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Now young ascetic from Kerala, Brahmachari Atmabodhanand, stakes his life for Ganga

By Sandeep Pandey*
Prof GD Agrawal, formerly of 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, demanding a law for conservation of river Ganga, at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Rishikesh. Forty-years-old Sant Gopal Das, inspired by Prof Agrawal, also sat on fast for the same cause two days after Prof Agrawal began his fast, on June 24, 2018 at Badridham temple in Badrinath, 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 District Magistrate. He got admitted after that to a hospital in Dehradun but is untraceable since December 6, 2018. Earlier Swami Nigamanand, then 35 years of age, also associated with Matre Sadan, died on 115th day of his fast in 2011 in a government hospital in Haridwar demanding curb on mining in Ganga, which Matre Sadan claims as a murder by a mining mafia associated with the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party in Uttarakhand then.
Swami Gokulanand, who fasted with Swami Nigamanand during March 4 to 16, 1998, a year after Matre Sadan was established, is also believed to have been murdered by mining mafia in 2003 when he was living in anonymity at Bamaneshwar temple in Nainital. Baba Nagnath died at Manikarnika Ghat in Varanasi in 2014 fasting for the same demand as of Prof Agrawal, to let Ganga flow uninhibited and unpolluted, Aviral and Nirmal, respectively.
Now 26-years 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, which Prof Agrawal had chosen as the site of his fast. Even when Prof Agrawal was alive, the head of Matre Sadan Swami Shivanand had warned persons belonging to RSS, the ideological parent of ruling BJP in power both at 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.
Prof Agrawal's was 59th fast by a saint associated with Matre Sadan and Atmabodhanand's is 60th. Brahmachari Atmabodhanand dropped out of a Computer Science graduation programme and became a saint at the age of 21 years. He has fasted seven times till now for the sake of Ganga, at least once every year since 2014.
In 2017 when he publicly protested against DM of Haridwar, Deepak Rawat, who was patronizing illegal sand mining in Ganga, 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 29 November, 2018 and when his condition started deteriorating on 1 December he left the hospital against medical advice (known as LAMA in medical parlance). When he was in hospital Atmabodhanand was told that he was suffering from dengue and his platelet count had dropped to 64,000 but after independently verifying it outside he discovered it to be 1,01,000.
Sixty two-years-old Swami Punyanand of Matre Sadan gave up food grains and is on fruit diet since Atmabodhanand started his fast on October 24 and is prepared to shift to a water diet in the event of Atmabodhanand becoming a casualty.
If the government would have been sincere about cleaning Ganga at least four out of 10 people in the country would have directly benefitted, whereas nobody's life is in danger if the proposed grand temple in Ayodhya is not built and in Sabrimala the BJP is taking the society backwards by obstructing the entry of women of child bearing age going against the Supreme Court decision.
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 Ganga aims at abatement of polluting activities in the river through interception, diversion and treatment of waste water flowing into it through drains. However, 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 the whole sewage.
Rs 11,176.81 crore, which is more than half the budget of Namami Gange, has been earmarked for creating a capacity to treat 1,178.75 million litres per day (MLD) of sewage but the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG), responsible for implementation of Namami Gange, estimates total sewage generation to be 2,900 MLD.
In all likelihood by the time NMCG meets its target of sewage treatment 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 Prof GD Agrawal fasted and died and something with which 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.
For two reasons the hydroelectric projects are undesirable in the Himalayas. It has been seen that maximum damage was caused at the sites of hydroelectric project in the floods of 2013. Moreover, dams and barrages on Ganga by obstructing the flow of river take away the unique bactricidal properties of flowing Ganga water which is present in its sediments.
In 1965 Calcutta Port Trust reported 8.92 milligram per liter of sediments near Sundarbans while in 2016-17 department of forest reports it to be 5.52 mg/l in high tide and only 4.68 mg/l in low tide according to scholar Supratim Karmakar from West Bengal. A number of researches and expert committees have opined that modern 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 Tehri dam by submerging more people before they could be rehabilitated, there would not have been enough water in Allahabad, now renamed Prayagraj, for people to take a dip in Ganga during the ongoing Kumbh. However, the governments have been surreptitiously promoting the dams and their builders and have ignored the sane opinion which is now resonating in the voice of fasting saints.
Support has been received even from Bangladesh for the struggle to ensure Aviral and Nirmal Ganga which shows the issue affects lives of people across India's border too.
The boatfolk community, Nishad or Mallah, in Varanasi has been protesting against the introduction of cruise owned by a private company to ferry passengers. At stake is a population of about forty thousand whose livelihood depends on the three thousand boats in Ganga at Varanasi.
While licences of boatfolk have not been renewed by the Municipal Commissioner, the cruise has obtained permission from Tourism department of Government of India. The leader of the community Vinod Sahni is in jail on false charges since May 2018 as 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 the livelihood of boatfolk.
The Nishad community is also demanding the traditional agricultural rights over land across the river from Varanasi city which is now in danger of being encroached by vested interests. People living all along Ganga whose livelihood depends on it face a similar bleak future.
The BJP’s hypocrisy related to Ganga stands exposed now. It is apparent that saints fasting for Ganga or the boatfolk of Varanasi matter little for it compared to the vested interests of private corporations who gain from commercialization of Ganga. If it has to choose between its core agenda of Hindutva and profits for corporations it has made its preference clear.
However, this could spell trouble for BJP. Tulsidas in Ramcharitmanas has said that if saints are unhappy in a regime then the king may burn even without fire. BJP’s fortunes have seen a sharp downhill since the saints started fasting in Uttarakhand, also known as Devbhumi, or land of God. It could be a mere coincidence.
---
*Magsaysay Award winning social activist

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