The uncrushable stone

swami_nigamanandaOn June 13, 2011, the day after Baba Ramdev broke his 9 days fast under media arc lights, another sage, admitted in the same Himalayan hospital in Dehradun, Swami Nigamananda passed away. He was on a fast since February 19th, to save river Ganga from illegal sand mining and stone-crushing in Uttarakhand. Ironically, the court judgment on the cause for which he had been fighting came too late, when he had already slipped into a coma. His worst nightmares came true in the form of flash floods, exactly 2 years after his death.

Nigamananda, 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 have been a software engineer, had he not, at the age of 18, got attracted to the ascetic way of life and become a disciple of Swami Shivananda. Shivananda had 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 ghats, especially against the Himalaya Stone Crusher Pvt. Ltd, which had its activity in the vicinity of the ashram. It was one of the 41 such plants in Haridwar and 124 in Uttarakhand, almost all of which were located along the river banks of the state.

These stone crusher plants fueled the rampant illegal sand and stone mining business in the state. The gravel and concrete manufactured by them were in huge demand by the booming construction industry and reaped millions of rupees for the mining mafia. On 30th March, 2010, a surprise inspection raiding team discovered 45,000 tonnes of unaccounted stones at one such plant’s site, barely 1 km from the bathing ghats. The mining mafia in Haridwar plundered the stones deposited in the riverbed using advanced technology excavators. Rampant mining of sand and stones in Uttarakhand depleted the groundwater level, deepened the riverbed, made thousands of acres of farmland uncultivable, destroyed the neighbouring forests, polluted the air and forced hundreds of farmers to migrate, having sold their lands to the same mafia for a pittance. If this was not enough, it was these stones and sand which held the rivers together and their depletion caused grave threat of rivers loosing their course and serious disasters in the event of flash floods.

NigamanandaIn 2008, Swami Nigamananda undertook a fast for 73 days, following which the government banned stone-crushing activity in the Kumbh Mela area, which fell between Haridwar and Rishikesh. But the company got a stay on the ban from a single-judge Bench. Between October 2009 and March 2010, four more swamis of Matri Sadan went on indefinite fasts. The protest lasted for 173 days. One of the swamis, Swami Dayananda undertook a fast of 163 days. These humble, peaceful saints got no coverage in the media – which was apparently more interested in the circus, and not the tragedy. For 14 years, as the swamis struggled relentlessly against a visible and flagrant corruption, while Shivananda and his disciples went to jail thrice. Forget the national media, even the local media gave them absolutely no attention.

Nigamananda’s sixth and last major 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. Nigamananda, Dayananda along with the other swamis 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:

“…it 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… because of dust emanating from the crushers, the agricultural production in many villages has been reduced to nullity. So is the case in surrounding orchards, especially of mangoes, forcing the farmers to sell their lands to crusher owners… the illegal mining has also caused soil erosion in large swathes along the Ganga… the Himalayan Stone Crusher was being run in violation of the Mining Policy 2001, which mandated that crushers should be at least 5 km from any human habitation… the suspended particles released by the crushers are causing diseases like tuberculosis, asthma and other respiratory diseases to local villagers… 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 them the relief the swamis were seeking, Nigamananda lay in a deep coma, only to breathe his last on June 13, 2011. His death, however, shifted the spotlight on the illegal mining happening along the banks of the Ganga. While the political parties of the state were quick to engage in slug-fest, trying to derive political mileage out of the tragic event, some more stone-crushing companies were put under check. Baba Nigamananda was dead. But Himalaya Stone Crusher was shut down, and the very foundations of the stone crushing mafia of the state of Uttarakhand were shaken!

Well, exactly 2 years after the death of Nigamananda, on June 13, the state of Uttarakhand received heavy rainfall, which was horribly 375 percent more than the benchmark rainfall during a normal monsoon. This caused the tragic melting of Chorabari Glacier at the height of 3800 meters, and eruption of the Mandakini River which led to heavy floods. The environmental experts reported that the ecological imbalance in the area, partially because of the mining that went on over the past decade, along with other unscientific developmental activities, contributed to a higher number of landslides and further flooding. While the nation watched nature’s crude way of justice unfold, we can only hope that the right lessons have been learnt for the times to come…

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