By Jatin Dhiman*
I have lived a major part of my life in Haridwar, the land addressed as “DevBhoomi”. I have personally witnessed a lot of developmental projects and the subsequent degradation of River Ganga through the years.
Swami Sivanand Saraswati, the head seer of the famed Matri Sadan, has been fighting a continuous battle against the exploitation of Ganga in the name of development for the past 24 years since 1997, when he first came to set up his Ashram on the banks of Ganga in Kankhal, Haridwar. I got a chance to visit Matri Sadan and had a chance of a face to face interaction with him and his disciples. One thing that I realised after this conversation was that Swami Sivanand is someone who does not like to mince his words and has the courage to call a spade a spade.
I asked for some of Swamiji’s time from Brahmchari AatmaBodhanand, a disciple of Swami Sivanand and was shocked to see an ambulance outside the gate of the Matri Sadan Ashram on reaching there. I was told that this is a frequent sighting at the Ashram, as someone from the Ashram is always on an indefinite fast till death for the conservation of Ganga and their health needs to be monitored.
After entering the gates of Matri Sadan, I greeted Swamiji and sat beside him. His frail physique tells the story of what he has been going through physically in this struggle for cleaner environment. Firstly, I asked him how everything started and he embarked on this journey of standing up to the authorities, to which he told me that when he set up his Ashram in Haridwar in 1997, he used to notice that a lot of dirt used to get on the leaves of the trees and on asking the people around the Ashram realized that this was the direct result of around seven stone crushers in the area.
So, Swamiji reported this to the authorities but, in the absence of a swift response, filed a case in court against these stone crushers, which used stones extracted from Ganga. The court finally gave a ruling against these stone crushers, and they were eventually closed down.
Being a citizen of Uttarakhand, I always felt that the creation of a separate state from Uttar Pradesh might have helped the region preserve its identity, so I asked Swamiji if this helped him in his efforts, and I got an unexpected answer, he thinks that corruption is more rampant in the region now as the creation of state made bureaucracy and local leaders more powerful, and they try to silence their critiques through force.
A nexus of Ganga sand mining mafia, corrupt political leaders, bureaucracy, and in some cases, even the judiciary has been actively operational. Due to this rampant state-sponsored exploitation of resources, almost all aquatic life has gone extinct from the river Ganga.
I also asked him how the finances of Matri Sadan are being taken care of, as going up against the government means an end to any government aid. Swamiji responded by saying that they perform a few religious activities every now and then and use the received donations from their followers to take care of everyone at Matri Sadan.
The next thing I got to know was shocking. Swami Nigamanand, another one of Swami Sivanand’s disciples, was protesting against the state-sponsored sand mining, which forced the state government to ban all mining activities, but surprisingly High court stayed this government order. Nigamanand fasted for nearly four months against mining and died on June 13, 2011, after allegedly getting poisoned.
Swamiji told me that all his disciples actively participate in this struggle against the system. Swami Aatmabodhanand was presently on an indefinite hunger strike, as after a 194-day hunger strike, they received an assurance from the government that illegal mining will be stopped. Still, there has not been any action on it. Padmavati, one female disciple at the Ashram, was going through letters from the government and planning to sit on a protest again. Her physical movement was limited, and when I asked Swamiji about this, he told me that these are the consequences of raising your voice.
Lastly, I enquired Swamiji what his demands are from the government and if he feels that this struggle is ever going to end, and he told me that they want scrapping of all new hydro power projects on Ganga as it destroys the ecological balance, prohibition of mining in Ganga and closing down of stone crushers and the implementation of Ganga Act 2018, which was the brainchild of GD Agrawal, another renowned Ganga activist and lastly inclusion of seers and activists in the draft panel committee.
He also said that “Sangharsh Jaari rahega”, which means that he expects the struggle is not going to end soon and everyone at Matri Sadan is up for the challenge.
I personally feel that this is high time, we as a society realize our collective responsibilities and not just depend on a few brave voices like that of Swami Sivanand to struggle for the collective good of society. Ganga is crying for help amid this rampant exploitation masked under development, and an army of “Bhagirath”, will be required to protect it in this modern age.
*IIM Bangalore PGP 2020-22