Ahead of the Gangasagar Mela which is considered the second largest congregation of mankind after the sacred triennial Kumbh Mela, all efforts have been made by the district administration of South 24 Parganas to make the event open defecation free (ODF) and free of plastic waste.
Held during Makar Sankranti that falls on January 14th or 15th each year, the annual event is an occasion when thousands of pilgrims take a dip at the confluence of the River Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. After the holy dip, the pilgrims offer ‘Puja’ at the Kapil Muni Ashram. Located about 120 kms from Kolkata and under the District of South 24 Parganas, the venue of the annual event that has been held from time immemorial, is around the temple of Kapil Muni in the southern tip of Sagar Island in the Ganges delta.
“We are expecting a few million pilgrims in a span of five days. This year, in keeping with the national Swachh Bharat Mission movement, we have taken a series of measures to transform this million plus gathering into a clean and green one, by making it open defecation free (ODF) and plastic waste free,” said District Magistrate, South 24 Parganas, Dr. P B Salim.
While the event takes place from 12th to 16th January, Makar Sankranti which falls on the 14th this year is the most auspicious day when the Sun enters the Makar Constellation. It is a great tourist attraction too as domestic and international visitors seek to experience such a unique assembly of human beings. Significantly, there is no road connectivity to the isolated island of Sagar which is also home to the famous mangroves.
As many as two million pilgrims attended last year’s Mela and this year the number is set to increase because there is no Khumb Mela this year, according to Dr. Salim. He outlined the challenges they face in terms of logistics, boarding arrangements and more importantly, restroom facilities.
“Every single pilgrim has to be transported across the river. That is one of the biggest challenges for the administration. Thereafter, we have to host over 2 million pilgrims over the course of 4-5 days,” he added. Towards this they have set up a makeshift village with pilgrim sheds, constructed 20 jetties on 4 sides of the island, deployed 200 vessels to ferry people across, and 5-6 barges to transport materials.
Having organized last year’s Mela, Dr. Salim who was also instrumental in making Nadia ODF, (the first district in the country to have attained that status) said it was an ODF experiment. Considering that the district administration has taken on the herculean task of making the event green and sustainable, this year’s Mela would be even more challenging as many of the participants may have never seen or used toilets, coming as they do from lower economic backgrounds.
Unlike any other district where the district administration has 6 months to a year to build momentum through various activities, CLTS, etc, the task at this Mela would mean transforming people to use toilets in a matter of 48-72 hours. Also in any given district, the population is homogenous with similar language, culture, socio-economic background/conditions. At the Mela on the other hand, they will be dealing with a diverse group in terms of language, culture, etc.
Although majority of the people who come to the Mela are from the Hindi belt, several pilgrims also come from the Southern States. “Bringing behaviour change among them is a major challenge,” he said.
Having studied last year’s Mela, UNICEF had certified that the event was ODF. With this in mind, the district administration has designed a winning strategy to inform, convince, mobilize and trigger the pilgrims. In place is a large volume of IEC material. South 24 Parganas has also deputed volunteers at both Kolkata and Howrah railway stations; and at all the bus stands.
Whether they are in a bus or a train, soon as pilgrims land they will be addressed by volunteers who will speak about the Mela and other spiritual matters before gently bringing up the issue of good sanitation practices, their tagline being – Nirmalstan (clean place of worship) to Punisthan (holy dip). Visitors will be warned that the deity Kapil Muni is watching them.
Dr. Salim has also brought on board GIWA (Global Interfaith WASH Alliance), various spiritual leaders, faith based organizations and the Chief Priest of the temple.
“We have made all arrangements to ensure provision of toilets at every location with sufficient water. In place are 12,000 temporary toilets. The facilities painted yellow are identifiable, sporting a yellow flag that can be seen at a distance,” he said. Considering that certain pilgrims may be illiterate, this would be a big help. Cleaning has also been given top priority since they are well aware of the fact that if toilets are not kept clean, they will not be used. To address this, 3000 volunteers have been recruited as cleaning staff who will work on shifts. One volunteer is responsible for 10 toilets and the names of all volunteers have been displayed.
In addition, the event will be plastic free, having restricted the use of plastic bags, disposal plates and cups, etc., a measure that will also protect the mangrove ecosystem which not only preserves water quality but also protects the coastal areas from erosion and storm surges. Even puja material will be supplied in paper bags.
Arrangements have also been made to ensure safety and security of people. All transit points are kept under CCTV surveillance and staff from Indian Navy, Coast Guard, NDRF, Civil Defence, hospitals and fire stations will be watchful of the entire happenings.
As far as the impact is concerned, it will demonstrate that a Mela of this dimension can be ODF. Also, the event will be a platform to spread the message of the Swachh Bharat Mission to the multitude of pilgrims. This is likely to have a lasting impact as pilgrims who return home will take this message to their native places.