December 8, 2011, 10:10 am
A Sacred River Under Assault
By DAN MORRISON
Kevin Frayer/Associated PressWorshipers along the Ganges River in Haridwar, India, in April 2010.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Late Monday night, at an ashram near the Ganges, an iron-willed former chemistry professor called Swami Shivanand took his first bite of food in 11 days.
Shivanand had been fasting, against the pleas of state officials, to protest renewed mining of stones and sand from the Ganges riverbed in the northern Indian holy city of Haridwar. He broke the fast after officials slid under his door a written order that bans mining and quarrying on the riverbed pending an environmental impact study.
Shivanand and his tiny band of followers – whom I met on reporting trips, most recently in October — say the mining is profoundly disrespectful to Hinduism’s holiest river. Conservationists say it’s been wreaking havoc on the local environment. And the poorly-regulated mining industry is, of course, worth tens of millions of dollars a year.
It’s that last part that appears to have turned India’s political parties against Shivanand’s cause, one that seems tailor-made for grassroots political support.
Think of it: A sacred river, in a holy city, under assault from shovels, pickaxes and earth movers. More than a million acres of farmland have been spoiled by rapacious quarrying of the riverbed, which turns adjacent fields barren by lowering the water table. The millions of tons of stones and sand feed a local construction boom. Large stones and boulders are pulverized by loud machines that coat orchards and villages in dust.
But the mining companies have strong political machinery to back their stone crushers and bulldozers. According to a report in the Indian newsmagazine Tehelka, government ministers have ownership stakes in local mining operations.
The state of Uttarakhand, where Haridwar is located, is controlled by the Hindu nationalist B.J.P. party, which is usually on the lookout for affronts to India’s dominant religion. Not this time.
Prior Uttarakhand administrations, controlled by the opposition Congress Party, haven’t been any better. When I asked N.D. Tiwari, an 86-year-old former chief minister of the state, about illegal mining during his tenure, I got the impression he was feigning senility to avoid my questions.
Shivanand is no stranger to fasts. He and members of his ashram have engaged in 31 of them since 1998 to compel the enforcement of environmental regulations. He knows the rules are made to be broken.
“If the order is followed, it will be good,” Shivanand told me on Tuesday by telephone. “If it is broken, we will again go on satyagraha,” a tactic of Gandhian nonviolent resistance.
Two of Shivanand’s followers have died in recent years for their uncompromising advocacy; both were murdered, he claims. The swami and his small group of sanyasi — “saints” who have renounced society and the material world — have endured arrests, beatings and harassment by officials.
In June, a swami named Nigamanand died after a 68-day fast against the illegal mining. The police are probing his death as a possible homicide. Shivanand says he was poisoned by the owner of a local stone-crushing company to intimidate the ashram into giving up its activism. Nigamanand, who was 36, was already in a coma when, on May 26, the state’s high court shut down that company’s operations.
Citing a string of precedents and orders that officials had ignored in allowing the mining to continue, the court’s decision noted that local farmers were forced to sell their barren plots at fire-sale prices to the very companies that had ruined them.
Four and a half months later, the state opened two nearby stretches of the Ganges to mining, sparking Shivanand’s recent 11-day fast.
But unlike the media frenzies that accompanied fasts last summer by the anticorruption campaigner Anna Hazare and the yoga televangelist Baba Ramdev, Shivanand’s recent effort — and Nigamandand’s before him — have garnered little press. The saints have found few public defenders.
Haridwar, one of the seven most revered locations in Hinduism, is home to dozens of influential gurus, some with millions of followers. Their ashrams are huge, and their faces adorn giant billboards on the roads leading to town. But the city’s millionaire swamis appear to share an exclusive focus on increasing their flocks and the donations they bring in.
With its daily flood of pilgrims coming to immerse themselves in the icy Ganges as it pours down from the Himalayas, there’s no escaping the conviction that Haridwar is indeed a holy city.
It’s a holy city, full of hypocrites.