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I was born in Canada as the only child of Hindu parents who taught me the spiritual value of simple living and high thinking. We had never went on family vacations together or spent money frivolously. In fact, we never did anything without a clear purpose. I had visited India a couple of times before to see family: once with my mom to meet her side, and once with my dad to meet his side. But this year, my parents and I decided to embark on our first ever family vacation, with all three of us in India. And this time it wasn’t about visiting family; we were going on a very focused pilgrimage to Vrindavan.

India is such a deeply spiritual country that everything seems other worldly and almost surreal. This is why India is the place of choice for journeys of self-discovery. The intense colours, sounds, and smells are overwhelming and the sights are breathtaking. As I have visited India a couple of times before and love Indian food, fashion, and philosophy, I expected to be just as enamoured during this trip as I was during the others. I was in for a big shock when I saw Vrindavan for the first time.

Located 161 kilometres from New Delhi, Vrindavan is the sacred city where Lord Krishna spent his childhood about 5,000 years ago. I have read elaborate descriptions of the city in Krsna Book and the Srimad Bhagavatam, Hindu scriptures that glorify the beauty and extravagance of the ancient town. “Vrinda” means “tulsi” and “van” means forests, the feature that Vrindavan was once known for.

I was sad to see that none of the ancient glory of Vrindavan remains. The sacred Jamuna River was dry and polluted, as was the entire city. Vrindavan is no longer a “van,” so the hogs have been displaced into the city and the legendary peacocks of Vrindavan are no more. Hogs, monkeys, cats, dogs, and even cows drank from open sewers that lined the unmaintained, bumpy streets that surrounded Vrindavan’s dilapidated ruins. Mountains of trash were thrown by the side of the road, giving off an intense, putrid stench in the 35+ degree Celsius Vrindavan heat. Would Saudi Arabia let something like this happen to Mecca? Would Israel let this happen to Jerusalem? Would Italy let this happen to Vatican City? It is shameful that the world’s largest democracy has let this happen to Vrindavan, an internationally popular tourist destination and pilgrimage site.

Although more pronounced in Vrindavan, these problems are nationwide. Open sewers, bad roads, and mountains of trash are also common sights in India’s (and by extension, the world’s) major metropolitan centres, even in places like Calcutta. I know that people who live in India must get used to this, similar to the way that I feel when I visit downtown Toronto. (Yes, I know it’s dirty, but I’m so accustomed to it that I don’t even see it anymore.) However, to a foreigner, the amount of filth in India is truly shocking and heart-wrenching to see. It is troubling to see Mother India in such a sorry state.

And still, we come. In Vrindavan I saw people from all over the world. There were Russians, Germans, Chinese, Africans and Canadians like me. We took time out of our lives and made (often uncomfortably long) plane trips and car, train or bus rides to reach Vrindavan out of love for Krishna and Mother India. I will always love India, but changes need to be made. Roads need to be better so that cars can last longer. This will also help with emissions issues. Sewers should be fixed and covered, and there must be filtration systems so that only clean water passes through our faucets and only clean water is pumped back into India’s rivers and lakes. Streets (especially in places like Vrindavan) should be lined with trees and there should be water fountains installed, not only for aesthetic reasons but also for comfort of India’s precious animals.

Most important of all is the garbage situation. Garbage collection systems need to be implemented in an organized manner so that no one feels the need to dump trash by the side of the road. India should also invest in garbage incinerators so that the trash that is there can be converted to much-needed energy. In fact, European countries have run out of garbage by implementing such systems. This would be good for India because there were many times when I saw people making fires to burn their own garbage, releasing emissions into the air that not only smell unbearably awful, but are also toxic to breathe. There is a lot of trash in India that is improperly disposed of. People would not have to resort to unconventional methods such as littering and garbage-burning if there were garbage collection and incineration systems available.

Washrooms are another important issue in India, related to the issue of sewage. Yes, proper sewers need to be installed and covered, but India also needs clean public and private bathrooms. It doesn’t matter whether the toilets are Indian style or Western style, but they should flush and excrements should drain into a proper sewage system when they do, rather than linger in the bowl. Going to the washroom was such a difficult ordeal in India that I only went in the ashram, and avoided drinking water during outings so that I’d never have to go in a restaurant, shop, or any other unfamiliar location. In a country as hot as India, no one should ever be made to feel that they have to ration their water in order to make relieving themselves a planned act. Washrooms should be freely available, clean, and functional.



Image: Cat walking along an open sewer in Calcutta.

Although there is a lot of work to do, I remain hopeful. India is a world leader in many respects, including in science, technology and animal rights. India is known for its world class IT colleges and its ambitious Mars Orbiter Mission. India has made radical progress for the treatment of animals, protecting them in ways that would be unthinkable in most other countries. Recently, Maharashtra has banned beef and the New Delhi High Court has outlawed the practice of keeping birds in cages. It is glorious to see healthy cows roam freely on the streets of Vrindavan and know that they will never be slaughtered or mistreated—and you can really taste the difference in the milk!

India definitely has a lot to be proud of, but to be such an advanced country overall yet still lag behind in meeting basic infrastructural needs like sewage and waste treatment is unacceptable. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, please let me know if there is any way that I can be of service to better this otherwise amazing country.