A Catholic bishop in Madhya Pradesh teamed up with leaders of other religions May 3 to promote environmental awareness and better hygiene at a monthlong Hindu festival held every 12 years that attracts millions of people. Bishop Sebastian Vadakkel of Ujjain, along with senior Hindu and Sikh leaders were looking to educate those attending the Kumbh Mela
festival about water conservation, proper hygiene and the use of toilets. Authorities estimate some 50 million people will flock to the banks of the Kshipra River in Ujjain to take a dip during the 30-day festival that ends May 22. The Kumbh Mela (pitcher festival) takes place every 12 years in four cities — Allahabad, Haridwar, Nasik and Ujjain that are situated on the Ganges River or one of its tributaries. Hindus consider the river as sacred. Hindus believe taking a dip in the river will wash away their sins. The Kumbh Mela festival is "a great occasion for me to share the concerns of many about the need to protect rivers, other bodies of water and the need for improved hygiene, such as the use of toilets and better waste management." Bishop Vadakkel told the crowd. Many households in India do not have proper toilets, if any, and open defecation is a common problem that spreads disease, according to health experts and the bishop, who called for a greater effort from the public and authorities to ensure that all households have proper toilets installed. Addressing the drought crisis gripping many parts of India, Bishop Vadakkel told the crowd that it was important to conserve water and keep water sources clean, which meant not dumping domestic and industrial waste into rivers and streams, another common problem in India. He said his diocese works with villagers on water conservation projects such as constructing ponds and installing systems to harvest rainwater. Hindu and Sikh leaders also stressed the need to conserve water. "Water is the basic element of human life," Swami Avdeshanand Giri Maharaj, a leading Hindu seer said. "Water is the first principle of life in the world," he said, quoting Hindu scriptures. He told the crowd that water conservation was a spiritually enriching activity that helps protect lives. Only "2 percent of available water is good for drinking," Jatedar Gyani Gurucharan Singh, the Sikh spiritual leader in Ujjain told the festival. "If mindless pollution of waterways continues the very survival of living beings will be seriously affected," he said.