February 2015 By Suma Varughese The Worship to WASH and Women for WASH Summit of Leaders held under the aegis of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance, inspired religious leaders of all faiths to spread the message of water, sanitation and hygiene within their congregations, says Suma VarugheseThe occasion was a rather august one. Acclaimed religious leaders from all over the world were to lend their considerable clout to the cause of WASH, standing for Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All. Aptly called the Worship to WASH and Women for WASH Summit of Leaders, the two-day conference was held at Parmath Niketan, Rishikesh. Swami Chidananda Saraswati, President of Parmarth Niketan, is the Co-founder of the Global Interfaith WASH Alliance (GIWA) and Sadhvi Bhagwati, his principal disciple, is its Secretary General. Since WASH is helmed by UNICEF, it lent its technical support to the occasion.t was certainly a conference with a difference for me. Instead of conversations about peace or interfaith initiatives or holistic education, the dialogue centred around the importance of sanitation, the crucial role of washing hands with soap, and of the need for toilets. In other words, toilets before temples as Mahatma Gandhi had long ago espoused, and which is being reiterated by Narendra Modi today. Or better still, in the words of Swami Chidananda Saraswati, host of the grand Summit, toilets in the temples and mosques Parmarth and Rishikesh are well-loved destinations for me, since Life Positive has been holding events every year in its precincts. Any occasion to return to these places makes my heart leap with joy. It was with delight, therefore, that I found myself once more participating in the beautiful Ganga aarti, which informally kicked off the event. Most participants had already arrived, clearly from all over the world. The next day was the grand inauguration, attended by the chief minister of the state, Mr Harish Rawat, as well as dignitaries from all over the world. There was Archbishop Thabo Makgoba , Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa, Mr. Louis-Georges Arsenault, UNICEF Representative to India, from Quebec, Canada, Shri Abdul Malik Mujahid, Chairman, Council for Parliament of World’s Religions, Chicago, USA, Imam Luqman Tarapuri-a Deobandi Alim, from Gujarat, Regional President of Global Imam Council, Dr. Kalbe Sadiq Sahib, Vice President of the Muslim Personal Law Board, Diwan Zainul Abedin Ali Khan, Ajmer Sharif Shrine, a few Tibetan monks, one of who was the head of a monastery in Ladakh, innumerable leaders from Hindu organisations, a few representatives of the Sikh faith, and a Christian too, Fr Dominic Emmanuel. The line-up on the dais was extensive and the entire morning was consumed in listening to them express their fervent support for the cause. When you think about it, the concept is brilliant. The doleful statistics tell a dismal story. 595 million Indians defecate in the open; India has the highest number of diarrhoeal deaths among children under five years in the world. Almost 88 per cent of these deaths are due to poor sanitation, unsafe drinking water and unhygienic practices. India has 61 million stunted children due to under nutrition. As Sadhvi Bhagwati strikingly put it, “Can you imagine if someone held up 40 busloads of kindergarteners on their way to school and shot them dead? Then can you imagine if the killer did the same thing EVERY DAY? The entire world community would come together to find and stop the ruthless killer. That ruthless killer is lack of access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, which kills approximately 1,200 children under the age of five, in India, every day! We must join hands and work together to stop this, just as if someone were shooting these children on their way to school.” The one thing that unites all of India is religion. We are a religious people, regardless of which religion we subscribe to; and therefore our religious leaders have a powerful influence over us. One of the reasons why most people do not have toilets in their households is because it is considered to be inauspicious to have it. If religious leaders can bring about a change in mindsets, the vast majority of our population will change. As Swami Chidananda Saraswati put it, “While government can make bills, interfaith leaders can change dills (hearts). The time has come that we must not only worship the Creator but also its creation, and interfaith leaders now must come forward to charter innovative ways of spirituality.” Quite apart from the religious leaders sitting on the dais, the summit had attracted a vast number of people working in related NGOs and other organisations. Regrettably, the humungous scale of the conference denied them an opportunity to be heard. One could not help but feel that perhaps their inputs born out of experiences on the field would have given additional depth to the discussion. In the afternoon, the gathering was broken into various small units. All of us were required to pledge what we would do in the matter, which were then taken away, soon to be compiled into a booklet. The next day came the second part of the programme, Women for WASH. Here, the emphasis was on providing toilets for women, the shortage of which exposed them to assaults, rape and loss of dignity. The majestic Anandmurti Gurumaa was a keynote speaker, though unfortunately, once again the number of speakers were too numerous for the time allotted and everyone had to be content to make sound bytes. Gurumaa said that she loved being a woman, and loved all women too. Her organisation is supporting around 20,000 girls in their education and she promised to spread awareness of the importance of toilets among them. All too soon, the conference was over. The meal times had given all of us an opportunity to meet and mingle with each other, and plumb fresh depths on the subject under discussion. I discovered the existence of the bio toilet, which uses bacteria to convert human waste into water and gas. The former can be recycled to nourish gardens, and the latter can be used as an optional fuel. The one thing I took back with me from the conference was the simple importance of washing hands with soap. It averts a host of diseases. Perhaps this alone will give our children fresh life.
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