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Guardians of the Ganga to form River Parliament

By Rajendra Singh and Nicolas Salazar Sutil

More than fifty representatives from across India came together on the banks of the River Ganga at Kankhal on December 24th to pursue demands against the construction of a dam and to stop illegal mining in the area. The Ganga River flows through five Indian states, namely Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, and West Bengal. The river’s tributaries and distributaries, which are part of the vast Ganga River Basin, extend to Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. With representatives from every one of these eleven major Indian states, the attendees of the December 24 meeting have pledged to form the "Ganga River Parliament" which will represent and defend the river at local, nationwide, and worldwide level.

The new parliament is presided by Swami Shri Shivanand Ji Maharaj, a well-known spiritual leader associated with the Matri Sadan group. Originating in the late nineties, Matri Sadan is a social, environmental, and spiritual movement inspired by the peaceful and nonviolent resistance and social justice movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in the 1940s. The aim of Matri Sadan is to protect rivers from indiscriminate mining and damning, especially in the Kumbh Mela area of Haridwar.


In June 2011, after a 68-day hunger strike to prevent illegal mining on the Ganga, Swami Nigmanand Ji was poisoned at the Himalayan Institute Hospital. A disciple of Swami Shri, Ningamand has become a symbol of the ongoing violence committed against Indian rivers and its defenders. Swami Nigmanand’s death has become a linchpin in the longstanding fight to guarantee that the Ganga flows unimpeded by dams and free of pollution. Yet his death also exemplifies an unrestored justice in India that is needed at the spiritual, social, and environmental level. There can be no justice without protection of rivers, people and their local beliefs and customs. The Indian government has yet to account for the destruction of India’s national river, which has been declared biologically dead along large sections. Nor has the justice system acknowledged the scores of river guardians and saints who have died to save the Holy River, a phenomenon known locally as the “Ganga killings”.

“Ganga, our national river has now become our national guilt.” Prof. Sanand Ji


River Ganga is one of the world’s great rivers, a site of nationwide and worldwide heritage. It is beyond question one of the most sacred sites in the world, yet it is consistently listed as the world’s most contaminated river. Although severely polluted with human waste and industrial contaminants, Ganga’s waters are consumed by around 40% of India's population, serving an estimated 500 million people, more than any other river in the world. Health risks caused by pollution in the Ganga apply to large human populations as well as numerous endangered animal species (including the iconic Ganges River dolphin) and thousands of native species of plants and trees. Matri Sadan has been calling for the Indian government to guarantee that the area in the vicinity of the river, be it in the Blue Zone, Green Zone or Red Zone, should be declared as “Forest Land” which would further guarantee that the Ganga flows uninterruptedly in its journey to the Bay of Benghal.


The principal aim of the December 24 meeting, according to Swami Shri, is to "know our Holy Mother Ganga". As President of the Ganga River Parliament, Swami Shri argues that it is vital for people to understand rivers as mothers. “Only then” he maintains, “are we able to take better care of Maa Ganga’s health and serve her with complete devotion.” The underlying commitment of the Ganga River Parliament, according to Swami Shri, is to halt construction of dams and illegal mining, pursue local government to enact abiding laws that can protect, preserve, and conserve the Holy River, while safeguarding vegetation cover throughout the river basin and improving biodiversity.


Ganga River Parliament has brought together concerned citizens, government officials, civil society, and Matri Sadan saints. One of the key arguments made by the new parliament is that the crisis is not only social or environmental, but also spiritual. Spiritual values are therefore necessary to galvanise change at the personal level through a rejection of the for-profit and extractivist mindsets that has led to rampant pollution and destruction of the river. Through spiritual knowledge, the Ganga River Parliament seeks to find real-world solutions to ecological and social degradation, whilst campaigning for environmental, social, and ultimately, political change.


The five demands of the Ganga River Guardians and River Parliament are:


  1. To persuade and pressurize the Indian government to ban mining completely in the Kumbh Kshetra in Haridwar.


  1. To ensure the immediate enactment of legal orders for the protection of the river by word and spirit on the ground.


  1. To ensure that the “Ganga Preservation and Management Draft Bill” put forth by Ganga River guardian and martyr Sanand Ji, is duly presented, discussed, and passed in Parliament.


  1. To ensure that no new dams are constructed on River Ganga in the Himalayas and elsewhere.


  1. To generate awareness pertaining to the distinct qualities of the water of river Ganga, and in the process ensure that Government, Civil Society and local Saints come together to raise consciousness among the national and international community.


The Ganga River Parliament will provide equal opportunities for new members seeking to join, so long as the motives of prospective members is not driven by self-interest, but by the collective effort to strengthen and amplify the work of the various parliamentary committees.


To further support and expand this alliance, the Ganga River Parliament has joined Guardians Worldwide, an organisation based in London that facilitates capacity building, knowledge exchange and technical support for nature guardians around the world.


The aim of this international partnership is to connect the Ganga River Parliament with members of Guardians of the River, a Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) on river protection led by renowned water environmentalists from all around the world. The course, which starts February 2, 2022, will be delivered online and it is open to participants from all around the world who can join via paid registration, or else for free, via a bursary scheme. This collaboration will enable individuals from all around the world to co-design strategies to support, raise funds, and amplify the voice of the Ganga River Parliament.


Guardians of the River, which is curated by Guardians Worldwide and Advaya Initiative, will bring together campaign groups currently protecting rivers all around the globe, including the Atrato in Colombia—which was declared a legal subject under the Rights of Nature in 2018— the Kruščica River in Albania, known as the last wild river of Europe, Lake Turkana in Kenya, São Francisco River in Brazil, Fitzroy River in Australia, and Beirut River in Lebanon, among others.


Global alliances such as this reflect the cross-boundary nature of rivers. Water connects life throughout the globe in extraordinary networks of rivers, ocean currents, and airflows. In much the same way, human connectivity and human-river reciprocity needs to happen across borders, via international alliances and networks that can defend nature globally in times of planetary crisis.


Mother Ganga plays a vital role in the continuity of past, present, and future life. A symbol of life-giving nature, Ganga is holy not only for the millions of local people who live by the side of this river. Mother Ganga is sacred to humanity as a whole, like the Kaaba in Mecca or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Ganga is a world symbol of the unbreakable relationship between humans and rivers. She represents the transubstantiation of water into blood. To destroy that relationship is like cutting our bond with life itself.


To learn more about Guardians of the River course, please visit

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