Kumbh, the world’s largest congregation of Hindus, is now rooting for a greener environment as Ujjain pushes for a coveted smarty city tag
Yogesh Vajpeyi | May 3, 2016
The story of every Kumbh mela, where a colossal tented city springs up on the banks of a sacred river every 12 years, is simultaneously the story of the eternal and the ephemeral, the mundane and the magnificent. It is the story of saints and moksha-seekers who are joined in their belief that, at a certain time of year, the holy waters contain the nectar of divinity that can free them from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is also the story of many of the millions who come to the mela but do not exactly know why. Much like the legends about the origin of the Kumbh, the mela is not governed by reason. Instead, like a microcosm of India, it is full of paradoxes.
As one walks through the tented city that has come up in the ancient city of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, rubbing shoulders with the sadhus (Hindu ascetics) as well as commoners, a strong sense of anticipation is visible. They all share a common wish: The month-long mela that was kick-started by the ritual shahi snan (royal bath) on the banks of the river Shipra on April 22 and ends on May 23 could be a game-changer.
The Ujjain Simhastha is one of the four legs of the Kumbh mela, each occurring by rotation every 12 years, the other three being the Kumbhs at Haridwar, Allahabad and Nashik.
“This time it is going to be different,” says Mahant Narendra Giri, president of the Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad, the apex organisation of Sikh and Hindu sadhus. “Hindus are today required to expand their concept of dharma to include considering the effects of our actions on all human beings, doing our part to ensure we have a functioning, abundant and bountiful planet,” he adds.
Called ‘Green Simhastha’ by the state government, it is expected to send a strong message for the larger battle to save our environment, says Giri. “People all over the world are planting trees to observe the Earth Day and world leaders are signing the Paris Agreement on climate change,” he adds.
Heads of all 13 major Hindu akharas (militant ascetic groups) agree. Swami Chidananda Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan, Rishikesh, reflects the consensus: “Simhastha provides us with a stage which can never be organised and we must utilise the congregation for positive use by enlightening about threats to our deteriorating environment and other social evils.”
However, there are sceptics who doubt if the Indian sadhus are really interested in saving planet Earth. “Members of these akharas have an old tradition of fighting amongst themselves. The only thing that has changed is that open armed clashes have been replaced by litigation and behind the scene use of political power brokers,” says social historian Saroj Gaur.
The goings on in the 13 recognised akharas confirm this. Apart from trying to score brownie points over each other, most office-bearers are fighting for government largesse.
Allowing transgender people to set up their own akharas and participate in the mela is a first this time. The Ujjain administration has earmarked five acres of land for them, despite some resistance from the Akhara Parishad. “We formed kinnar akhara at my ashram here on October 12 last year. It now has branches in over two dozen states,” says Rishi Ajaydas, a renowned spiritual guru of Ujjain.
Another difference at this Simhastha is the Yoga Kumbh organised by a group of Indian and foreign yoga organisations at a comparatively quiet township in the midst of the mela site. “It is an opportunity for researchers and scholars from the field of yoga to share their knowledge and experiences,” says Radheyshyam Mishra, founder president of Ujjain Yoga Life Society International, one of the principal organisations behind the event.
Whatever the outcome of these initiatives, one thing is certain. The Simhastha 2016 is good news for the residents of Ujjain. It may just open doors for a brighter future for them.
“We have spent nearly '5,000 crore for developing infrastructure and amenities in Ujjain. Infrastructure procured, and systems set in place for the mela – on solid waste management, smart lighting, smart surveillance, tourism development – will accelerate development of a smart city in Ujjain, and show its impact quickly,” says Ujjain commissioner Ravinda Pastotre.
Ujjain’s history dates back to ancient era, with its emergence as an urban political, educational, commercial and cultural centre of central India as early as 600 BCE. It remained so until early 19th century, when the British administrators decided to develop Indore as an alternative to Ujjain.
Today its economy needs a revival. It is heavily dependent on tourism and footfall is poor except during special events. The government now plans to develop it as a smart city by transforming it into a pilgrimage and heritage destination, supported by smart initiatives for development of knowledge based economy.
“More than any other city in the state, the historical legacy of Ujjain, defines its present identity. It needs to be revitalised smartly for the city to reclaim its former economic glory, and keep pace with the modern digital economy,” says Katha Karti, who worked as a consultant to prepare the smart city plan for Ujjain.
Huge investments have been made in the city and the region for Simhastha 2016 and that is likely to accelerate the development of a smart city in Ujjain.
Additionally, the private sector has made its own preparations to welcome the 5 crore pilgrims during the mela. This improves livability of residents and provides access to smart services for tourists. The area based proposals in the smart city plan for Ujjain have been designed to supplement and leverage the investments already made for Simhastha.
“The stage is set for work on the smart city plan to start whenever the state government gives it a green signal,” says Avinash Lavania, municipal commissioner, Ujjain.
Like other old, living cities, Ujjain’s challenge is unique in that it needs to keep pace with urban transformation while preserving its ethnic core. The SWOT analysis reveals an imminent opportunity for Ujjain: It can rebuild its tourism-based economy through intelligent urban transformation, simultaneously introducing digital vibrancy into the city’s core services and infrastructure.
This will serve the twin purposes of introducing new touristic vigour in the city through a superior tourism experience and enhanced footfall; and improve citizen satisfaction and quality of life.
The draft smart city plan put up on its website by the Ujjain municipal corporation aims at 100 percent increase in foreign tourists and 20 percent increase in domestic tourists in the next five years. Through tourism and knowledge driven initiatives, it hopes to create new jobs in the area of hospitality, transportation, trade and commerce. This will bring down the number of below poverty line (BPL) families in the city by 25 percent and increase the average household income by one-third.
The plan envisages supply of piped water supply to all residents of the city and extending sewerage network to at least half of them in the next five years. Door-to-door garbage collection services have already been put in place in 75 percent of the municipal area and these would be extended to cover over 90 percent area over next five years thanks to which the entire city will have an energy efficient street lighting system.
The city would meet at least 10 percent of its total power requirement as it has a strong potential for solar power generation due to its close proximity to the tropic of cancer. Ujjain has an existing university with potential for expansion, targeting new courses related to tourism and knowledge based entrepreneurship.
The task is challenging. But, as additional municipal commissioner Asheesh Singh puts it, “Challenges are everywhere; limitations are created but the targets are made to be achieved.”
(The article appears in the May 1-15, 2016 issue)
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