Jal Satyagraha, Matri Sadan and a way forward to water justice

By Mansee Bal Bhargava1

There are currently more than 300 plus international transboundary water conflicts between the sovereign borders and if cumulated and accounted for, there are thousands of inter-state and inter-district transboundary water conflicts within nation states. The hydro-diplomacy in those conflicts is pretty much between the national and state/district governments respectively. Besides this, there are innumerable conflicts that occur between the citizens and the government/s transcending the geo-political boundaries and scale of water; when the government pretends to be more powerful than the citizens and when the citizens presume their right to rise for the various social-ecological aspects of water. This is when citizens chose the path of Jal Satyagraha (as in India) as a peaceful and non-violent means to dissent against a policy/project or set of those.

There are innumerable community led water campaigns/protests/movements alias Jal Satyagraha currently ongoing around the world organised on various social-ecological aspects of water and even humanity to survive. Those are waiting to be put together to better understand the pattern of rising water distress among communities alongside rising distrust between them and the government/s. Water being the connector, the water distress also percolates into the other social-ecological-economic-political spheres. Then, considering the climate change induced water distresses to increase, it creates a higher probability and concern of increasing Jal Satyagrahas at global as well as at local levels.

It is true that there are several occasions, when Jal Satyagrahas have been successful and water has served as catalyst for peace building between nations, societies, and between the citizens and governments. It is also true that many Jal Satyagrahas have been overshadowed with the powerful governments and government led large infrastructures, the most contested being the construction of dams. The anti-dam movements by the communities around the world including India have extensively exercised Jal Satyagrahas. Satyagraha has been also used for other large developmental projects that were to come at the cost of natural resources and displacement of indigenous communities Much of the Satyagrahas emerged more successful after the idea of Sustainable Development emerged in the 1970s, for example, the famous feminist Chipko Movement against deforestation.

Well, there is no better day to read/write about Satyagraha and Swaraj than around 2nd of October while commemorating the two legends Mohandas Karamchand Gandhiji and Lal Bahadur Shastriji as these concepts come as a package with both the legends’ philosophy of governance. The path to Swaraj is only through Satyagraha, is also a proven fact from our non-violent struggle for Independence. My focus here is on the Jal Satyagraha of Matri Sadan, Haridwar, which is a continued pursuit that has set precedents and standards of both Satyagraha and Swaraj to save River Ganga. The Jal Satyagrahas of Matri Mandir for over two decades to save River Ganga beams a ray of hope to all the water warriors in the country to challenge/contest the policy decisions and rise for the fundamental rights & wellbeing of the social-ecological systems, thus towards attaining Jal Swaraj.

Jal Satyagraha around the world

The scholarly works of the water conservation campaigns are usually available in the water conflicts, water wars, peacebuilding, etc. Water is a crucial component of complementing or conflicting relationship between a community and its government which also often interlinks with the other social-ecological-economic-political dynamics. The water corruption induced conflicts also gets into religious, traditional, and cultural systems making the water governance weak and triggering unrest in the society. For example, the water protests in the northern Africa and Middle East emerged out of urban-rural divide, political instability, distrust with the government; tribal clash in southern Iraq over government inability & will to provide agricultural water; Afghanistan water crisis got interwoven with the religious, traditional and formal system lowering the country’s ability to handle distress; the control of mafia over the urban water of Pakistan weakens the enforcement of water laws and economic development; lead contamination brought out the racism discrimination, pipeline project over land rights in the United States; etc.

Much of the differences between any community and its government are out of the lack of trust on the government due to the poor water governance. Issues like inequitable access, destruction of facilities, weaponizing water, control of the decisions over water resources, water contamination, floods, droughts, displacements, urban-rural divide, caste-class divide, water tariffs, privatization, constructions projects (like dams) etc. have been the core issues of Jal Satyagraha around the world. For example, the famous Cochabamba-Water-Wars of 2000 by the Bolivians against its government over the privatization and rise in water tariffs. Similarly, the anti-privatization campaign by the Nicaraguans between 2001-07; the Egyptians campaign between 2007-10 led to the 2011 famous Egypt rise; the Chinese rose to protest over pollution in drinking water, fishery, waste pipeline in 2012; the recent 2021 Tunisian Khemir Tribes campaign against the mining exposed the breach of tribal rights and services; and for decades the South Africans are fighting for their rights to access to water which is worsening with the climate change; etc. In addition to the various anthropocentric Jal Satyagrahas around the world, saving the waterbodies rivers, streams, lakes, mangroves, and allied services have been also at the core as discussed in the case of India.

Jal Satyagraha in India

Jal Satyagraha has a long history in India. If we look at just a century we find that, on the one hand, they provide a bleak scenario that the water decisions continue to be top-down excluding the community participation or including them as tokenism using producer patriotism; but on the other hand, there are several occasions when the community rose/rising which provide hope to the water warriors to continue working, irrespective of winning or losing, towards the various social-ecological matters of water.

In the first quarter of the last century, among many small Jal Satyagrahas, we witnessed the famous Kandel Nahar Satyagraha (1920) of Chhattisgarh on the high irrigation tax by the Britishers, the first anti-dam Mulshi Satyagraha (1920) of Pune and the Mahad (also known byChavdar Tale) Satyagraha (1927) of Maharashtra led by Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar on the inclusion of untouchables (in principle, this nomenclature is unacceptable to me but quoting as written) for the basic human right to drink water from village pond. Despite the overwhelming imposition of the dams (and deforestation, mining) post-independence, there were several small Jal Satyagrahas across the country however, governments succeeded in intimidating those bringing the development narrative to the masses which is used even used today as electoral politics. Jal Satyagrahas gained momentum nationally and internationally post the identified three main pillars of sustainable development as, economic growth, environmental protection, and social equality.

The continued Jal Satyagraha of nearly 40 years on the dam levels of Narmada and the related displacements led by Narmada Bachao Andolan leader, Medha Patkar besides the innumerable Jal Satyagrahas and Panchayats for rivers like, Ganga, Yamuna, and all the other Satyagrahas have some things in common- the urge for good governance towards healthy social-ecological system. In all the Jal(other) Satyagrahas, the implicit demand is on community consultation and participation as a necessary step for any large-small water projects besides the explicit demand for transparency in the project transactions. Satyagraha, infact, is a result of poor governance where community after being pushed to the wall rests on it as a last resort/fight to the rights.

The success of Jal Satyagraha of Kandel Nahar is seen as the genesis of the start of 1930 Civil Disobedience Movement for India’s Independence. The Mulshi anti-dam Satyagraha was a lost to the TATA group over providing electricity to Mumbai, where generations of the village community still cry for their lost land, and this can be seen as a beginning of rise of capitalism to favour urbanization over the rural lives. The Mahad Satyagraha fought in the Maharashtra court for nearly 10 years though was won but we are yet to win over the fundamental issue of caste (and class) division in the society which denies access to basic facilities to the poor/vulnerable including the right to drinking water still in several villages of the country. The Jal Satyagraha on saving River Narmada and the people in its basin seems never ending after the near 40 years of struggle and is getting from bad to worst including those suffering in the upstream to now even those suffering in the downstream at Sardar Sarovar dam. Similarly, most of the interstate transboundary rivers like, Ganga, Yamuna, Cauvery, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, and Cauvery and the people in their basins have their extensive and intense Jal Satyagrahas in the last hundred years.

Postal Stamp of Mahad Satyagraha by BR Ambedkar

Much of the Jal Satyagrahas in the country have been resistance to, the making of dams, hydropower projects, river pollution, port project at Kosasthalai River, sand mining from riverbed like in Ganga (as fought by Marti Sadan discussed below) in Shivnath River, mishandling of money, and implementation of rehabilitation policy like in Omkareshwar dam. Interestingly, there are allied social-ecological apathies where Jal Satyagrahas has been exercised like, the women demanding ban of alcohol in the region by standing submerged in local pond in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh and in Krishna River in Bagalkot, Karnataka. Much of the Jal Satyagrahas (for water related matters) in the country also have been the affairs of the rural and tribal/indigenous people of the land which strongly hints about the discrimination and divide of the resources exploited by the educated and the elites in the disguise of development.

The recent, 2019 protest in Chennai when the city ran out of clean drinking water, the 2019 Jal Satyagraha against the displacement due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Barwani’s Rajghat in Madhya Pradesh, the 2021 Jal Satyagraha in Sambalpur over fear of displacement because of the State government’s Samaleswari Temple Area Management & local economy initiatives and the forthcoming March on revival of Vishwamitri ‘Vaho Vishwamitri Abhiyan’, are some examples of involvement of urban population in Jal Satyagraha. Ironically, much of the urban populace is complacent to the urban development and indifferent to the rural and hinterland apathy furthered with no embarrassment that much of the urban services are coming at the cost of those/theirs i.e. rural/indigenous people distress.

Jal Satyagraha of Matri Sadan

Much of the Jal Satyagrahas around the country and the world now is predominantly anthropocentric. What makes the Jal Satyagrahas at Matri Sadan exemplary is that their foundation lies in the ecological conservation i.e., saving the River Ganga for the river first, followed by the other related social-ecological aspects, thus bringing back the original idea of Jal Satyagrahas. So far 66 Satyagrahas are undertaken by Matri Sadan since the organization’s establishment in 1997. The continuous efforts of the seers of Matri Sadan to stand for the vociferous yet voiceless River Ganga, referred as Maa (Mother) Ganga, is acknowledged in the global water campaigns and conclaves.

Shri Gurudev Swami Shivanand ji Maharaj, the synonymous with Matri Sadan, is the founder of this Vedic Gurukul that he established with the two (I must add mammoth) social-ecological objectives of, protecting environment and eradicating corruption. In the organically developed campus of the Gurukul, the Seers inherently exercise both qualitative & quantitative Tapas (meditation) in a jubilant manner which is why they have managed to conduct nearly three Satyagrahas per year. With Gurudev (Holy Teacher) the seers have upheld the principles of Universal Justice by the way of Satyagraha. Their Satyagrahas have been truthfully carried out through non-violence which is instrumental despite them facing rough handlings in number of occasions. The seers along with the devotees in their Satyagrahas have taken up issues such as, Flow of River Ganga, water pollution, air pollution, sound pollution, and corruption of public offices, government & judiciary.

From the first fasting by Swami Gokulanand Saraswati & Swami Nigmanand Saraswati between March 03rd and 16th in 1998 to the recent one between August 18th and September 28th by Swami Atmabodhanand, the Jal Satyagrahas demand have revolved around stopping river pollution and allowing the river to flow for its better health. The unscientific-unecological dam construction, sand mining from the riverbed, stone crushing from the riverbed, the hydropower projects besides the allied corruption in the Ganga initiatives have been also raised regularly in the 66 Jal Satyagrahas in these 24 years. The Jal Satyagraha of Matri Sadan made national headlines when Professor GD (Guru Das) Agrawal, also known as Sant Swami Sanand and Sant Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, conducted fasting in 2018 (June 22nd) which led to his demise (October 11th).

Matri Sadan has been actively advocating for the free flow and cleanliness of the River Ganga called as, ‘Aviralta (free/uninterrupted flow) and Nirmalta (clean)’ which have become tagline of most Ganga Campaigns as, Aviral Ganga-Nirmal Ganga. The recent Jal Satyagraha of 45 days by Swami Atmabodhanand is his second one this year after the 37 days Satyagraha between February 23rd and March 31st. Gurudev also did Jal Satyagraha this year between March 13th and April 1st. The three Jal Satyagrahas of this year focused on points pertaining to the previous issues of seers of Matri Sadan that included the death of Swami Nigmanand Saraswati and Sant Swami Sanand. In addition, it demanded that the government assurances of 2018, 2019, 2020 and the assurances by the Hon’ble Jal Shakti State Minister in 2019 pertaining to River Ganga (pollution and flow) must be immediately enforced by words on the ground.

The occasion and cause were also supported remotely by other well-known activists from the country like, Medha Patkar, Rakesh Tikait, Yogendra Yadav, Dr. Sunilam who wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to take cognizance of the Satyagraha as well as of the Ganga. Many letters were also sent by other supporters to ministers, media, and even to the United Nations.

Support from all walks of life to the Recent Jal Satyagraha

Way Forward

Following the recent Satyagraha by Swami Atmabodhanand remotely to the point of visiting the Gurukul, my pursuit was driven by the urge to learn from a Young Satyagrahi what it takes to be a conformist in this cruel world and the urgency to find ways to stop the wrongdoings in the water matters thus, to get out of the state of helplessness to improve water governance. I arrived at Matri Sadan on 19th September to participate in a meeting organised to commemorate the one month of fasting by Swami Atmabodhanand which was also attended by people from many parts of the country. I stayed back after the daylong meeting. In the mere 3 days of stay at the Gurukul and interactions with Gurudev & the seers, what caught my attention to the deeds of the Gurukul is that the selfless actions are naturally compacted by the young seers in the guidance of Gurudev. I could realise that the working principles of the Gurukul can hardly be grasped through material thinking. One truly requires unearthing from the possessions to repose the true assets of living, that is living for a purpose.

What also caught my attention is that the inhabitants of the Gurukul are a spiritually bound activist group, unlike the common impression of the several spiritual-religious campuses/groups that are minting money left, right, & centre. Gurudev (earlier a Chemistry Teacher) has taken his earlier chemistry lessons into developing compassion for both people and the planet. Importantly, it seems convincing to find them undertake a simple yet strong tool of governance by individuals voicing resistance through non-violence for the voiceless river. There are various ways Jal Satyagrahas have been exercised but the fasting unto death definitely emerges as a crucial approach to study and understand as both successful and unsuccessful water saving endeavors.

Is Jal Satyagrahas a successful governance tool? Does success matter? Yes and No! Yes it matters, if going by the need for those concerned about the health of the waterbodies, to set a precedent to rise for justice. Successful completion of such campaigns matters from the Mahad, Mulshi to Matri Sadan’s Jal Satyagrahas. However, it does not matter, if going by the fact that there is no panacea to Satyagrahas either just like any water governance approach. Each Satyagraha is an epic in its own virtue. Further, it is crucial to reflect upon the give & take aka the costs & benefits in these microeconomic and materialistic governance negotiations.

Have the 66 Jal Satyagrahas of Matri Sadan Seers in the near 25 years been successful water endeavours? It is important to mention here that not all the Jal Satyagarhas carried out by Matri Sadan concluded in victory. The Jal Satyagrahas at Matri Sadan have also costed lives of the seers and saints like, Swami Nigmanand (died after 115 days fast between February 19th and June 13th in 2011) and Swami Sanand alias Prof. G. D.Agrawal (died after 111 days fast between June 22nd and October 11th in 2018) both did Satyagraha for Aviral- Nirmal Ganga. It is indeed a big relief that the fasting of Swami Atmabodhanand concluded on October 1st after Haridwar District Magistrate committed to the demands of the Satyagraha. Matri Sadan contribution to Jal Satyagraha shall remain crucial point of reference as the seers bring the Jal Satyagrahas back to full circle by focussing on the environmental/ecological conservation of river.

As a person who does not fast, I had carried a lot of questions for Gurudev, however after living in the Gurukul for three days and briefly feeling the place & the people, my questions got compacted to two-in-one question and I quote, “why do people get into wrongdoings and how will all this societal distress stop/reduce”. Guruji had a simple answer and I quote, “Renunciation among the people is not taking place. People are too much carried away with the material world and do not realise when to stop, when is the right time which, in turn is resulting in huge social impacts because of their greed/deeds”. The four Ashramas (phase) of life according to Vedas are Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciate).

Guruji’s words are in my thoughts deeply as how/why people need to make that conscious decision in life. What I learned is that by Vanaprastha and Sannyasa, you do not stop working, it is that the work must transcend ones being and then is guided towards social-ecological wellbeing than to the wellbeing of self-family-acquaintance. The 66 Jal Satyagrahas in the near 25 years of Matri Sadan, the 4th death anniversary of Swami Sanand on 11th October, and the fulfilment of another Satyagraha by Swami Atmabodhanand a day before Gandhi/Shastri Jayanti on 2nd October, are indeed testimony to renunciation to the powers of truth, ahimsa, welfare for all (Sarvodaya) and Satyagraha.

Fasting or not fasting, the purpose to serve humanity is important. It is indeed a great learning to find the true spirit and power of a common citizen in the governance trajectory. When such indiviudal spirit and power are augmented with conscious collectives, citizens can take up any giant issue like saving the mighty Mother Ganga besides the spiritual, psychological and physical power of their being. I returned carrying blessings of Gurudev with a lot of hope and encouragement to continue my water endeavours with learning, loving, and living the lakes & ponds of India besides expanding the discourse to various aspects of water through the Wednesdays for Water series. It feels stronger to continue charting this path as there we find more collectives like the recent Jal Satyagraha’ in Mahanadi by the people of Sambalpur & Cuttack, Odisha and the forthcoming Vishwamitri Padyatra by the Barodians.

1 Entrepreneur | Researcher | Educator. A water enthusiast, a governance scholar, and a keen political observer. More about the work of Mansee is at: www.mansee.in

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s