After a month-and-a-half-long march in protest of the pollution of the sacred river Yamuna, thousands of sadhus, Krishna devotees, and environmentalists have made huge waves in the political scene and brought the attention of the Indian public to the plight of what has been called a “dead river.”
But they have also realized that they could be in this fight for the long haul, as the Yamuna’s degradation is a deep-rooted, complicated problem.
Back in April, ISKCON News reported that one thousand people had marched from Allahabhad, where the Yamuna meets the Ganges, to the common protest ground of Jantar Mantar in Delhi.
They were headed by sadhu and environmentalist Ramesh Babaji and members of his Maan Mandir organization, Bhanu Pratap Singh, head of the 100,000 strong Bhartiya Kisan Farmer’s Union, and ISKCON devotee and businessman Radha Jivan Dasa.
On April 15th one thousand protestors camped out in the street, completely taking it over with tents, vehicles, water tankers, and cooking equipment, despite protests from the police.
Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi—president of the Indian National Congress Party—had heard of the major Dharana (demonstration) and immediately invited its leaders to a meeting.
Bhanu Pratap Singh, Radha Jivan, Maan Mandir devotee Sri Krishna Dasa, and a local MLA (Member of Legislative Assembly) representing them, all presented her with their complaints and demands.
The Yamuna has been on a steep decline since 1962, they explained, and the situation has never been remedied, despite a Supreme Court order demanding action from the government in 1992.
Currently, the Yamuna emerges clean from Yamunotri, its source in the Himalayas. But after eighty-five per cent of it is held back by an irrigation dam in the state of Haryana, and Delhi City sewage and industrial waste is emptied into it, there is barely a drop of original Yamuna water left by the time it reaches Vrindavana, Lord Krishna’s birthplace.
Both the states of Haryana and Delhi come under Sonia Gandhi’s jurisdiction. The protestors demanded that waste dumping be reduced and that 80,000 million litres of the water being held back by the dam be released.
“She gave us half an hour of her time, and listened closely,” says Radha Jivan Dasa. “When we had finished, she told us that she would pass on the matter to the Water Resource and Environment Ministers, and that something would definitely be done about it. True to her word, she spoke to the ministers, and we received meetings with them also. When we spoke to them, however, it became clear that this was not going to be easy.”
While he acknowledged that holding back the water was wrong—and in fact a federal violation—Water Minister Salman Khurshid told the group that any Haryana or Delhi politicians who released it would immediately lose their seats. And with good reason. Cities, farms, food production—the lives of thousands of people rested on this ‘stolen water.’ Years after a thoughtless mistake, an entire infrastructure rested on it that would take all the government’s best minds and resources to fix.
“It’s a very, very difficult situation,” Khurshid said. “We can’t just immediately open up the valves and give it to you.”
Protesters at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai
Remaining convinced, however, that enough pressure from the people would force the government to come up with a solution, the protest leaders continued their demonstration.
Taking up the whole sidewalk in Jantar Mantar, they remained despite threats by the police—one hundred of whom arrived one night with sticks—and even set up
a huge stage one night while the police were sleeping.
Two days after they had arrived, on Sunday April 17th, the protestors held their biggest demonstration, attended by 20,000 people.
Supporters of the Yamuna came from all over Mathura, Braj, Agrai, Jaipur, and Delhi, including thousands of farmers from the Bhartiya Kisan Union. One hundred ISKCON devotees from Delhi participated, doing kirtan for four hours. And members of a nearby Sikh Gurudwara fed all 20,000 people with roti and subji. “Even if there were 100,000 of you, we would feed you all,” they said.
From 10:00am until 4:00pm, leaders, sadhus, people of different religions, socialites, and those that had fought for the Yamuna for many years, all got the chance to speak from their hearts on stage. The sacred river must be saved, they said—it must be purified so that people can once again bathe in it and drink its waters.
“Finally, at 4pm, they sent not just a police officer, as is normal, but a central minister from the government to take our gyapan, or written demands,” says Radha Jivan. “We had more talks with ministers, and the press began to cover our effort, with newspaper articles and prime time spots on TV.”
Protesters in Jena, Germany
Protestors continued to remain at Jantar Mantar. Five days after the April 17th demonstration, emotions rose. Ministers had halted the negotiations for several days and the farmers and sadhus who had been living on the streets for over a week were soaked with heavy rain
“They are just leaving us out here on the streets, and not listening to us!” the protestors said. “We must do something more extreme to get their attention.”
Seventy-two people then went on a hunger strike for an incredible six days. On the seventh day, media and public attention reached a new high, and the government ministers themselves emerged to beg the protestors to break their fast. Saying they were doing all they could, they then distributed drinks to the
protestors with their own hands.
The group remained for another week after that, holding a Bhagavat-Saptaha (seven-day recitation of the holy book Srimad Bhagavatam), a 24-hour kirtan, and distributing sanctified food to all who would receive it.
“On April 31st, we held another major demonstration,” Radha Jivan says. “Unfortunately very few ISKCON devotees had participated until then, but after I spoke to ISKCON leader Gopal Krishna Goswami about its importance, one thousand devotees arrived from Delhi. They were elite, well-dressed, educated people, and as they chanted and danced in the streets along with the poor farmers and sadhus of Vrindavana, demanding that the Yamuna be saved, it made a huge impact. I really feel ISKCON saved our demonstration that day.”
Protesters in Pisa, Italy
At last, after fifteen days of living on the streets, and being constantly fed a line of hope by the politicians, the protestors were contacted by the Home Minister. He had formed a committee of chief water engineers, who met with the protest leaders, and took them to Hatni Lake 240 kilometers North of Delhi, where much of the Yamuna is diverted into Haryana. As they expected, the riverbed beyond Hatni Kunda was practically dry.
After more negotiations, the government committee promised that on May 6th, they would meet with chief ministers of the five states sharing Yamuna water, and discuss how to release the needed water back into the river, and thus bring it back to life. They also promised to name the Yamuna a national river, just like the Ganges.
At this point, after sixteen days, the protesting sadhus and farmers left to return to their villages and families.
Unsurprisingly—considering the government’s track record with the issue—the chief ministers’ meeting was never held, although the Yamuna’s becoming a national river still looks set to happen.
Still, Radha Jivan, the Farmer’s Union, and members of Maan Mandir remain optimistic. Their voices of objection against the way the sacred river is being treated have rang loud and clear across India. Members of the public are keenly aware of an issue they never thought about before; the media, such as UP newspaper Amar Ujala, are championing the cause; and politicians are realizing that doing something about the Yamuna could make or break their career.
Protesters in Washington, DC, USA
“There are major elections coming up next summer in UP,” Radha Jivan says. “And the head of the 100,000-strong Farmer’s Union has announced that only the political party that releases the Yamuna water will receive their vote. It’s already having its effect, with many parties approaching him and making promises. This will put the current Congress party in a tight spot.”
The Farmer’s Union and others have been spreading the word by holding a month-long Rathayatra tour around Uttar Pradesh. They’ve visited every district in the state, and held huge meetings in each one, drawing crowds of between five and twenty thousand people. One of the largest was attended by Mulayam Singh, a chief minister who lost the election in UP five years ago and is desperate to win it next year. The tour will culminate in a meeting on June 9th, 10th and 11th in Haridwar that is expected to draw 40,000 people—mostly members of the Farmer’s Union.
“ISKCON has also given some support, especially in Mumbai,” says Radha Jivan. “At the Chowpatty temple, I held a demonstration and a small march, which was attended by 5,000 devotees and picked up by the local media. Mumbai’s big Juhu temple held a big demonstration which famous classical singer Jasraj Pandit and legendary Bollywood actress Hemamalini both participated in. And the Mira Road temple also held an enthusiastic demonstration.”
However, Radha Jivan says that the overall support from ISKCON, both nationally and internationally, has been disappointing.
“ISKCON is the leading missionary of Sanatan Dharma in the world today,” he says. “And thousands and thousands of ISKCON devotees go to the Yamuna every year, only to see that there is not a drop for them to drink or bathe in. So we implore ISKCON leaders and its Governing Body Commission to set up a committee devoted to the Yamuna, make a plan and actively participate in this campaign.”
Radha Jivan cites the impact that ISKCON guru Sacinandana Swami had when he attended a Maan Mandir-led protest against commercial mining in the hills of Braj in 2009.
“The Indian pilgrims began to cry when they heard Maharaja and his disciples speak about their love for Krishna’s land,” he says. “They were so moved to see the love that foreigners can have for Braj. Forty-eight hours later, the mining had been banned, and 5,300 acres of sacred hills became protected forest.”
“Saving the Yamuna, of course, is a much bigger project,” Radha Jivan concludes. “But we can do it again.”