Australian filmmaker Lisa Sabina Harney (now based in California) recently won the best documentary award at the Delhi International Film Festival for her work, “Satyagraha-Truth Force.”
Harney’s documentary, some two years in the making amidst stiff opposition from some Indian political and business figures, tells the tale of pollution and environmental degradation of one of the world’s most beloved natural landmarks, the Ganges (or Ganga) river, which hundreds of millions of Hindus believe is a holy body of water.
However, the sanctity of the Ganges has been severely compromised by the activities of illegal mining companies (operating in league with corrupt politicians and organized crime figures) and multinational dam construction companies.
Harney’s film takes a somewhat unusual perspective -- it narrates the saga from the point of view of Hindu sadhus and gurus (holy men) who have been protesting what they view as the desecration of the Ganges for the past 20 years and suffered threats, beatings, arrests and perhaps even murder. Two priests have died in mysterious circumstances since the protests erupted, including a sadhu -- Swami Nigmanand --who underwent a self-imposed (68 day long) fast to express his outrage over mining projects at the Ganges.
Meanwhile, the investigation into the Swami’s death continues, while more sadhus persist in their determined movement to stop illegal miners from damaging their beloved Ganges.
Lisa Harney, currently in Delhi, kindly agreed to speak to International Business Times about her award-winning film and the Hindu holy men who have turned into unlikely eco-warriors.
IB TIMES: How did you come to find this story about the swamis' hunger strike and illegal mining around the Ganges?
HARNEY: Purely by coincidence. After making a film about the clean-up of the Pasig River in Manila (then the dirtiest river in the world) in the Philippines, I went to Badrinath in the Himalayas for a holiday. It was there I met the young sannyassin [member of the sannyasa order of Hinduism], Swami Nigmanand, who told me all about their struggles on the Ganges. I was immediately fascinated that they had fought so hard, and laid their lives on the line for the preservation of the river. It was their spiritual and emotional connection to the river that inspired them. I think this also inspired me.
IB TIMES: What prompted you to make a film about it?
HARNEY: The death of Swami Nigmanand was the catalyst, after his 68-day satyagraha [in this case, a nonviolent protest and fast] in 2011, he had died in hospital. Official hospital records say that he died from complications related to starvation, but his guru, Swami Shivanand, maintained that he was poisoned by the land mafia in Hardiwar [a district in the state of Uttarakhand, along the Ganges].
I came to India to pay my respects to the sannyassin, and that was the exact time that they began mining the riverbed again. Only four months after Nigmanand’s death, and after a high court order which stated that mining was destroying the river, they subsequently banned mining. Just four months later, the Uttarakhand government overturned the court’s judgment to allow mining again.
It was then that Swami Shivanand decided to undertake another satyagraha in place of his disciple, and so I hastily put together some film equipment and filmed the satyagraha, initially only as a record. But the events were so bizarre that we decided to turn it into a documentary.
It’s a serious thing to make a documentary, a vast amount of work and resources are needed to do it properly. I was really the person in the right place, with a camera at hand. But it has taken almost two years to complete, lack of funds was part of the problem, but I was also waiting for results of the investigation by the CBI [Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s premier police agency] on Nigmanand’s death.
And then the Uttarakhand [flash flood] disaster happened on the river [in June 2013], and all this needed to be included in the film, so the full story could emerge.
IB TIMES: You said it was difficult to get financing for the film. But who agreed to provide funding? Any Indian sources?
HARNEY: The financing came from a businessman based in Singapore named Brett Traynor of the Kuranda Trading Group. He gave us the seed money to make the film after I told him about the saints and their plight. He was definitely moved by the story and without him, the film would not have happened. We were also supported by our environmentalist community in the Bay Area [California] and many other people contributed to an Indigogo [crowdfunding to raise money] campaign.
We were, and are, woefully underfunded to make this film -- the only people that were paid were the Indians working on the film, everybody else gave their time and expertise for free to tell the story of the saints and of illegal mining on the Ganges.
There were no Indian sources for funding and we have absolutely no marketing budget, so we are relying upon festivals, word-of-mouth, and the press, who have really begun to support this film to spread the word and get distribution -- we are hoping -- across many platforms including TV.
It helps that we are getting awards too. These kinds of one-off feature-length documentaries fall into a category that isn't really supported by television, which is the usual source of funding for documentaries. It really relies upon the passion and commitment of the filmmaker to bring these stories to light and so that there is some check in place for people in the business of mining and construction to follow the law.
IB TIMES: Did the Indian government and police impede your attempts to make the documentary? If so, what specifically did they do?
HARNEY: About ten days into Swami Shivanand’s satyagraha, we found that the [electric] power in the ashram of the saints of Matri Sadan, where we filmed, had begun to mysteriously surge. Luckily, we had brought a power-surge protector from the United States, as it would have otherwise destroyed our hard-drives and the batteries for the camera. By destroying our hard-drives, they would have deleted everything filmed up until that point. This went on for a few days, and we couldn't work out what was happening, and so we moved the equipment to a nearby hotel.
Later, after the saints complained about it, I saw the SDM [Sub-Divisional Magistrate, a local government administrator] actually call the power company to get them to stop the power surge. It's an example of how the mafia works, paying off an employee at the power company to do it. After that, they tried to arrest us. But as we were filming only inside the ashram, which is a private residence and not in public, they had no legal basis upon which to detain us. They also put local intelligence officers on our case, who followed us everywhere. Even our translator was bribed to report our movements to them. It became very scary at times.
IB TIMES: Did you uncover incontrovertible proof that the 'land mafia' in India are linked to and/or protected by politicians?
HARNEY: What we did put in the film is that the politicians of Uttarakhand have financial stakes in the mining industry. They claim they are doing nothing wrong, but there is a conflict of interest here. The very person whose portfolio [government ministry] responsibility is to keep in check illegal mining and protect the river, also owns stone-crusher and mining companies in the region. If this isn't corruption, then what is?
Our source here is Tehelka [Indian investigative news organization]. There are different factions at play here, and in a climate of corruption as India is currently ensnared in, those people whose job it is to protect the river, are often paid to turn a blind eye. It extends up to the very top and the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand [Vijay Bahuguna] even told Swami Swaroop Sanand [a former environmental engineer turned sadhu], that if he could bring in the same amount of money as development and construction generates in the region, then he would stop development on the river. This ignored the fact that religious tourism is the financial cornerstone of the state and brings in far more money. (And what do people come to see? The Ganges River!)
Then when the Uttarakhand [flash flood] disaster happened, much of the rampant and poorly executed construction on the banks of the river were destroyed. There are laws in place to protect the river, they just aren't enforced and whose responsibility is that ultimately? The buck has to stop at the politicians who administer the state and are allowing it to happen.
IB TIMES: Do you believe Swami Nigmanand was indeed murdered, perhaps by poisoning?
HARNEY: The saints absolutely believe he was murdered, all the ducking and diving, all the hidden agendas, all the bizarre behavior by the government employees and the doctors suggest a cover-up. When I had experts look at the medical evidence, they couldn't make head or tail out of it, and said the medical records were so poor they couldn't for certain draw any conclusions. These people are experts in their fields of forensic medicine and poisons. They all say that the medical records suggest total incompetence at best.
There were a lot of confusing factors in the murky story of his death, but what is absolutely incontrovertible is that he was treated by the drugs Atropine and Glycopyrrolate, in significant doses which are used only in cases of organophosphate poison. And he was not treated for Wernicke's encephalopathy which was given as the cause of death according to the results of the CBI investigation.
IB TIMES: What is the current status of the official investigations into the swami's deaths?
HARNEY: It is currently in court in Uttarakhand, and in the light of new evidence, the swamis of the Matri Sadan [ashram] say the judge has accepted that [Nigmanand] has been poisoned, but the case is not complete and there is no official court statement.
IB TIMES: What would you say to people who counter that India has to undertake such mining projects in order to keep advancing economically?
HARNEY: What, and make sure that there is not enough water for the half-a-billion people that survive due to the Ganges? The river irrigates vast areas of croplands in northern India, feeding and watering almost half of India's entire population. Mining is destroying the ecology of the river, the groundwater has gone down by half (12 feet), the river's course has been drastically altered by mining, the level of the water is dropping at an unprecedented rate along the entire 1500-mile long river. In addition, global warming is melting the [Himalayan] glacier which supplies water for the river. It’s completely unsustainable. The river is under siege from a multitude of factors.
In other places, construction companies and cement makers quarry for the raw materials needed to construct roads and other structures, but to take it from the bed of a river that is so vital to India's survival is utterly criminal.
Advancing economically does not and should not mean that you should be allowed to destroy the means by which people survive. Aside from a fiscal value, the river has vast spiritual and cultural significance -- by destroying it, they will also destroy people's faith, which is very serious.
I also doubt that the mining and construction companies are spreading the wealth in India amongst those whose good fortune it is to live by the Ganges. Mining is, no doubt, economically advancing a few, at the cost of the many in this case. The Ganges is a legacy belonging to all the peoples of India.
IB TIMES: What is your background and what other documentaries have you made?
HARNEY: I've made a fair number of environmental-themed films, like the one about the Pasig River in Manila that I mentioned earlier. I was also with [Indian author, political activist] Arundhati Roy on the Narmada Dam protests in India some ten years back.
I lived in London for many years, and though I now live in California, I made a lot of films for the BBC, the Discovery Channel, PBS, RTE [Irish broadcaster], and National Geographic. Many of these works were about art, history and music, balanced with environmental and science-based documentaries.
IB TIMES: Where in India will the film be screened? Have authorities already tried to ban its exhibition in the country?
HARNEY: We have just screened it at the Delhi International Film Festival and it won the best documentary award, and we also won a certificate of excellence at the Indie Fest on the work-in-progress (they are based in Los Angeles).
I have also entered it into the Mumbai Film Festival in February, and we are waiting to hear if it has been accepted. You don't need a film censor certificate for film festival screenings, but when we distribute it more widely, which will be soon, we will need to get one. They [Indian government officials] could conceivably ban it at that stage.
IB TIMES: Do you expect to show it in Europe and the U.S.?
HARNEY: We have started to enter the film into some festivals in the US and Europe; but again we are waiting to hear if it has been accepted into the film festivals, specifically environmental festivals like the San Francisco Environmental Film Festival and SXSW [South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex.]
IB TIMES: As a western woman, did you encounter a lot sexism and harassment from Indian men?
HARNEY: Sexism exists everywhere. I think if you are foreign in India, you are afforded a status that is different and doesn't [adhere to the] the same rules -- this can be to your benefit at times, but it can also mean that men take liberties which no Indian woman would allow. People are people, and I've been helped and supported by many fantastic people in India.
IB TIMES: Do you hope to make more films about India in the near future?
HARNEY: I would love to make more films about India, it is an endlessly fascinating place, full of a rich, vibrant, tradition of spiritual and intellectual greats. India's real wealth is in the heart of its people.