On the outskirts of Hardwar, in a quaint and leafy ashram called Matri Sadan, a silent revolution is brewing. It’s to save the sacred Ganga.
Almost every seer or monk who has stayed at the ashram in this holy town has undertaken a fast in desperate serial bids to draw the attention of successive governments to issues related to the sacred river.
Now, even with national elections spawning a season of promises, they are despondent about saving the river from death. Last October, veteran environmental activist G. D. Agrawal, also known as Swami Sanand, died after fasting for 111 days for a clean and free-flowing Ganga. Following his death, one of the ashram’s senior-most seers, Brahmachari Dayanand, announced he would continue the fast. However, a young seer volunteered that the baton should go to him instead. This young seer is Brahmachari Aatmabodhanand, a 26-year- old computer science drop out from an engineering college in Kerala. He has been at the ashram for over five years now but does not reveal anything more than this.
“After taking sanyaas, you cannot talk about your past. It is a previous life for us, this fight for Ganga is my new birth," he told Mint.
On Thursday, when polling for Lok Sabha elections in Uttarakhand take place, the young seer’s fast will enter its 170th day, one of the longest at the ashram. But, he says, no political change or election will impact the Ganga—it is only the common people who can create a movement for that change. The seers’ many demands include: a ban on new dam and barrage construction on the Ganga; decommissioning of all existing dams, the setting up of an autonomous body of experts, passage of the Ganga Act, a ban on mining in Hardwar and a stoppage to deforestation and mining in flood-prone areas of the Himalayan state.
“With my fast, I want to send a message to the government— that it is not just North India, even people from South India are equally devoted to the Ganga. I am a representative of young India and it concerns us even more," Aatmabodhanand added.
Aatmabodhanand is now physically frail and ashram’s residents make sure he does no strenuous physical activity. For his daily nutrition, he sips a mixture of water, honey, salt and lemon. He spends most of his time either meeting visitors to discuss issues around the Ganga or reading on his mobile phone.
“When Sanand ji had spent months fasting, he knew that the government will not respond to him. We had expected that this government will do something about Ganga because it is also an issue of faith but nothing has happened," he said. Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has listed the cleaning up and conservation of the Ganga as one of its key priorities. In its recently announced manifesto, too, it made a number of announcements on the issue.
“Ganga has been our key priority and it is visible in our national manifesto too. The Union government and its officials have often reached out to seers at Matri Sadan and conveyed our stand of conserving Ganga. The government has already said that the river would be cleaned by next year," Devendra Bhasin, the BJP’s Uttarakhand spokesperson said.
Back at the ashram, seers say their campaign is gaining momentum and drawing support from people from across the country. “Peaceful fasting is the only strong medium of making our message heard. Imagine what is the condition of water quality of Ganga that when people visit, they sit on its bank and drink packaged water," Dayanand said.