“I can count on my fingertips the number of people who came to drink tea at my stall,” says 36-year-old Shakuntala Bhatt, who has been running the tea stall for the past 11 years since her husband died. “For the past two months, there is not enough business to feed my two growing sons,” she says. Her decrepit tea stall is situated at the entry of Malhar Rao Ghat at Chandod village, the confluence of Narmada, Orsang and the mythical Saraswati – considered the holiest place among the Hindus in Gujarat for conducting the final rites for the dead.
Sitting idle at her tea stall is a 70-year-old priest, Bhogilal Keshavlal Joshi. “I am hardly occupied these days. A couple of years ago, I would perform eight to ten rituals in a day, but now even in one month, I am not able to perform that many rituals,” says Joshi, who has been conducting rituals for the visitors since he was a child. “The reason,” he pauses. “Narmada mritpray ho gayi hai (Narmada river is almost dead).”
From the tea stall, as one walks towards the ghat where Hindus immerse ashes of those dead to attain “moksha”, Gujarat’s lifeline, the Narmada river, is not more than 25-feet wide channel, as the rest of its breadth as far as the eye can see in the horizon, is dried up. At the source of water, dozens of boats are lined up in barely knee-deep water. Scores of people with tonsured heads are wading in or getting down from the boats to reach the “Triveni Sangam” – the confluence of the “rivers”.
The channel to help the boats float for ferrying pilgrims has been created by dredging the sand in the dry riverbed. The sight is in stark contrast to the pictures of a gushing river captioned “Chandod-Narmada Ghat” on the Gujarat tourism website. Famous as a pilgrimage site, it has six major ghats, including Badrinarayan Ghat, Nanderia Ghat, Marwadi Ghat, Chakratirth Ghat, Kapileshwar Mahadev Ghat, Jivan Nath Ghat, Sangam Ghat, Somnath Ghat, among others. There are over a dozen temples that include Kapileshwar Mahadev, Lakshmi Narayan, Hateshwar, Swami Narayan, among others.
Sixty-two-year-old Ranjanben Patel has come from Porbandar, about 500 km away, along with her three sons, to immerse ashes of her husband who died in December. “I feel so bad to see this state of the river. There used to be so much water here at this time around when I last came in 2008 to immerse the ashes of my relative… I don’t think I would like my last rites to be performed here now. There is so much filth here,” she says.
Till five years ago, there used to be 200 Hindu priests at the ghats dotted along the river. Like Bhogilal Joshi, they are now facing livelihood crisis as Narmada shrinks. The others on the verge of losing their livelihood are the 120-odd boatmen who ferry pilgrims from Malhar Rao Ghat to Triveni Sangam, and farther on, and charge Rs 40 per person.
“I think in the next couple of years, half of us will lose our jobs as what is left of the river dries up. The water level is so low that we had to dredge the riverbed several times to keep the boats afloat. In this water only one or maximum two boats can navigate at a time. Half of the boatmen are out of job these days,” says Jignesh Machhi, the head of Navik Mandal that manages boats for ferrying the pilgrims.
In the meantime, a boatman brings a black box. It contained the remains of one Madhuben M Patel from “Route 27 and Cozzens Lane, North Brunswick. New Jersey 08902 (USA)”. It was brought here by her relatives recently for immersion in Narmada.
An ITI diploma holder from Vadodara, 27-year-old Machhi rues that not enough water is being released from the Sardar Sarovar Dam, located 50 km upstream, to raise the water level in the Narmada. “Last summer was bad, but this year it is going to be worse as not enough water is being released. Pilgrims have anyway stopped coming here. They prefer to immerse the ashes in the Narmada canals wherever they could find them,” he says.
Joshi, the priest, nods in agreement. “My clients from Ahmedabad have stopped coming here to perform the rituals as they can access Narmada water back there,” the priest says as he walks around the crumbling stairs of the ghats overlooking the untreated sewage that flows in the Narmada very close to the spot where devotees take the holy dip.
Interestingly, Chandod and adjacent Karnali villages were adopted by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana. Jaitley represents Gujarat in Rajya Sabha.
“As far as water is concerned, we can’t help it,” says Raju Dhruv, former vice-chairman of Gujarat Pavitra Yatradham Vikas Board, who is the BJP spokesperson of Saurashtra. “We are responsible for managing the area. There are plans to develop the ghats and install facilities for the pilgrims. Jaitley has sanctioned Rs 50 crore for the development of the ghats. My term as vice-chairman of the Board ended this December, and the new appointments are being awaited. But as a BJP spokesperson, I can say that the work for developing the place has already begun,” Dhruv adds.
Near the “Triveni Sangam”, pilgrims walk 2 km on the Narmada riverbed, strewn with flowers and pieces of cloth, to reach the famous Kuber Bhandari temple, which they once used to reach on boats.