Professor G.D.Agrawal, formerly of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand since 2011, died on October 11 2018, on the 112th day of his fast in Haridwar demanding a law for the conservation of the river Ganga, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh.

A Series of Deaths

40-year-old Sant Gopal Das also sat on fast for the same cause two days after Prof.Agrawal began his fast, on June 24 2018, at the Badridham temple in Badrinath. He was kept in the Intensive Care Unit of AIIMS, New Delhi, after being moved about to different hospitals in Uttarakhand, Chandigarh and New Delhi. On December 4 he was taken to Dehradun from New Delhi and left outside the office of the District Magistrate. He was admitted after that to a hospital in Dehradun but disappeared from there mysteriously, and remains untraceable since December 6, 2018.

In 2011, Swami Nigamanand, then 35 years of age, also associated with Matre Sadan, died on the 115th day of his fast demanding a curb on mining in the Ganga, which Matre Sadan claims was a murder by the mining mafia associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was running the government in Uttarakhand then.

Swami Gokulanand, who fasted with Swami Nigamanand from March 4 to 16, 1998, a year after Matre Sadan was established, is also believed to have been murdered by the mining mafia, in 2003 when he was living in anonymity at the Bamaneshwar temple in Nainital.

Baba Nagnath died at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi in 2014 fasting for the same demand as Prof.Agrawal, to let the Ganga flow uninhibited and unpolluted: aviral and nirmal.

Now 26-year-old Brahmachari Atmabodhanand, who hails from Kerala, is on fast since October 24 as a sequel to Prof.Agrawal’s fast at Matre Sadan in Haridwar.

When Prof.Agrawal was alive the head of Matre Sadan, Swami Shivanand, had warned persons belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the ideological parent of the governing BJP in power both in Delhi and Dehradun, who were visiting him that if anything happened to Swami Sanand he and his disciples would continue the unfinished task undertaken by Prof.Agrawal.

Government, Mafia and Industry Complicity

G.D.Agrawal's was the 59th fast by a saint associated with Matre Sadan and Atmabodhanand's is the 60th. He has fasted seven times till now for the sake of the Ganga, at least once every year since 2014.

In 2017 when he publicly protested against the District Magistrate of Haridwar, Deepak Rawat, who was patronising illegal sand mining in Ganga, and being given an award in the name of Madan Mohan Malviya, he was beaten by the DM and his security personnel in a room behind the stage, and put in jail for a day.

During the ongoing fast Atmabodhanand was forcibly admitted to hospital by the district administration on November 29, 2018, and when his condition began deteriorating on December 1 he left the hospital against medical advice. He said hospital authorities told him he had dengue and a low platelet count, but after verifying it independently he found it was normal.

62-year-old Swami Punyanand of Matre Sadan gave up foodgrains and is on a fruit diet since Atmabodhanand began his fast on October 24, and is prepared to shift to a water diet in the event that Atmabodhanand becomes a casualty.

Sewage Generation Dwarfs Treatment

If the government were sincere about cleaning the Ganga at least 4 out of 10 people in the country would have benefited directly - whereas nobody's life is in danger if the proposed grand temple in Ayodhya is not built. It would have been better if the RSS-BJP combine, which leave no opportunity to exploit people’s religious sentiments, had given preference to an issue which benefits people, rather than promoting retrogressive agenda.

The Namami Gange programme meant for cleaning the Ganga aims at the abatement of polluting activities in the river through interception, diversion and treatment of wastewater flowing into it through drains. The capacity of sewage treatment plants is woefully short of the volume of sewage being generated and we are nowhere near being able to completely treat all the sewage.

Rs.11,177 crore, which is more than half the budget of Namami Gange, has been earmarked for creating the capacity to treat 1,179 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage. But the National Mission for Clean Ganga, responsible for the implementation of Namami Gange, estimates total sewage generation to be 2,900 MLD.

In all likelihood by the time the NMCG meets its target the volume of sewage generated would have gone up several times. It almost appears to be a hopeless task.

The only hope is to let the river clean itself but that will require letting the river flow naturally, a demand for which Professor G.D.Agrawal fasted and died, and something with which Union Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari doesn't agree.

There is clear conflict between the development agenda of governments and the demand of environmentalists and fasting saints. There is also a view that sewage should not flow into water bodies and must find an alternative disposal.

Hydroelectric Projects Cause Great Damage

For two principal reasons hydroelectric projects are undesirable in the Himalayas. In the floods of 2013 it was seen that the maximum damage was caused at the sites of hydroelectric projects. Moreover, dams and barrages on the Ganga by obstructing the flow of the river take away its sediments.

In 1965 the Calcutta Port Trust reported 8.92 milligram per liter of sediments near Sundarbans while in 2016-17 Forest Department reports found it to be 5.52 mg/l in high tide and only 4.68 mg/l in low tide according to West Bengal scholar Supratim Karmakar.

A number of research papers and expert committees have opined that development of the kind which seeks to build hydroelectric projects is an invitation to disaster and should not be pursued.

Had the government not released water from the Tehri Dam by submerging more people’s homes before they could be rehabilitated, there would not have been enough water in Allahabad (now renamed Prayagraj) for people to take a dip in the Ganga during the ongoing Kumbh.

However, governments have surreptitiously been promoting dams and their builders and have ignored the sane opinion which now resonates in the voice of fasting saints.

People’s Livelihoods Under Threat

Support for the struggle to stop mining and polluting our rivers has been received even from Bangladesh. That country’s support for the struggle to ensure an aviral and nirmal Ganga shows that the issue affects lives of people across India's border too.

The boatfolk communities in Varanasi, Nishads or Mallahs, have been protesting against the introduction of cruise owned by a private company to ferry passengers. At stake is a population of about 40,000 whose livelihood depends on the 3,000 boats in the Ganga at Varanasi.

While the licences of boatfolk have not been renewed by the Municipal Commissioner, the private cruise has obtained permission from the Tourism Department of Government of India. Community leader Vinod Sahni is in jail on false charges since May 2018, as he was opposing the traditional exploitation of boatfolk at the hands of middlemen, as well as the new projects being launched by the BJP government which are a threat to their very livelihood.

The Nishad community is also demanding traditional agricultural rights over land across the river from Varanasi city which is now in danger of being encroached upon by vested interests.

People living all along Ganga whose livelihood depends on it face a similar bleak future.

Possible Political Fallout

The BJP’s hypocrisy related to the Ganga stands exposed now. It is apparent that saints fasting for the Ganga, people displaced due to dams and floods, or the boatfolk of Varanasi matter little for it, compared to the vested interests of private corporations who gain from the commercialisation of the Ganga.

If the RSS-BJP has to choose between its core agenda of Hindutva and profits for corporations, it has made its preference clear.

However, it is said in the Ramcharitmanas that if saints are unhappy in a regime then the king may burn even without fire. The current situation could spell trouble for the BJP, whose fortunes have seen a sharp downhill slide since the saints began fasting in Uttarakhand, also known as Devbhumi, or the land of God.

Or it could be mere coincidence.