Saving the Ganges: A tale of religion, money, and (maybe) murder.

Satellite images of the effects of quarrying on the Ganges near Haridwar between 2003 and 2010. Image courtesy Matri Sadan ashram.

This post first appeared at National Geographic News Watch, and references “A Sacred River Under Assault,” which ran on the New York Times/International Herald Tribune’s Latitude blog on December 8. My first contribution to the NYT/IHT Opinion section, “A Dam’s Unexpected Winners,” appeared November 25.

An 11-day hunger strike by the swami of a small ashram ended on Monday night when the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand banned stone and sand mining from the Ganges riverbed near the city of Haridwar pending an environmental impact statement.

Officials slid the written order under the bolted door of a room of the Matri Sadan ashram, where 65-year-old Swami Shivanand had barricaded himself to prevent his arrest on charges of attempted suicide.

Shivanand read the order, unlocked the door, and broke his fast with glasses of lemon water and apple juice. This fast was Shivanand’s sixth. The longest, in 2000, was 21 days.

Shivanand and his followers have been fighting since 1998 to defend the Ganges from the effects of mining. Their environmental cause is driven by a spiritual imperative.

Quarrying from the Ganges riverbed is a big business, one that appears to have infected the local government and law enforcement. Shivanand and his followers (“saints” in local parlance) have endured years of false arrests and assaults aimed at stopping their advocacy.

For example, here’s a link to a video provided to me by the Matri Sadan from 2009. It shows a 20-year-old hunger-striker named Yajnanand as he is abducted by masked men. Local officials had come to the ashram with the stated purpose of having the young monk’s condition assessed by a doctor. Instead, the video shows, men in balaclavas emerge from behind the trees and drag him away. (The first three and a half minutes are shaky and extraneous; the abduction begins around the 10:45 mark.)

Yajnanand was jailed for two months and force-fed through a nasal tube until a court ordered his release on grounds that he’d been illegally detained.

I first met Swami Shivanand last June, following the death of a senior member of the ashram. Swami Nigamanand, 38, had died after a 68-day fast. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation is investigating if he was poisoned in his hospital bed by the state’s so-called “mining mafia.” A medical report lists “organophosphate poisoning” – pesticides, in other words, as a possible cause of death. (In 2003, another member of the ashram, Swami Gokulanand, was killed with an injection of scoline, a pre-anesthetic drug, while keeping vigil against developers in the Nainital forest.)

Swami Shivanand, photo by Dan Morrison

A May 26 ruling by the state’s High Court shut down the operation that Nigamanand had been protesting. By that time, he was already in a coma. The court’s decision spelled out the damage mining has done to the Ganges and surrounding farmlands.

According to the High Court, the mining and stone crushing, which feeds the state’s construction industry, had made barren more than a million acres of farmland and orchards. By digging into the Ganges riverbed, the miners had lowered the water table to such an extent that irrigation wells and drinking water pumps had all gone dry.

On November 1, the state green-lighted mining on two nearby stretches of the river. An outraged Shivanand began his fast November 25. Having met him and his single-minded followers, I have no doubt he might have taken the hunger strike to the brink of death, if not beyond.

“The quality of a saint is to be brave, to be fearless,” Shivanand told me. “A saint can make the other world tremble.”

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