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The original article was published at BusinessWorld on 21 May 2018.


It’s a pleasant surprise to hear from a dear ex-colleague from the corporate world! Conversation unfolds. He’s called to invite me for an ‘interesting experience’. I made a shift to the development sector a few years ago, so I’m not quite sure. But he assures me, I’ll like it. It’s about rainwater harvesting and water table conservation efforts in tribal areas of Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh.  Now that’s cool! Tell me more!

It turns out, it is a social movement called ‘Shiv Ganga’. I must admit, it makes me a bit sceptical. I mean what’s Shiva got to do with rainwater harvesting and aquifer restoration?

But since it is a weekend of shram-daan (voluntary labour), alongside 12,000 tribals from 250+ villages, it will be worth the experience! But like others of our generation, I am a guilty parent throughout the week. So I do like to be with my kids over weekends. But hang on – I could take my son along! Are 10 years old, old enough for something like this? “We’ll find out”, I say to myself. Thankfully, my 10-year-old is excited! He sees it as an adventure. So all’s well!

Until it’s not! He falls sick the day before the journey. So now, I decided to find out if 7 years old, is old enough! That’s the advantage of having 3 kids in ‘Small, Medium and Large’! As for him, he is simply excited to get to do what Bhaiya was going to get! Siblings, I tell you!

The Father-Son Adventure begins
We set out to an adventurous journey – two train changes, a missed connection, some ticketless travel, and finally a Tata Sumo ride into Jhabua. The MP Tourism Department lodge is quaint. There is instant respect upon knowing that we have come for Shivganga.

A shower and a quick nap later, we are in the dusty sports ground of the local college. We are greeted by huge pandals, a large make-shift canteen with a mountain pile of 5000, and a continuous stream of pick-axe and shovel-wielding Bhil tribals

The place is teeming with people, conversations and dust. A group of IIT students is there too. A boy enthrals the group, particularly the girls! A dozen elderly well-wishers of the movement, discuss politics, religion and society. They have distinguished backgrounds – an ex-Governor and High Court Judge, senior appointees in important national institutions, SME business owners, etc. An organisation called ‘Empathy Connects’ has brought in ~25 young changemakers as a part of an immersive learning journey.

One of the young changemakers is himself a tribal from Jharkhand. He has intense, angst-filled eyes. We are both sipping tea and looking at the stage with a gigantic backdrop of Lord Shiva; both wondering – what’s Lord Shiva got to do with this anyways? But we mean it differently. As a tribal, he sees the Hindu imagery as a forced imposition. Tribals have their own Gods. Many don’t even identify themselves as Hindus. It creates an interesting discussion. Is social mobilisation for a good cause okay, even if it uses ‘faith’ as the glue? And what if the faith is non-native? Could the ‘good’ be a ‘soft sell’ of the faith? If so, is that okay, or not okay? I don’t know. I am here to learn. And the question on my mind still is, ‘What’s Shiva got to do with it anyway?”

Slogans fill the air “Gaanv gaanv mein jaayenge, Shankar Jattaa banaayenge!” – we shall go to every village and make Shiva’s Hairlocks!” We are now marching through the narrow market streets of the town. The loudest are the firebrand IIT students. Bhils respond by raising their pickaxes in the air. Terrifying memories from my childhood, come back to me – “Hum Mandir wahin banaayenge!” the ‘Kar Sewaks’ had chanted in 1992. My grip over my 7-year-old tightens. I wonder if this is an adventure gone too far.

Fortunately not! This is more like the 2011 Anna Movement. Religious motifs were used then too, much to the disdain of Lutyens elite. But it was for a constructive purpose. I am now closer than ever to the answer to my question – ‘What’s Shiva got to do with it?’

The Ganges that comes from heaven, every year!
Legend has it that after severe penance for a thousand years, Lord Brahma finally ceded to King Bhagirath’s request – of bringing the celestial river Ganga to the earth. But only Lord Shiva could sustain the weight of her descent. He held out his thick matted hair to catch the river. The meandering through Shiva’s lock softened Ganga’s journey to the earth.

The Shiv Ganga initiative recounts this story in every village. And reminds them – even now, every year, Ganga descends from the heavens, right into their village, in the form of rain! But where are Lord Shiva’s locks to stop her waters from washing away?

“Will you do Lord Shiva’s work!!!??? Will, you build Shankar jatta or Shiva’s hair locks?”, asks the charged orator! “Yes!!!” they respond!  And so off they go, to train themselves in simple but scientific ways to build the ‘Shankar Jatta’ – embankments, trenches, small check dams etc – to preserve soil, store water and recharge water bodies and the aquifer! Beyond water, ecological restoration needs afforestation. Once again, a good friend called ‘religion’ can help!

A ‘Maata nu van’ or ‘Forest of the Goddess’ was at the periphery of every village. It was sacred so no one would touch it. However, over the years, the little forests vanished, and so did the ecosystems. You still find a small Mata temple, but no forest.

“The divine mother stands here without her cover! Is that okay with you? Will you give her back her dignity?” asks the charged orator! “Yes!!!” they roar! And off they go to get trained in scientific afforestation that regenerates the lost ecosystems.

Religion as the opium of the masses? You must be smoking!

“Oh, that’s a nice way to manipulate the illiterate, simple folk into doing the right thing! I mean, unlike us, they won’t get it through straightforward science, or just humanist ‘non-religious’ approaches”, some of us ‘educated urban’ might think. But let me ask you this – despite knowing the science of it, how many of us have actually done something about it – be it rainwater harvesting, composting, ecological restoration, reduction, reuse and recycling of our waste, and the like?

Contrast that to the 12,000 Bhils, who travelled miles, some even on foot, to do voluntary labour that day. And who will go back to their villages and inspire thousands more! They will self-organise and donate labour to build these ‘public goods’ for their villages; for theirs and others’ farms. They will modify their farming and living patterns. And once again, it is a tribal tradition that has them do it for each other. The tradition is called ‘Halma’. Under this, families in a village collect their instruments and work on one person’s land on a given day together. The process goes on to cover every family. Even though the instruments and tools were privately owned, the produce is private, but the effort is collective. Each one is a stakeholder. The Shiv Ganga project revived the Halma practice and prompted them to help each other, irrespective of whether they have any acquaintance with them.

With 1.2 lakh working days every year of voluntary Halma, that has recharged 6,000+ water bodies/structures in 225 villages, created a cover of 20,000 trees, Shiv Ganga has now become the research interest of IIT’s and TISS.

So, what’s Shiva, religion and tradition got to do with social, ecological, political or even economic transformation? A lot, I’d argue!

Our myths, stories and scriptures are our collective experience of unravelling the inner spiritual path, as well as of running our external world. Use it dogmatically, and we destroy both our inner and outer worlds! Unravel and apply the insights behind the imagery – and it gives us ways to live harmoniously with nature, and with each other! Apply Raj Dharma and the Gita as Gandhiji did, and you get political and policy-making transformation. Apply Arthshastra insights, and grow the economy. Apply some of the underlying principles and essence of Islamic Finance as espoused in the Sharia, and avoid Lehman-like meltdowns! Yes, I did a formal engagement in Islamic Finance for a Middle Eastern sovereign. I came to appreciate some remarkable insights in the Sharia, on probably one of the best ‘economic stimulus packages’ before the term was even invented.

But can’t we get to the same insights through dispassionate and straightforward research, science and logic, without the stories and the fables and the myths?  Of course, we can! But sometimes, we could be missing out the ‘integrative perspective’. Plus, if we use only that route, we relegate it to a few technical experts and leave out the multitude, that is required to make it a mass participatory movement – of the people, for the people and by the people!

Why go far? Would you have read this article if it was a technical treatise on water conservation, social movements, or tribal lifestyles; rather than the story of a father-son adventure? And to clarify – no that wasn’t a made-up story! I did actually take my son!

And we had a blast! A memorable adventure, digging with Bhil kids; learning, living and loving together!