Swami Sivanand Saraswati, the 75-year-old founder of Haridwar’s famed Matri Sadan, is being closely monitored by doctors and his fellow seers as his indefinite fast demanding a blanket ban on construction of hydroelectric power projects on the upper reaches of the Ganga river entered its fifth week. The septuagenarian Hindu monk-cum-Ganga conservation crusader sat on a fast –unto-death at his ashram on August 3, with a daily intake of just five glasses of water and additives such as salt, sugar or honey.
Renowned environmentalist Rajendra Singh, a former Magsaysay Award recipient known as India’s ‘waterman’, tells National Herald that after almost a month of fasting, Saraswati has decided to intensify his fast by reducing his daily water intake to one or two glasses. “We are concerned about Swamiji’s health. We have written to the Prime Minister, the Union Environment Minister and the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand seeking an intervention. But there hasn’t been any response till date,” said Singh, who has been mustering support for the cause since Sivanand began his fast.
Singh also heads the Tarun Bharat Sangh, an Alwar-based outfit that has been campaigning for restoring the uninterrupted flow (aviralta) and pristineness (nirmalta) of the 2,704-km-long river. On August 15, chain fasting was organised at 108 different locations across the country as mark of solidarity with Swami Sivanand.
Swami Sivanand was originally scheduled to sit on his fast in March, but had to temporarily shelve his plan due to the lockdown restrictions imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic. Besides demanding a complete embargo on the hydel project-construction activity in the upper tributaries of the river, Swami Sivanand is demanding a long-promised legislation, Ganga Act, that would penalize quarrying at the river bed and inclusion of environmental activists on the panel tasked with drafting the act.
At least four dams, currently under-construction in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi, Vishnuprayag and Pipalkoti, have been touchy issues for the Ganga conservationists, who say that such “poorly-planned projects” would reduce the flow of the river to nil if they are allowed to operate.
Rajendra Singh recalls that a similar fast by professor-turned-monk, the late Professor GD Agarwal, back in 2008 forced the government’s hand into declaring the area around Bhagirathi, a tributary of the Ganga, as an eco-sensitive zone in 2008-09.
“It is paramount that there is no construction activity whatsoever on the Alaknanada and Mandakini rivers, which join the Bhagirathi at Devprayag to form the Ganga river as we know it. Maintaining the flow of the river early on is necessary to save the river from dying. Despite promises to bring the river back to life in 2014, all the government has done is make money out of it,” says the Waterman.
However, the battle to save India’s most famous river has been marred by tragedies and broken promises on government’s part, claims Singh. Veteran environmentalist Professor GD Agarwal succumbed to poor health on October 11, 2018, after fasting for the same cause as Swami Sanand for a full 111 days before life gave up on him. “A letter he wrote to the Prime Minister elicited no response. He died reminding the Prime Minister that had come to power from Varanasi and had sought votes in the name of the Ganga,” Singh recalled Agarwal’s last letter addressed to the PM.
Two younger monks from the Matri Sadan, Swami Atmabodhanand and Padmavati, have carried the baton demanding a comprehensive law covering the Ganga since Professor Agarwal’s death, as they sat on their own individual fasts last year and this year.
Swami Atmabodhanand ended his 194-day hunger strike on May 4 last year after a written assurance from the Director General of the National Mission for Clean Ganga Rajiv Ranjan Mishra that the government would look into the complaints of ‘illegal mining’ among others. The letter was addressed to Swami Sivanand.
However, a woman seer Padmavat sat on a month-long fast in December last year after it was found that the assurances made in the letter weren’t honoured. Padmavat’s hunger strike was disrupted by authorities and she was forced fed in order to break her fast in January.
While the Supreme Court had on August 13 ordered a stay on any more clearances to hydel power projects in Uttarakhand, Ganga activists are demanding that the 40 projects presently under construction should also be immediately suspended.
The indefinite fast by Swami Sivanand comes at a time when the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) is trying to bulldoze through the Environmental Impact Assessment, 2020 (EIA) into the statute, amid adverse observations by conservationists and human rights activist that the proposed rules water down existing safeguards meant to protect the environment by leaving out affected communities from the decision-making process and unduly empowering the buyers.