Locks of curly hair fall over his eyes as Swami Atmabodhanand drags himself across a grassy patch to a porch a few feet ahead. It is May 1, the 191st day since the 26-year-old monk embarked on an indefinite fast demanding the rejuvenation of the River Ganga in Haridwar.

“Our primary duty is to save our mother, our paryavaran (environment). Without the Ganga, all life will be threatened,” says the former computer science engineer from Kerala, who embraced asceticism five years ago.

Atmabodhanand is a member of Matri Sadan ashram, a Hindu socio-spiritual organisation founded by Swami Shivanand in 1997 to combat ecological destruction. It specifically seeks to ensure that Ganga is nirmal (clean) and aviral (unobstructed and perennial) through bans on illegal sand mining and disbanding hydro-electric projects that obstruct the river’s flow in Uttarakhand. Flowing through five states — Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar and West Bengal — the river impacts the lives of more than 400 million people.


Eco-warrior: Swami Shivanand founded Matri Sadan in 1997 and has fasted 17 times to fight against the ecological destruction of the Ganga


Hunger has been a regular feature at the ashram since 2011, following a series of protest fasts undertaken there. That was the year Swami Nigamanand Saraswati gave up his life after fasting for nearly four months for the clean-up Ganga cause. In October last year, Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand died after fasting for two months. Before monkhood, he was known as GD Agarwal. A professor at IIT Kanpur, he was the first member-secretary of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). When his end was near, the ashram’s monks promised him that they would keep the cause alive by embarking on a relay fast-unto-death.

Atmabodhanand volunteered and began his fast on October 24, days after Sanand breathed his last. He believed that as a South Indian he could generate pan-Indian support for his appeal to cleanse the river.


Team effort: Atmabodhanand (right) came to Matri Sadan four years ago and began fasting for the Ganga last October


“From the day I started the anshan (hunger fast), I was fully prepared to sacrifice my life. I had no illusions about being heard,” he tells BL ink . To buttress his point, he mentions the official apathy at Sanand’s death, as also the Supreme Court’s stay on the Uttarakhand High Court’s 2017 ruling that the Ganga and Yamuna were living entities with legal rights.

Yet, barely days later, on May 4, when his weight dropped to 40 kilos (from 62 in October) and the monitoring government medical team diagnosed him with cachexia — a condition characterised by extreme weakness, wasting of muscles and weight loss — a letter did arrive from Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the director general of the National Clean Ganga Mission (NCGM). Mishra promised to act against illegal sand mining in the Ganga by constituting special teams for surprise inspections and look into the demand for scrapping all hydro-electric projects in Uttrakhand that obstructed the river’s flow.

The fast has been called off for now, but there is no let-up in the nationwide attention drawn by this motley bunch of monks using hunger as a weapon to force the government to clean up its act.

The origin of a river

Sitting in a chair under a mango tree — in a white dhoti and wooden sandals, his beard flowing and his locks, long and matted— Swami Shivanand, the ashram’s 73-year-old founder, goes back to the myth of the river’s origins to narrate the story of how sage Bhagirath brought Ganga down to a parched Earth through his penance.

Ganga, he recounts, had two questions — if a holy river like her would flow through Earth, wouldn’t people have nothing but their sins to offer her? And who would rein in the destructive gush of her flow?

Bhagirath promised the river that successive generations of sages would undertake the task to cleanse her through their acts of sacrifice. And he prayed to Shiva to rein in the mighty Ganga using his dreadlocks, so she could flow as a gentle, perennial, life-giving river. According to the Shiv Puran, explains Shivanand, this can be seen in the form of rocks and boulders that hold the Ganga in place.

“We the saints of Matri Sadan are upholding Bhagirath’s promise and fulfilling our spiritual duty by fasting and giving up our lives for the sake of humanity,” says the monk from Darbangha, who had obtained a Chemistry Honours degree from Bihar and a postgraduate degree from Jadavpur University before becoming a brahmachari (celibate monk).

His first anshan , in 1998, was against illegal sand mining around the Kumbh area that he had collected evidence for. That forced authorities to pay heed, and there was no stopping after that. He has since embarked on 17 fasts, while the Matri Sadan has collectively held 60 fasts, but none as long as Atmabodhanand’s.

Many mutinies

A 10-minute walk from Matri Sadan takes you to a sewage treatment plant. The untreated foul-smelling water merges with the Ganga. In a shallow section of the river are five bullock carts being loaded with silt and stones from the river bed. This will be illegally sold to the construction sector. Stone crushers can be found some distance away.

“Haven’t you guys learnt a lesson yet,” another monk — Swami Punyanand — shouts in their direction. He is next in line for the relay fast. The 62-year-old monk used to be a Bihar-based businessman manufacturing auto spare parts.

He moved to the ashram in 2015, leaving behind his wife and children, as he wanted to embark on vanaprastha — the final phase of life dedicated to renouncement in the Hindu faith. “I knew how corrupt the system was. Now I’m getting a chance to clean it up,” he says. He has already moved to a fruit diet, as preparation for the hunger fast. “Unimaginable destruction has occurred to the Ganga in the last five years, more than in all our post-Independent years put together,” he rues.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate in the 2014 election, Narendra Modi had termed the rejuvenation of the Ganga a personal mission. But several reports today show that the river has never been in poorer health.

Driving to the Bhil Ghoda Barrage in Haridwar’s Har ki Pauri area, Punyanand points to what look like craters in the riverbed. “This is how it looks when you plunder a river,” he says. Sand mining and water pollution apart, the falling water levels are due to the many dams in the upper stream, he adds.


Digging deep: Punyanand points to a crater in the distance — a sign of the plundered riverbed


“During the [previous] Congress regime, Matri Sadan had got the Government to halt dam building and sand mining. But Modi is speeding up construction,” he says, listing the dam works in Phatabhyum, Singoli Bhatwari, Bisungot Pipalkoti and Tapovan, all of which Matri Sadan has been opposing.

That apart, while the much vaunted Namami Gange (Clean Ganga Mission) project was announced with an outlay of ₹20,000 crore, the actual spending has fallen far short of this. For instance, the water ministry had set aside ₹9,000 crore for the river clean-up mission for the last four years, but less than half of that has been spent, government figures indicate. The dysfunctional and low-capacity sewage treatment plants have led to faecal coliform levels far-exceeding permissible limits. The CPCB’s March 2019 data show that water at only 13 of the 61 live monitoring stations in the Ganga was fit for bathing. Matri Sadan’s own research examined the effect of the excessive use of chlorine to combat water pollution.

“This has adversely affected the bio-diversity. We used to see tortoises and many varieties of fish in the Ganga. Today we don’t see any,” says Shivanand.

Punyanand alleges that funds from the Clean Ganga Mission have been used to construct bathing ghats for the masses instead of cleaning the river. And that is why, the ashram stresses, its clean Ganga mission carries on.

Declaring that the Matri Sadan sanyasis are ready to sacrifice their lives to safeguard the river, Swami Dayanand, a 41-year-old monk who is third in line for the relay fast, says in a light vein, “The queue is full... there is always a competition as to who will go first.”

The monks, he adds, are continuing with the tradition of tyaag (sacrifice). “By offering ourselves to the river, we are paying homage to a unique movement.”