Now a Young Ascetic from Kerala Stakes His Life for Ganga

Professor G.D. Agrawal, formerly of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand since 2011, died on 11 October 2018 on the 112th day of his fast, demanding a law for conservation of river Ganga, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh. 40-year-old Sant Gopal Das, inspired by Professor Agrawal, also sat on fast for the same cause two days after Professor Agrawal began his fast, on 24 June 2018 at Badridham temple in Badrinath. He was kept in the Intensive Care Unit of AIIMS, New Delhi after being moved about to different hospitals in Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and New Delhi. On 4 December he was taken to Dehradun from New Delhi and left outside the office of District Magistrate. He got admitted after that to a hospital in Dehradun, but is untraceable since 6 December 2018. Earlier Swami Nigamanand, then 35 years of age, and associated with Matre Sadan in Haridwar, died on the 115th day of his fast in 2011 in a government hospital in Haridwar demanding curbs on mining in Ganga. Matre Sadan claims that he was actually murdered by a mining mafia associated with the then ruling Bhartiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand. Swami Gokulanand, who fasted with Swami Nigamanand from 4 to 16 March, 1998, a year after Matre Sadan was established, is also believed to have been murdered by the mining mafia in 2003 when he was living in anonymity at Bamaneshwar temple in Nainital. Baba Nagnath died at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi in 2014 fasting for the same demand as that of Professor Agrawal, to let Ganga flow uninhibited and unpolluted, Aviral and Nirmal, respectively.


Now 26-year-old Brahmachari Atmabodhanand, who hails from Kerala, is on fast since 24 October as a sequel to Professor Agrawal’s fast at Matre Sadan in Haridwar, which Professor Agrawal had chosen as the site of his fast. Even when Professor Agrawal was alive, the head of Matre Sadan Swami Shivanand had warned persons belonging to Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological parent of the ruling BJP in power both at Delhi and Dehradun, who had visited him that if anything happened to Swami Sanand, he and his disciples would continue the unfinished task undertaken by Professor Agrawal. Professor Agrawal’s was the 59th fast by a saint associated with Matre Sadan and Atmabodhanand’s is the 60th. Brahmachari Atmabodhanand dropped out of a Computer Science graduation programme and became a saint at the age of 21 years. He has fasted seven times till now for the sake of Ganga, at least once every year since 2014. In 2017, when he publicly protested against the DM of Haridwar Deepak Rawat—who was patronising illegal sand mining in Ganga—being given an award in the name of Madan Mohan Malviya, he was beaten by the DM and his security personnel in a room behind the stage and put in jail for a day. During his present fast, Atmabodhanand was forcibly admitted to a hospital by the district administration on 29 November 2018, and when his condition started deteriorating on 1 December he left the hospital against medical advice (known as LAMA in medical parlance). When he was in hospital, Atmabodhanand was told that he was suffering from dengue and his platelet count had dropped to 64,000, but when he got it tested outside, it came out to be 1,01,000.


62-year-old Swami Punyanand of Matre Sadan gave up foodgrains and is on a fruit diet since Atmabodhanand started his fast on 24 October, and has announced his intention to shift to a water diet in the event of Atmabodhanand becoming a casualty.


If the government would have been sincere about cleaning Ganga, at least 4 out of 10 people in the country would have directly benefited, whereas nobody’s life is in danger if the proposed grand temple in Ayodhya is not built. In Sabrimala, the BJP is taking the society backwards by obstructing the entry into the temple of women of child bearing age, going against the Supreme Court decision. It would have been better if the RSS–BJP combine, which leaves no opportunity to exploit people’s religious sentiments, had given preference to an issue which benefits people rather than promoting a retrogressive agenda. 

The Namami Gange programme meant for cleaning Ganga aims at abatement of polluting activities in the river through interception, diversion and treatment of waste water flowing into it through drains. However, the capacity of Sewage Treatment Plants is woefully short of the volume of sewage being generated and we are nowhere near being able to completely treat the whole sewage. A total of Rs 11,176.81 crore, which is more than half the budget of Namami Gange, has been earmarked for creating a capacity to treat 1,178.75 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of sewage, but the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), responsible for implementation of Namami Gange, estimates total sewage generation to be 2,900 MLD. In all likelihood, by the time NMCG meets its target of sewage treatment, the volume of sewage generated would have gone up by several times. It appears to be an almost hopeless task. The only hope is to let the river clean itself, but that will require letting the river flow naturally, a demand for which Professor G.D. Agrawal fasted and died and something with which Nitin Gadkari doesn’t agree. There is a clear conflict between the development agenda of governments and the demand of environmentalists and fasting saints. There is also a view that sewage should not flow into water bodies and must find an alternative disposal.


The hydroelectric projects are undesirable in the Himalayas for two reasons. It has been seen that maximum damage was caused at the sites of hydroelectric projects in the floods of 2013. Moreover, by obstructing the flow of river, dams and barrages on the Ganga take away the unique bactricidal properties of flowing Ganga water which is present in its sediments. In 1965, the Calcutta Port Trust had reported 8.92 milligrams per litre of sediments in Ganga water near the Sundarbans, while in 2016–17 the Department of Forests reported it to be 5.52 mg/l in high tide and only 4.68 mg/l in low tide (according to scholar Supratim Karmakar from West Bengal). A number of researches and expert committees have opined that modern development of the kind which seeks to build hydroelectric projects is an invitation to disaster and should not be pursued. Had the government not released water from Tehri dam by submerging more people before they could be rehabilitated, there would not have been enough water in Allahabad, now renamed Prayagraj, for people to take a dip in Ganga during the ongoing Kumbh. However, the governments have been surreptitiously promoting the dams and their builders and have ignored the sane opinion which is now resonating in the voice of fasting saints.


Support has been received even from Bangladesh for the struggle to ensure Aviral and Nirmal Ganga which shows that the issue affects lives of people across India’s border too.


The boatfolk community, known as Nishad or Mallah, in Varanasi has been protesting against the introduction of a luxury cruise service on the Ganga, owned by a private company. At stake is a population of about forty thousand whose livelihood depends on the three thousand boats in Ganga at Varanasi. While licences of boatfolk have not been renewed by the Municipal Commissioner, the cruise has obtained permission from the Tourism Department of the Government of India. The leader of the community, Vinod Sahni, is in jail on false charges since May 2018 as he was opposing the traditional exploitation of boatfolk at the hands of middlemen as well as the new projects being launched by the BJP government which are a threat to the livelihood of the boatfolk. The Nishad community is also demanding the restoration of their traditional righs to cultivate on the banks of the Ganga, which is now being threatened by vested interests. People living all along Ganga whose livelihood depends on it face a similar bleak future.


The BJP’s hypocrisy related to Ganga stands exposed now. It is apparent that the saints fasting for Ganga or the boatfolk of Varanasi matter little for it compared to the vested interests of private corporations who gain from commercialisation of Ganga. If it has to choose between its core agenda of Hindutva and profits for corporations, it has made its preference clear.


However, this could spell trouble for BJP. Tulsidas in Ramcharitmanas has said that if saints are unhappy in a regime then the king may burn even without fire. BJP’s fortunes have taken a sharp dip ever since the saints started fasting in Uttarakhand, also known as Devbhumi, or land of God. Maybe it’s just coincidence . . .


(Sandeep Pandey is a social activist, Magsaysay Award recipient, Ph.D. from the University of California, and has taught at several prominent educational institutions in the country.)


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