HERE’S A man of science on a spiritual mission. Once, under his tutelage, hundreds of IIT students went on to work on many hydel projects. Now, under the guidance of his spiritual guru Swami Avimukteswaranand, this 80-year-old former professor at IIT-Kanpur has been on an indefinite fast since 14 January to save the Ganga.
As Professor GD Agrawal, he headed the department of civil and environmental engineering at IIT-Kanpur. As Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand now, he is performing a penance to restore the sanctity of the Ganga and its tributaries. This is the fourth time Swami Sanand is sitting on a fast. His last three were successful in thwarting three major hydel projects in Uttarakhand.
But he is not the first to pledge his life for the Ganges. Last year, Swami Nigamananda of the Matri Sadan ashram died after a 69-day fast to protest the rampant mining in the Ganga river bed (See: Hell in Holy Land, TEHELKA, 2 July 2011).
The campaign, the first one outside the auspices of the Sangh Parivar, is spearp-headed by the Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam. Perhaps because of this, the only politician of some stature who came to pledge her support was Uma Bharti. The head of this campaign is the Jyotish Peeth and Dwarka Peeth Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand. The Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam has listed out three major grouses:
1) Damming of the Ganga at regular intervals, which leads to a tardy flow
2) Diverting more than 90 percent of the river water to canals
3) Towns on the banks of the river dumping their waste into the Ganga
Following the earlier protests, the PM met Swami Swaroopanand on 16 October 2008 before announcing the formation of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) and also a Rs 15,000 crore package for various projects under the Authority. But the campaigners at Ganga Sewa allege that even three years after these grand proclamations, nothing has materialised on the ground.
The Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam alleges that in spite of bestowing national river status to the Ganga, no laws have been formulated to make desecration of the river in any manner a punishable offence, as has been done with other national symbols such as the national flag. They also claim that since the Ganga flows through five states, and its tributaries through 11-12 states, Central laws are necessary.
The Authority has also raised objections to the loan from the World Bank for the Ganga projects. Swami Avimukteswaranand says the river has enough resources which, if utilised properly, would not only take care of the river but also the 40 crore people who depend on it.
On the first day of this campaign, 25 December 2011, an open letter was drafted to the PM. On 14 January, five people took a pledge at the Ganga Sagar in West Bengal to sit on an indefinite fast on a rotational basis. Avimukteshwaranand says, “It is our own people who desecrate the Ganga. That’s why this is not a campaign but a penance.”
Q&A Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand
‘After I die, others will work for the cause’
HIS EARLIER three fasts were successful in scrapping three major hydro-electric projects that had come up on the Bhagirathi river in Uttarkashi — NTPC’s 480 MW Lohari Nagpala, the 381 MW Bhaironghati and 480 MW Pala Maneri plants. In 2008, he went without food for 18 days in Uttarkashi. The next fast, in the beginning of 2009, lasted 38 days at the Hindu Mahasabha in Delhi. In 2010, he went on his third fast at Haridwar with Swami Nigamananda, which lasted 39 days. This time, he has held out for almost two months.
EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW:
Earlier, you wanted to save the purity of the Bhagirathi. Now you are fasting for the Alaknanda and Mandakini also.
In 2007, when I went beyond Uttarkashi after 35 years, and saw the dry beds of the Bhagirathi, I was shocked. At that time, I went on a fast so that no project could come up on the river beyond Maneri. In response, the Uttarakhand government jettisoned two projects — Bhairon Valley and Pala Maneri. Then, after two long fasts, the Centre gave up its hydel project Lohari Nagpala and on 24 August 2010, declared Uttarkashi an ecosensitive region, which would have saved the Bhagirathi. But then we realised that the Ganga is fed by three major tributaries: Bhagirathi, Alaknanda and Mandakini. So just saving the Bhagirathi would not effectively save the Ganga.
It is alleged that you are associated with the Maneri Project as an engineer.
That’s not true. In the beginning of the project, I had come with a team of IIT professors to give a lecture to its engineers. But I did not design the project.
Are you an opponent of hydel power?
No. If a project keeps environmental principles in mind, then I am not against it. I devoted the first seven years of my career to the Rihand dam — right from the survey to the completion of the project. It was not wrongly designed but near it, aluminium, chemical and coal mines came up and super thermal power stations were erected. That was when the degradation of the region started. Today the proportion of mercury in milk here is 150 nanogram per litre. It did not come from the Rihand power project. It came from the so-called development all around.
But your protest has its detractors in the state.
Ask those who are criticising me whether they revere the Ganga as the Mother or not. If they do, why are they allowing her to bleed?
What will be your next step?
Till now I had forsaken food. On 8 March, I will go to Kashi and give up water. It is considered auspicious to die there. After me, other people will make sacrifices to save the Ganga.
But not everybody believes in the sincerity of this fast. Local party Uttarakhand Kranti Dal chief Trivedra Panwar argues that at the root of the campaign lies the aspiration to be part of the NGRBA and its Rs 15,000 crore booty. “All the lobbies in this country want their members to be inducted into this council,” he said.
Avimukteswaranand has another tale to tell. He says he invited nine NGO members of the Ganga Authority to a meeting. Seven came. He says, “After the two-day meet was over, we realised that the formation of the Authority was a deception. The members revealed that Rs 2,600 crore had already been spent, but no one knows where or how.”
Moreover, he contends, more than Rs 12,000 crore has already been spent on the Ganga Action Plan I and II. He feels the Rs 15,000 crore package announced by the PM will also disappear into some crevice and the Ganga will stay the same. It is this fear that has spurred the Ganga Sewa Abhiyanam to take up the fast.
So far, the Central government has not shown any interest in coming to grips with the situation while Swami Sanand seems hell-bent on snuffing out his life.
Will it take a fate like Nigamananda’s for the authorities to wake up?