Punjab: AAP MP Baba Seechewal Leads Volunteers in Plugging Breaches in Sutlej River Embankment

The noted environmentalist lauded the Punjabi spirit of 'karsewa', which in Sikhism means voluntary service, generally for religious causes.

Jalandhar: Leading by example amidst slogans of ‘Waheguru ji’ and ‘Jo Bole So Nihal’, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Rajya Sabha MP and noted environmentalist Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal led scores of volunteers in plugging a major part of the breach in the Sutlej river embankment is villages of Jalandhar and Ferozepur districts over a period of 18 days.

Breaches in the river’s water channels were developed after flooding in some of the villages of Jalandhar, Ferozepur and Kapurthala districts on July 11. Punjab witnessed unprecedented rains, leading to floods in areas near the Sutlej and Ghaggar rivers.

The work on raising the level of the mud embankment was still ongoing at Lohian Khas village in the Shahkot sub-division of Jalandhar, where a long queue of tractors was waiting to provide mud to strengthen the site.

Photo: Kusum Arora

Interestingly, what Baba Seechewal achieved within 18 days, the Punjab government’s drainage department had estimated would three and half months’ time and cost around Rs 5 crore.

The repair work on the upward stream of the breach was completed by Baba Seechewal and his volunteers while breaches in the downward stream were completed by the drainage department. Out of the 925 feet long breach, the work on 160 feet was done by the drainage department.

Environmentalist buys, drives excavator

This was not the first time that Baba Seechewal has led volunteers to help the people in the aftermath of floods, having done similar repair and rescue work after the 2019 and 2008 floods too.

This time around, to expedite the work, the environmentalist – with the support of good Samaritans – bought an excavator at the cost of Rs 57 lakh to plug the breaches.

While Baba Seechewal drove the excavator, youth and farmers – both men and women – filled mud in sacks to pack them in iron meshes to plug the breach. The flood water, which spread far and wide, was around 45 feet deep in some places, making it extremely laborious for volunteers to complete the repair work.

Baba Seechewal’s call for karsewa – which in Sikhism means voluntary service, generally for religious causes – was received with huge enthusiasm on social media platforms.

People, especially the youth from over a dozen districts, including Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, Kapurthala, Nawanshahr, Amritsar, Ludhiana, Moga, Ferozepur, Faridkot and Muktsar reached the site. “The moment we saw a message by Baba Seechewal to reach the flooded site at Lohian Khas village in the Shahkot subdivision of Jalandhar for sewa, we rushed there with mud-loaded tractor trolleys. We also brought fodder for milch animals, who were the worst affected in the floods,” said Amrik Singh and his friends, who travelled from Zira in Ferozepur.

Volunteers fill sacks of mud in iron meshes to plug breaches in the Sutlej river embankment. Photo: Kusum Arora

Row over Punjab drainage department’s letter

While the Rajya Sabha MP’s effort received praise from the people, the Punjab drainage department issued a letter which claimed that Baba Seechewal was interfering in its work. The letter became a matter of embarrassment for the Punjab government, forcing it to remain tight-lipped while Baba Seechewal continued the repair work.

Kulvinder Singh, the president of the flood control committee of the area near the Sutlej River breaches, said that the drainage department’s failure to remove the silt properly from the water channels of the Sutlej River caused the flood. This resulted in the flooding of 54 villages of Jalandhar and Kapurthala districts, he said.

“People’s lives were affected and more than 1,000 acres of paddy crop was damaged too. Firstly, the drainage department failed to act properly on time. Then, to cover up their inefficiency, they issued a letter against Baba Seechewal, which did not go down well with the public,” he said. The drainage department should be thankful to Baba Seechewal that the work was completed in such a short span of time and that too without any burden on the state government’s expenses, he said.

Asked by The Wire about the letter on the “hindrance” caused by the Rajya Sabha MP, the executive engineer (XEN) of the Drainage and Mining Department, Amarinder Singh Pandher, dodged the query. He said, “Usually there are hindrances at the beginning of any work but everything is resolved now. There was no such issue. The target was to complete the work and we have achieved that. We were working on the downward stream construction while Baba Seechewal was leading the upward stream work.” He refused to comment further.

Khalid Mohammed, professor of political science at Panjab University in Chandigarh told The Wire that ideally, it is the state government’s responsibility to oversee the relief and rescue work. “The government should conduct a timely survey of the rivers and water channels. However, if the government has fewer resources, then there is no harm in working in coordination with social workers or public figures,” he said.

Speaking about the letter that accused Baba Seechewal of interference, Mohammed said, “I think it was too much. Baba Seechewal is a public figure and he has been working for public causes. Even if there was an issue, the officer could have brought it to the notice of the Punjab government. Issuing a letter and making it public was wrong. Such incidents discourage other good Samaritans from working with the government and for public causes.”

Contributions from various persons, big and small

The volunteer effort received support from several good Samaritans, including high-profile persons and ordinary citizens.

Jalandhar-based former cricketer Harbhajan Singh, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP from AAP, and the Canada-based NRI Manpreet Singh gifted tractors to Baba Seechewal to expedite the construction of the raised mud embankment and rescue work.

Jalandhar-based former cricketer Harbhajan Singh, who is also a Rajya Sabha MP from AAP, donated a tractor to aid the volunteer work. Photo: Kusum Arora

Similarly, the Delhi-based acclaimed Punjabi writer Ajeet Caur and her daughter Arpana Caur, who is known for her iconic paintings, donated Rs 10 lakh to Baba Seechewal to buy an excavator machine at the cost of Rs 57 lakh. Baba Seechewal also donated Rs 8.50 lakh from his salary and arranged the rest of the money on loan.

A doctors’ association from Moga district donated 2,000 litres of diesel worth Rs 2 lakh for hassle-free work at the raised embankment. On the other hand, villagers and NRIs from Dosanjh Kalan village in Jalandhar – the native village of Punjabi singer Diljit Dosanjh – also donated 2,200 litres of diesel.

There were many ordinary people who made significant donations from their own pockets. “Two youths from Amritsar brought 10 litres of diesel for the repair work. It is this spirit, which motivated others to participate,” a volunteer told The Wire.

Who is Baba Seechewal?

Driving an excavator, Baba Seechewal’s call to plug the gaps received a thumping response within hours on July 11. The Rajya Sabha MP, known for his simple and cost-effective methods to protect the environment, heads the Nirmal Kuteya Ek Onkar Charitable Trust at Seechewal village, Jalandhar.

He has been on a mission to make environmental issues a public subject. Among his previous efforts are clearing the once-polluted holy Kali Bein rivulet, a tributary of Beas River where the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev is believed to have gained enlightenment and managing wastewater management and planting native trees in many parts of Punjab. Baba Seechewal also appeared as one of Time magazine’s ‘Heroes of the Environment’ in 2008.

Talking to The Wire, Baba Seechewal said that the way people, especially the youth, joined hands to participate in the voluntary service was remarkable. “People came from those villages whose names we had never heard of. It was reassuring to see that Punjab’s youth are connected to their roots and remain motivated. If the youth’s energy is channelled, they can achieve anything – all they need is direction in life. We are thankful to the almighty for the successful completion of the repair work,” the MP said. He said that there was more work to be done, to raise the level of embankment.

Amrik Singh Sandhu, a volunteer who was continuing to work at the flood site, said, “For 18 days consecutively, we worked in three shifts for 20 hours a day. We used to begin work at 6:30 am and would continue till midnight. Youth, women and the elderly played a big role in the construction of the embankment. After the farmers’ protest [in 2020 and 2021 against the three central farm laws], this is yet another example of people’s participation working wonders.”

People from all walks of life participated in the effort. Photo: Kusum Arora

Word spread through social media

Social media, especially Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook, emerged as the major platforms for spreading the word about voluntary service among people.

Instagram was flooded with reels showing people working tirelessly to plug the breach in the river, which motivated others to follow suit. Such was the enthusiasm to contribute that mud-loaded tractors remained parked in a serpentine queue at the site.

It is pertinent to mention that a single tractor filled with mud costs around Rs 2,500, while Rs 6,000 was spent on filling diesel. “It was a collective decision of all the nearby villages to contribute money and help Baba Seechewal in plugging the breaches in the Sutlej. So far, we have brought over 100 tractors loaded with mud to the repair site. We are still bringing tractors every day,” said Tony Sandhu, from the Youth Football Club (YFC), Rurka Kalan village, Jalandhar.

A group of farmers from Faridkot said that after they shared a post on WhatsApp about the requirement of mud for the repair work, they received calls from all the nearby villages to contribute.

Photo: Kusum Arora

Farmers donate paddy saplings

After Punjab chief minister Bhagwant Mann announced that paddy would be re-transplanted wherever possible, many farmers started providing saplings to farmers who had lost their crops in the floods.

“Not just Punjab, we have been receiving enquiries about giving paddy saplings from places like Ambala in Haryana too. We have shared a message about the paddy saplings of PUSA 126 variety and our contact numbers on our Instagram page, Chahal Farm,” said Amanpreet Singh and Jasbir Singh from Chahal Farm, Kapurthala district.

Notably, farmers were opting for PUSA 126 variety while others were opting for Basmati, the premium quality rice, which is sown late and requires less water.

“As farmers, we can feel their pain and loss. If we do not support them, then who else will? Instead of waiting for the government to come up with a policy on this, it is better to work on our own and assist each other,” said Tarsem Singh from Chak Kanian Kalan village, Moga district.