Changing Planet

A Swami’s Hunger Strike Ends Mining on a Stretch of the Ganges River

Satellite images of the effects of quarrying on the Ganges near Haridwar between 2003 and 2010. Image courtesy Matri Sadan ashram.


An 11-day hunger strike by the swami of a small ashram ended on Monday night when the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand banned stone and sand mining from the Ganges riverbed near the city of Haridwar pending an environmental impact statement.

Officials slid the written order under the bolted door of a room of the Matri Sadan ashram, where 65-year-old Swami Shivanand had barricaded himself to prevent his arrest on charges of attempted suicide.

Shivanand read the order, unlocked the door, and broke his fast with glasses of lemon water and apple juice. This fast was Shivanand’s sixth. The longest, in 2000, was 21 days.

Shivanand and his followers have been fighting since 1998 to defend the Ganges from the effects of mining. Their environmental cause is driven by a spiritual imperative.

Quarrying from the Ganges riverbed is a big business, one that appears to have infected the local government and law enforcement. Shivanand and his followers (“saints” in local parlance) have endured years of false arrests and assaults aimed at stopping their advocacy.

For example, here’s a link to a video provided to me by the Matri Sadan from 2009. It shows a 20-year-old hunger-striker named Yajnanand as he is abducted by masked men. Local officials had come to the ashram with the stated purpose of having the young monk’s condition assessed by a doctor. Instead, the video shows, men in balaclavas emerge from behind the trees and drag him away. (The first three and a half minutes are shaky and extraneous; the abduction begins around the 10:45 mark.)

Yajnanand was jailed for two months and force-fed through a nasal tube until a court ordered his release on grounds that he’d been illegally detained.

I first met Swami Shivanand last June, following the death of a senior member of the ashram. Swami Nigamanand, 38, had died after a 68-day fast. India’s Central Bureau of Investigation is investigating if he was poisoned in his hospital bed by the state’s so-called “mining mafia.” A medical report lists “organophosphate poisoning” – pesticides, in other words, as a possible cause of death. (In 2003, another member of the ashram, Swami Gokulanand, was killed with an injection of scoline, a pre-anesthetic drug, while keeping vigil against developers in the Nainital forest.)


Swami Shivanand, photo by Dan Morrison


A May 26 ruling by the state’s High Court shut down the operation that Nigamanand had been protesting. By that time, he was already in a coma. The court’s decision spelled out the damage mining has done to the Ganges and surrounding farmlands.

According to the High Court, the mining and stone crushing, which feeds the state’s construction industry, had made barren more than a million acres of farmland and orchards. By digging into the Ganges riverbed, the miners had lowered the water table to such an extent that irrigation wells and drinking water pumps had all gone dry.

On November 1, the state green-lighted mining on two nearby stretches of the river. An outraged Shivanand began his fast November 25. Having met him and his single-minded followers, I have no doubt he might have taken the hunger strike to the brink of death, if not beyond.

“The quality of a saint is to be brave, to be fearless,” Shivanand told me. “A saint can make the other world tremble.”

Dan Morrison is a contributor to National Geographic Voices. From 2007 to 2012 he reported for National Geographic News from South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, filing dispatches on climate change, conflict, the environment, and antiquities. Dan is author of The Black Nile , a nonfiction account of his 3,600-mile journey down the length of the White Nile through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt. The Daily Beast called The Black Nile "a masterful narrative of investigative reportage, travel writing, and contemporary history," and The Village Voice named it one of the Ten Best of 2010. Dan was a 2013 United Nations Foundation Global Health Fellow. Currently at work on a book about the Ganges River, Dan also contributes to the New York Times, POLITICO Magazine, Slate, The Arabist Network and the Dhaka Tribune. To contact Dan please see his website.
  • Rohit sharma

    Can you please elaborate on these pictures provided to you by swami shivanand.
    Because sir I dont think due to quarrying there is any effect caused on flaura and fauna as it is done from the middle of the river and only the required amount to maintain the level of Ganga is removed from the river which is actually good for the Ganga and not bad.
    Dan Morrison sir you are very talented reporter from national geography so I would like to make an request to you please do not believe in what is shown to you by swami shivanand infact visit hardwar and visit the place where quarrying was taking place and you will understand the need of it despite of that it gives employment to around lakh people’s in uttrakhand state but because of swami shivanand peoples are forced to die of hunger.
    You have my email address written with this comment. Contact me I would like to show you the other part of the picture which includes the necessity of quarrying in Ganga river. Not only this how quarrying contributes in country and people’s development is also important because that’s what Ganga ji is giving to people . Holy mother has always given food to there children’s which swami shivanand wants to snatch away from the people’s of hardwar.
    Sir there is a lot that is to be known about Ganga ji visit hardwar with us and we will show you the true nature of Ganga ji..then you will realise how important everything is and why swami shivanand does this all for his own political benefits.
    Thank you looking forward for your reply my email address is attached with the comment.

  • vikram

    I appreciate the effort and extent to which swamiji has gone to save our nature. But such efforts requires strong support from the people of country and requires stringent rules to prevent the explotiation of the nature. Unless and until the respective government and people doesnot respond to such calls, incident like this will be at large. We should act now before we lose everything that the nature has taken millions of years to build such a magnificant geological region.

  • mogan seven cupswala

    good work guruji. People of india supports you and keep fighting against such mafia,s

  • Mohan

    Excellent report highlighting the fight of simple dedicated human beings against commecial and political tyranny. Your publicising this event is a significant boost for all social break throughs in the world

  • […] post first appeared at National Geographic News Watch, and references “A Sacred River Under Assault,” which ran on the New York […]

  • Manas Ranjan Mishra

    Dear Dan,

    You are proving yourself a truer son of the Ganges than many of the hyppocrites that you have vociferously pointed out. I salute your sincerity and prudence. Professionalism very often fares man through the rough sea of duality. You have been just that.

    The intrigue behind the murder of Nagmanand shall stand out in history as an incidence to reckon with. You have taken the baton. Here there should be mention of the intellectual Prof of Civil Engineering from the world famous Indian Institute of Tech, Kanpur, aged about 80 years, who also sat on fasting for 32 days at the same ashram to get the govt. order of ban on the construction work on the course of Ganga at the Lohaari Nagpala Power Channel.

    He could be contacted next time to through much light on the piety and purpose of the Matri Sadan Hermitage and its eco-conservationist past and present.

  • Rajan Rawat

    mostly people are not against of quarrying in Ganga river……
    ……..but they are against the illegal quarrying because many start doing this buisness…… is very harmful for our eco system………..

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