2000, when Seechewal took on the mission to clean and reclaim the rivulet, the entire stretch was clogged with silt and hyacinth and was polluted by effluents from industry and residential areas.
What was once a putrid stretch has now turned into a picnic spot due to his effort that also involved mobilising public support for his endeavour.
There is not a single locality along the 160-km stretch dotted with 72 villages and six towns where he failed to garner support for his mission. He even managed to make the Punjab State Pollution Control Board persuade the industrial units not to dump effluent into the river.
“The honour gives us a great feeling. It was a collective and dedicated work of my followers and local people who worked tirelessly for 16 years,” Seechewal told HT on getting the award.
The man, who looks more like a spiritual guru in saffron robes, is the son of a simple farmer. He dropped out from a Kapurthala college when he was a BA second year student. He even worked as a mason till his life changed after a chance meeting with Sant Avtaar Singh in a bus. He became his disciple.
Now in his own headquarters at Seechewal, the Eco Baba gets up at 2am for prayer. The physical activity in his centre at Seechewal – where about 150 disciples live – begins at 5am.
Reclaiming Kali Bein was, however, not his only achievement. Team Seechewal also developed a cost-effective underground sewerage system with the help of the state government that collects sewage and turns it into clean water fit for irrigation.
He has also set up a forest nursery that distributes one lakh saplings every year. The ‘baba’ also runs a school for migrant labourers.
Many administrators now want to follow his model to resuscitate other rivers.
In October, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar said his government will follow the model to resuscitate the mythical Saraswati, parts of which used to flow through what is currently Haryana.
Now Seechewal has embarked upon another mission, appealing to the people to vote for candidates who consider environmental reforms an election issue.