In recent years the Matra Sadan Ashram in Hardwar has emerged as a hub of efforts of saints and activists for protection of Ganga river. So far three saints associated with Matra Sadan have died here fasting for protection of Ganga , while at the time of writing two other saints have been on fast for several weeks. One saint of this ashram is reported to have been killed by the mining mafia for raising his voice against destructive mining activities.

The cause of protection of Ganga river from ecological ruin is a  cause dear to  people all over India. However despite many projects and plans being prepared for this, there is mounting concern of threats to river Ganga and its tributaries increasing in several ways.

If we take perhaps the most crucial stretch of the Ganga river system in its Himalayan catchment  areas, then even in this critical area and the adjoining area below where the river emerges from the hills to flow in the plains, there has been increasing concern over the threats caused by hydro projects as well as  destructive mining practices. In the important meeting point for the river where the hills meet the plains, where sacred cities like Hardwar and Rishikesh  are located , mining caused a lot of damage and it was known that politically very powerful persons who shouted from the housetop regarding protection of Ganga river were also benefiting a lot from this ecologically destructive mining in and around the river as well as well as related activities.

It has also been noted that while there are many saints in the area who have been concerned about the river, they  did not come forward to oppose powerful persons and mining mafias. It was against this background that saints of Matra Sadan started observing long protest fasts for protection of Ganga river and this ashram  became most known as the abode of saints who are very deeply devoted to the protection of Ganga river.

This recognition of this ashram spread further among people when Swami Sanand selected this ashram for starting his long fast against indiscriminate dam construction and other aspects of ecological ruin, a fast which attracted attention all over the country in 2018.

On October 11 2018 Swami Sanand, earlier known as Prof. G.D. Aggarwal, passed away on the 111th day of his fast at Rishikesh ( Uttarakhand).  He was widely regarded as a leading authority on the steps that need to be taken for protection of Ganga river. He had earlier made an important contribution as Member Secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board. He obtained doctorate from University of California Berkeley and taught at IIT Kanpur.

In the later years of his life he became a sage or a sanyasi and devoted himself fully to the protection of Ganga river.  His fasts for protection of river in an ecological sense were backed by scientific evidence and he often quoted scientifically conducted studies.  His main demand related to the implementation of a report on Ganga protection which had been prepared by an officially constituted committee ( constituted by the present union government).

His another demand for a relook at some highly dubious hydel projects in the Himalayan region was based on careful study and reasoning.  Again he did not ask for anything arbitrary but only for more debate on these dubious projects and stopping the construction till then.

In addition he wanted that people sincerely involved in Ganga protection should be given a consultative role. Broadly these are the demands he raised in a letter to the Prime minister on February 24, 2018, adding that if these are not met then he will start a fast about four months later on June 22, 2018. Given his stature and grasp of this issue, it should have been possible to resolve these issues in consultation with him and others within the stipulated period of four months but this was neglected. Hence he started his fast on June 22.

After this some ministers came and went. Messages were exchanged with the Union government representatives. But clearly matters were not resolved to his satisfaction and this was the reason why his fast continued. It is sad that while the government says that Ganga protection is a top priority for the government, a sage scientist with the highest level of commitment to river protection had to die after a 111 days fast while raising demands relating to protection of Ganga river.

A sincere and deep commitment to protection of all rivers with the involvement of people and communities living near these rivers is badly needed. Whenever and wherever such sincere and dedicated efforts are made, Swami Sanand will be remembered with great respect.

What is not so well-known is that even after Swami Sanand died , the issues continued to be taken up with equal dedication by other saints of Matra Sadan. They continued for fast for long periods to draw attention to the various threats to the Ganga river. These efforts and sacrifices continue to this day. These efforts should get much more attention at a much wider level.

After the recent  devastation in Uttarakhand in February  in which dams also played an important role there is increasing concern over these  issues. As it is threats are increasing  already due to climate change related factors and the least that we can do is to avoid adding greatly to this by felling of trees,  indiscriminate construction and mining work which  ignore environment protection norms in the sensitive Himalayan catchment areas of the Ganga river system.

Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna, Chipko Movement and the Struggle Against Tehri Dam.