United Kingdom: Sewage, the Sikh minority and lack of access for persons with disabilities
Nicolas Salazar Sutil & Jaswant Singh
At the River Roding Trust, an environmental charity based in East London, members refer to their local river as the ‘most multi-ethnic river in the UK’. The River Roding, which flows southbound along Ilford, West Ham and Barking, is home to a diverse range of ethnic minorities including Roma and West Indian communities, as well numerous ethnic and religious minorities including African Christian congregations, Hindus, Orthodox Jews and Sikhs. This case study explores the perspectives of members of the Sikh community with regards to the sewage crisis in the United Kingdom, and the voices of Sikh faith leaders with regards to environmental and accessibility issues faced by Sikh people living by the River Roding in East London.
Gurdwara Singh Sabha is a Sikh community centre and place of worship located in the heart of Barking, a town in East London. This gurdwara serves as a cultural and religious hub for thousands of members of the Sikh community across East London and beyond. It offers daily community services including Punjabi language lessons, library services, yoga for men and women, Gatka martial art, other gym and fitness classes, Kirtan music sessions and free meals. The impressive and immaculate white building is located only a few hundred yards from the River Roding, a major tributary flowing into the Thames at Creekmouth. The River Roding is badly polluted, especially by sewage that is discharged directly into it by Thames Water.
Gurdwara Trustee Jaswant Singh explains that the Sikh community’s response to sewage and plastic pollution in the local river merits the attention of authorities. Singh maintains that the state of the River Roding does not pose any immediate threat to members of the community, and that their gurdwara does not make use of the local river for any specific community activities in the same way that, for instance, Hindu communities in the area do. The River Roding Trust has facilitated numerous multi-faith activities along the Roding, focusing on Hindu community members in particular.
For Singh, the issue of environmental pollution is nonetheless a concern, particularly given the extent to which this part of London has seen large-scale road construction projects in recent decades including major roads such as the A13 and A406, which have considerably raised the level of air pollution, sound pollution and road run-off. Untreated, road run-off makes its way to the River Roding, bringing oil, diesel, petrol, heavy metals and particles from tire wear.
Although the Sikh faith does not venerate rivers in the way the Hindu faith does, rivers play a key role in funeral rituals for Sikh people. Access to deep flowing and clean water is central to Sikh rituals of ash dispersal after cremation. Because this part of London has experienced such rapid industrial growth, the river has been severely cut off from local communities due to canalization and deep cuttings and drops, major road building works and enclosures for large industrial sites, thus causing a significant physical and mental disconnect between local people and their river, to which we must add the high level of sewage and plastic pollution — part of a major UK-wide crisis affecting rivers, lakes and beaches.
For Singh, this is an issue that seriously affects the residents of Barking, and particularly members of religious minorities seeking a fulfilment of their religious obligations. Most ash dispersal rituals led by members of Gurdwara Singh Sabha are conducted in the Thames at Charing Cross, not on the Roding. The main issue, Singh explains, is lack of access to the River Roding. This issue of disconnection raises numerous issues regarding accessibility, including discrimination towards disabled members of Sikh minority and other local communities.
‘Our premises serve disabled members of our community’, Singh explains. ‘We have wheelchair access, lifts and toilets for disabled people. You cannot expect to run community events by the canal [River Roding] given the state of that place’, Singh adds, ‘because to reach the canal you need to go down some steep stairs, it is dangerous, and it is not suitable for disabled and elderly members of our community.’
Singh’s concerns over lack of accessibility affecting disabled members of the Sikh community’s right to connect with their local river—and nature more broadly – is echoed by disability rights campaigners throughout the United Kingdom, and across other minority and majority groups.
Local religious minorities in Roding — Sikhs and Hindus alike — are finding themselves cut off from their places of worship and riverside connection.
Similar voices of concern have been raised elsewhere over the state of the country’s polluted waters, also with regards to lack of access and discrimination against persons with disabilities. In addition to an increase in the reported cases of people becoming seriously ill after swimming in sewage-filled rivers, swimmers across the United Kingdom have reported the need for the government and water companies to respond to the needs of persons with disabilities, for instance those who live with chronic pain, fibromyalgia and other related conditions that benefit from open cold-water swimming as a form of pain relief. Sarah Shreeve, founder of the campaigning organization Stop the Sewage Southsea, has emphasized how the sewage crisis has affected swimmers who make use of open cold-water swimming to alleviate chronic pain and invisible disability. Likewise, in February 2022, Christina Efthimiou began a High Court fight over ticket prices at one of the few women’s bathing ponds in London, claiming that the costs to use Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond on Hampstead Heath ‘give rise to unlawful disability discrimination’, adding economic cost to mounting environmental concerns.
For members of the Sikh community in East London meanwhile, the impurity of the water in the River Roding is a significant concern from a religious perspective, as well as from the point of view of accessibility and discrimination against persons with disabilities. ‘Our lineage’, Singh explains, ‘relies on purity. We treat every person as equal. It doesn’t matter if you are Hindu, Christian, Muslim, abled or disabled, woman or man, we treat everybody as equal. Everybody is given the support and guidance they need to find spiritual and physical purity. That is why we believe in cremation. We don’t bury the body in the ground. We scatter our ashes in the river because the river carries the ashes away. That’s our practice.’
If the river is not deep, if the river lacks appropriate access points, and perhaps most significantly, if the river is impure and is cause for serious concerns over human health, then local religious minorities in Roding — Sikhs and Hindus alike — are finding themselves cut off from their places of worship and riverside connection. This has significant impacts on their cultural practice, their sense of belonging and their ability to observe their faiths, for instance in the form of funeral and cremation ceremonies. Unless the intersectional aspects of the sewage crisis in the United Kingdom are foregrounded, the environmental issues related to water pollution across the country will conceal deep-set discrimination both against religious minorities and community members with disabilities who are being affected by the untreated sewage spills polluting the UK’s rivers.
We are grateful to members of Gurdwarra Singh Barking for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.
The River Roding through Barking, London, United Kingdom. Credit: Simon/Flickr.