THE GANGA’S SERVANT
There’s no shortage of those that venerate the Ganga.
Very few, though, take that reverence beyond hyperbole, to do something to protect the life-giving river that is at the heart of India.
Swami Nigamananda – who fasted for 115 days before he died in a hospital in Dehradun on June 13, 2011 – was one of them. Protesting against illegal mining and quarrying on the Ganga riverbed, he took up cudgels on behalf of the mighty river, accompanied only by his conviction and a few likeminded souls, chief among whom was Swami Shivananda.
In 1997, Swami Shivananda joined Swami Nigamananda and ten other sadhus to found the Matri Sadan Ashram, to take up the fight against corruption and environmental destruction. As part of the “Save the Ganga” campaign, he has been the leader of several Satyagraha movements related to the safeguard of riverbeds. In fact, although the Supreme Court had blocked certain quarrying practices, illegal stone crushing was still happening on the Ganga’s riverbanks in Uttarakhand and, according to Shivananda, with the support of certain high-level state bureaucrats.
As Shivananda faces the anger of many villagers around Haridwar for whom mining is their lifeline, he is confident that environmental research will eventually prove how harmful this practice is for the local ecosystem. Having fasted for 11 days in December of 2011 to garner support for the implementation of mining bans, the state government gave in to his demands for two riverbanks. Cornered between certain hostile populations and a somewhat indifferent and at times threatening public administration, Swami Shivananda is part of a long Indian tradition of civil disobedience brought forward by holy men. His ecological movement is part of a broader, national effort to fight against corruption at every level of the power apparatus.
Although some might criticize the methods as well as the motivations behind his struggle, one is impressed by the resiliency of Swami Shivananda’s movement. Ironically enough, the day Swami Nigamananda died, the World Bank and the Government of India accepted to allocate Rs.7,000 crore to implement a river-cleaning project.