The News Minute| September 17, 2014| 5.00 pm IST
The remark by Union water Resources minister Uma Bharti that the floods in Kedarnath were caused by human excretion is alarming for many reasons, but two are serious. One is the context and the other is the setting.
â€śâ€¦atheists came here mainly for business purposesâ€¦this resulted in natureâ€™s fury at the Kedarnath in 2013,â€ť she is widely reported as having said after a meeting with officials in Dehradun, the capital city of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand at the foothills of the Himalayas.
Kedarnath where the Hindu god lord Shiva is worshipped is situated at some 3600 metres above sea level near the head of the river Mandakini. It is accessible by road and air and pilgrims from all over the world make the trek up the Himalayas every year as Kedarnath is one of a group of four pilgrimages called Char Dham.
Mandakini joins the river Alakananda at Rudraprayag. Alakananada then hurtles towards Devaprayag where it joins the river Bhagirathi to form the Ganges. Rishikesh, through which the Ganges passes is an important pilgrimage centre visited by people of all faith as it is also a hill-station. In 2013, the entire region was ravaged by floods, cloud bursts and incessant rain leading to thousands of dead and missing and body parts were recovered thousands of miles downstream in places as far away as Benaras and Calcutta.
Cleaning up the Ganges is one of Uma Bhartiâ€™s key remits. For her to say excreta by atheists contributed to the floods cannot be allowed to pass as it points to a mindset that does not speak to the rest of India.
For one, the minister should be talking about the real reasons for the devastating floods, from environmental degradation to indiscriminate tourism and expansion of hydel projects.
As for the context, earlier this year, the United Nations said some 620 million Indians defecate in the open and 70 percent of people living in India defecate in the open as they have no toilets. By the ministerâ€™s reckoning millions of Indians, all atheists and business people, trekked up to the Himalayas relieving themselves in nature en route to Kedarnath.
The irony is that is not entirely untrue, but the reasons are very different. It has nothing to do with business, much less with religion, something the minister should not forget or mix. Indians defecate in public because they have no choice. They have no choice because till recently no one cared. Over the past few years this has become an issue excreta is a vector for disease. More recently, women have been raped because they go to the fields after dark to relieve themselves, an issue which the Prime Minister thought fit to signal from the ramparts of the Red Fort in his first speech to the nation on Independence Day which is observed on August 15th every year. Uma Bhartiâ€™s remark is insensitive to women who face the daily threat of being raped and hung to the nearest tree.
At a time when India is looking for investments, tourists, pilgrims and progress, it is unfortunate that Uma Bharti sees nothing of making little of a very serious issue.