Unsung baba

Print edition : July 15, 2011

Swami Nigamananda, on a fast to save the Ganga from illegal sand mining and quarrying, dies unnoticed.

in New Delhi

Swami Nigamananda. He had been fasting for almost four months to protest against illegal mining and stone-crushing along the Ganga near Haridwar before he died at Himalayan Hospital in Dehra Dun on June 13.-PTI

EVEN as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders made a song and dance about Baba Ramdev's fast unto death against black money and queued up at Himalayan Hospital in Dehra Dun, Uttarakhand, to pay their respects to the yoga guru, another baba, unsung and unheard, lay dying in the adjacent room. Swami Nigamananda, as he was known, had been on a fast since February 19 to save the Ganga from illegal sand mining and unscrupulous quarrying, a cause the BJP swears by. On June 13, the day after Ramdev broke his fast of nine days under media arc lights, Nigamananda died. Ironically, the court judgment on the cause for which he had been fighting came too late, when he had already slipped into a coma. The BJP and the Congress were quick to engage in a slugfest, trying to derive political mileage out of the tragic event.

Nigamananda's death, however, achieved what he could not when he was alive. He brought the spotlight on the trader-politician-bureaucrat nexus that has made the Ganga what it is today. Crores of rupees are shown as spent on cleaning it, but it remains one of the most polluted rivers in the country. Its water is unfit even for farming, let alone drinking or bathing.

Nigamananda, 36, originally called Swaroopam Kumar Girish, came to Delhi two decades ago from Darbhanga in Bihar to attend coaching classes for the IIT entrance examination. He would most probably have been a software engineer like his younger brother had he not, at the age of 18, got attracted to the ascetic way of life and become a disciple of Swami Shivananda.

Shivananda founded the Matri Sadan ashram in Haridwar in 1998. Nigamananda became closely associated with the ashram's decade-long struggle against illegal stone quarrying and sand mining in the Ganga, especially against Himalaya Stone Crusher Pvt. Ltd, which had its activity in the vicinity of the ashram. In 2008, he undertook a fast for 73 days, following which the government banned stone-crushing activity in the Kumbh Mela area, which falls between Haridwar and Rishikesh. But the company got a stay order from the court and started its activities again. Over the years, the ashram's battle against illegal sand mining has played out between successive governments and the courts, with many fasts by various saints thrown in between.

Nigamananda's most recent fast was against a court order of December 2010 staying a government ban on the mining and stone-crushing activity of the company along with that of others. A two-judge Bench of the Uttarakhand High Court was hearing the matter in appeal when he went on the fast. On April 26, he became seriously ill and was admitted to the district hospital in Haridwar the next day. After showing some improvement, his health deteriorated on April 30 and the district administration moved him to Himalayan Hospital, where he slipped into a coma on May 4.

On May 26, the High Court delivered a judgment that could become a precedent for banning all such activity on the Ganga river bed, but the order came a bit too late. On June 13, Nigamananda died of septicaemia and degenerative brain disorder due to prolonged coma. The ashram has alleged that the swami was poisoned by the hospital staff acting in tandem with the stone-crushing company and the State government. The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is looking into the matter.

Decade-long struggle

The saga of the decade-long struggle to save the river is also one of bureaucratic and judicial apathy and unscrupulous exploitation of the river by the sand mafia in Uttarakhand. The May 26 order, delivered by Chief Justice Barin Ghosh and Justice Sarvesh Kumar, exposes how the sand mafia has been violating with impunity all rules and regulations for the protection of the environment.

The judges minced no words in castigating both the stone-crushing company and the State government, the former for carrying on the mining and stone-crushing activity on the river basin in close proximity to populous areas, despite there being innumerable Supreme Court rulings banning such activity, and the latter for allowing this. The court observed that this obviously happened because of the influence of the crusher owners which they had generated in their entity at the strength of their power in terms of high contacts. The mining activity on the river bed, the judges noted, caused inherent deleterious effect not only upon the entire surrounding society but also upon humanity at large. The court listed the following injurious effects of the crushing activity:

1. Consistent digging and mining by crusher units had deepened the river and depleted the water level in millions of acres of land surrounding the river. As a result, irrigation activities were adversely affected.

2. Dust emanating from the running of the crushers had affected agricultural production so that farmers had no option but to sell their land. Needless to say, the buyers were people like crusher owners or builders.

3. Crushers were run from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m., causing high noise pollution.

4. Soil erosion caused by stone-crushing destroyed agricultural land and forests and posed great danger to a burial ground and a Bal Kumari temple, which holds an annual fair. These were under threat of being wiped out by the strong currents of the river any time.

5. In violation of the mining policy of 2001, which prohibits crushers within a five-kilometre radius of any population, the crusher was in the vicinity of populated areas, causing air pollution and consequently diseases of the respiratory system.

6. An 11,000 MW power line for the crusher passed through the grazing ground of villages, posing a danger to domestic animals.

7. Crusher owners, on the strength of their muscle power and high contacts, occupied the lands of poor villagers. The villagers were thus unable to get their lands demarcated.

The judges further noted that this Himalaya Stone Crusher is located in the agricultural green belt and it was never granted NOC [no-objection certificate] by Haridwar Development Authority. All the more, it was never granted any lease for mining in the national river Ganga as is manifested from the letter No. 7800/mining-09 dated 20.10.2009 issued from the office of district magistrate, Haridwar.

The court observed that the controversy had become graver with the location of the crusher being notified as the Kumbh Mela area by a government order dated February 5, 2010, under the Act XVI of 1938. The judges noted that the District Magistrate, Haridwar, had written to the government to close these crushing units, mentioning all the reasons cited above and taking into account the observance of fasts by the saints of Matri Sadan. Following this, the government banned the crushing activity on December 14.

A devotee collecting water from the Ganga during the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar, on April 15. Pollution has made the water unfit even for farming, let alone drinking or bathing.-RAJESH KUMAR SINGH/AP

On December 29, the crusher owners got a stay on the ban from a single-judge Bench. The Matri Sadan saints, including Swami Nigamananda and Swami Dayananda, challenged this stay. It was on this appeal that the Bench delivered the judgment on May 26. Concluding their 20-page order, the judges wrote: [I]t can safely be held that this crusher is causing inherent damage not only to the eco-fragile zone which is environmentally very sensitive but also is being run in utter violation of the condition of the licence accorded to the crusher owner as discussed above. At the cost of repetition, this stone crusher cannot be allowed to run as such because its very existence in the area is against what has been held by the Hon'ble Apex court in MC Mehta case. Even as the court granted him the relief he was seeking, Nigamananda lay in a deep coma, only to breathe his last on June 13. His death, however, has shifted the spotlight on the illegal mining happening along the banks of the Ganga.

The main political parties in the State, the Congress and the BJP, which have remained mute spectators and at times silent co-conspirators in the plunder of the river, are now trying to score brownie points over each other. While the BJP said the stone crushers the swami was fighting against had been given licences during the previous Congress regime, the Congress tried to pass the buck to the BJP by saying that the State government had failed to act in time to save the swami.

Although the BJP is not directly responsible for the illegal activity, the fact is that no one in the government took a proactive step to expedite the matter so that Nigamananda's life could be saved. In typical bureaucratic style, government representatives failed to appear in court on many occasions, thereby delaying the judicial process. As a result, the judgment that was supposed to have been delivered on April 26 was finally delivered on May 26, a delay that proved fatal for Nigamananda. Saying that the post-mortem report mentioned the presence of an organophosphate insecticide in Nigamananda's body, his associates at Matri Sadan have accused the Haridwar district hospital staff of poisoning the swami under pressure from the sand lobby and government officials. A first information report (FIR) has been filed in this regard.

The State government, however, denied the charge, saying the post-mortem report mentioned death due to septicaemia caused by long fasting. A senior government official close to Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal told Frontline that the presence of the insecticide (as alleged by the saints at Matri Sadan) in Nigamananda's body could be because of his prolonged stay in the mango orchards of the ashram. Prolonged fasting does lead to the presence of certain toxins in the body, so far we have no reason to believe any foul play in his death, said this official, adding that otherwise the Chief Minister would not have ordered a CBI inquiry immediately.

But the apathy of BJP leaders to the deteriorating condition of the swami over such a prolonged period is inexplicable. The BJP government in Uttarakhand had launched a Save Ganga campaign with much fanfare last year, but no one took note of Nigamananda's fast. Neither the Chief Minister nor any other Minister ever visited him in hospital though he was near the room in which Baba Ramdev was admitted and where they were all trooping to.

They are all part of the same kettle and pot. Now they are all trying to make political capital out of his death. Even the judiciary cannot be absolved. Why did the judges not expedite the case though they were fully aware of his deteriorating health? said Swami Dayananda, a close associate of Nigamananda.

Dayananda had undertaken a 163-day fast in 2009, which resulted in the government banning the crusher on December 14. According to him, saints are used to undertaking long fasts without much harm to themselves. Besides, he said, Swami Nigamananda was responding to treatment after he was admitted on April 27 and that his conditioned deteriorated on April 30 after a nurse administered an injection. The Himalayan Hospital told us they were treating him for poisoning, he said. We have full faith that the CBI will uncover the truth.

Union Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, taking note of the issue, has written a letter to the Uttarakhand Chief Minister asking him to declare the 135-km stretch of the Ganga from Gaumukh to Uttarkashi a sensitive zone and prohibit all construction-related activities there, including big hydel power plants. But such intentions, either by the Centre or by the State, have been expressed off and on over the last many years without being followed by any action. Perhaps Swami Nigamananda's death will serve as an eye-opener.

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