The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 10, 2003
Lead Article

Crusader for a river
Tirtho Banerjee

Jacek and Beata
Jacek and Beata

FROM learning Hath yoga to alleviate his childhood ailments to campaigning for Europe’s last preserved natural river — Vistula — Jacek Bozek has come a long way. Jacek, now 43, believes that his life’s course has indeed been wayward. Young Jacek couldn’t concentrate on studies as he had bronchitis and spent a lot of time in hospitals. As he grew up in his hometown Bielsko-Biala in southern Poland, Jacek started finding ways to tackle his sickness. He chanced upon books on Hath yoga and even as a young boy of 14, he found them interesting. He started practicing the postures described and over a period of time, he mastered them to perfection. His physical and mental faculties became strong.

Besides books on Hath yoga, Jacek also read books on Indian spirituality. "Vivekanand and Ramakrishna impressed me a lot," says Jacek. He adds, "For me, Indian spirituality was very interesting because it was profound but at the same time very clear and simple." From the teachings of the Hindu spiritual leaders, he realised that he had a duty to perform. He opened his eyes to the injustice and confusion around him. His "understanding of life" developed. And he wanted to do "everything for everybody". He travelled extensively in Central Europe and trekked a lot.


Jacek launched Free Tibet newsletter (about the problems faced by the refugees of Tibet) independently and started the Indo-Polish Association back in 1980s. The man who had a rebellious streak in him and had worked in pantomime theatre, says: "In Pantomime theatre you express everything through gesticulation and it is like kathakali. The Indian style of expression as in kathakali is very close to pantomime theatre," explains Jacek.

By this time, Jacek was 25 and raring to give catharsis to the overwhelming passion within him. Hath yoga again came in handy. He started giving Hath yoga classes and found it relieving. For seven years, he taught Hath yoga. He still practices Hath yoga but not as regularly as it was before. Today, 43-year-old Jacek is deeply involved with his movement to save Vistula river. While Poland was still in the communist regime, Jacek formed the Gaja Club (GA-ya, for the ancient Greek Mother Earth) underground in 1988. This was an informal group that promoted forest protection and animal rights. Later in 1994, when Jacek saw that the Vistula river was facing peril, he included the eco-friendly development of the Vistula river in his club’s agenda. Jacek remembers the early days when the club was formed. "I did everything from scratch. I invited the Hath yoga group members to join the club, which they readily did. We sought funds from different corners," he reminisces. He got a good response from the Rainforest Information Centre, Australia. The Gaja Club was registered in 1992. Today, Jacek’s club has 3,000 volunteers around Poland. Gaja Club has also taken off recently in the UK. It presently concentrates on three main campaigns: Vistula now (to protect Vistula river), An animal is not a thing (to safeguard animal rights) and Art for the Earth (linking art to environmental protection).

Talking about the most important campaign of the Gaja Club — Vistula Now – Jacek points out. "The river’s 200,000 sq km basin covers more than half of Poland and is home to 220 bird species, including 60 per cent of Europe’s white storks. Industrial dumping has put half the native wildlife on the endangered species list. Moreover, we are also against a government plan to build eight dams and dig a 300-km canal to factories in the south as it would kill several species and raise the water table, making vast tracts of land unfarmable." Through the media, books, exhibitions, street plays, demonstrations, Jacek has succeeded in bringing the debate on dams to the local level. Gaja’s networking with other NGOs, scientists, youths and local governments has helped 20 communities challenge the dam proponents and start eco-friendly river developments involving nature reserves, eco-tourism and alternative energy resources such as wind power and composting. The Bielsko-Biala government has also approved a plan for 80 km of bicycle paths along the river. The BBC World News and Newsweek have covered Jacek’s Vistula campaign. WWF has chosen the Vistula among five most important rivers in the world that need to be left untouched and Vistula is one of them.

The biggest success of the Gaja Club, as Jacek says, is that the club has made Vistula an international issue and pressurised the policy makers to depollute it. He felt that Ganga can also be depolluted like the Vistula. While on his third visit to India with his wife Beata, Jacek, who incidentally is a vegetarian, gave a mantra to save Ganga: Make use of Ganga’s spiritual connotations. He admitted that India’s path to clean Ganga river is much more easier that it was to clean Vistula. "We do not have such deep spiritual connections with river like people in India have. Ganga is regarded as a mother and goddess in India as if it is a living entity. So, why not make use of these religious sentiments to purify Ganga once again," Jacek emphasises. Is anybody listening?

Beata, Jacek’s wife, has been with Jacek for over 20 years now. She is a very good painter and gives all her support to Jacek in running the Gaja Club.