The problem of environmental and ecological degradation caused by excessive illegal mining in the Ganges River basin in India will be highlighted in a new documentary made by an American filmmaker named Lisa Sabina Harney. “Satyagraha,” which will debut at the Delhi International Film Festival on Tuesday, focuses on the plight of Swami Nigamananda, the Hindu priest who died in 2011 after fasting for four months as a protest against the pollution of the Ganges by unauthorized mining and stone-crushing on its riverbed. He had waged his battle against mining activities for 15 years.

In an interview with The Hindu newspaper, the San Francisco-based Harney explained that she made the documentary because “mining in… [India] is vast and illegal and [the] land mafia is exploiting the situation as policymakers turn a blind eye to the neglect of the environment.” She said that while vacationing in Haridwar on the Ganges a few years ago, that Swami Nigamananda had been on a hunger strike against illegal mining in the area. “His guru Swami Shivananda’s orders were to take up the gauntlet of eco-activism to protect the famous river. This was not going to be an ordinary environmental protest,” she noted.

After 68 days without food, Swami Nigamananda was admitted to a hospital and he died 43 days later. “Swami Shivananda discontinued his [own] 12-day fast after the [regional] Uttarakhand Government announced they were putting a stop to illegal mining,” she added.

Harney also said that she was inspired to make the documentary after visiting Nigamananda’s ashram in Haridwar –but she had two major obstacles in completing her task: lack of funding from investors in the U.S. who were uninterested in such a non-commercial venture; and land mafia members in India vociferously opposed to her project. “The land mafia in Uttarakhand surreptitiously entered the ashram and tried to destroy the work,” she told The Hindu. “They tried to get me arrested. We moved to a different place [for filming]. Though the film was shot in Allahabad and Varanasi, it concentrates mainly on Uttarakhand because what happens in terms of ecological degradation of the [Ganges].”

Having finished the film, Harney explained it is a kind of tribute to all the ‘sadhus’ [holy men] who are continuing the fight waged by the departed Nigamananda. “Hats off to the Indian sadhus who are fighting against the land mining mafia in the country. For an American filmmaker, it was a golden opportunity to observe how Swami Shivananda and Swami Nigamananda have been fighting for this noble cause,” she declared. “Their story is a reflection of a battle we are all fighting on multiple levels. Specifically, how to protect the sacred river from the forces of progress. This film explores the real cost and real value of devastating our environment.”

Harney plans to exhibit the film across India and also the United States as well as international film festivals. “This film deals with the hot topic of corruption in India at a pivotal phase in their history, as the nation emerges on the world stage as a vital economic power,” she stated earlier. Nigamananda was only 34 when he passed away at the Jolly Grant Hospital in Dehradun on April 27, 2011.

While the Ganges River holds a special place in the hearts of hundreds of millions of Hindus as a holy place, illegal mining is rampant across the breadth and width of India – in tandem with chronic corruption among local and national politicians who facilitate such misconduct. Indeed, in October 2013 a government investigation on illegal mining was suddenly and abruptly halted by the ministry of mines without explanation, raising suspicions about the state’s involvement in such illicit projects. That probe commenced in November 2010 under pressure from some quarters of the public and it did lead to the arrests of some mining officials (including former Congress chief ministers of the state of Goa, Digambar Kamat and Pratapsingh Rane) until the plug was mysterious pulled on the probe.

Vijay Pratap of the South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy, a think tank, told The Guardian newspaper of Britain that the government’s complicity in illegal mining is clear cut. "The [government’s] commission was exposing too much corruption at government level and risked undermining tightly woven corporate collusion with the political class, which has sadly become endemic in the mining industry. This is why the government aborted the investigation," he said.

The Guardian noted that members of the commission tasked with examining illegal mining itself did not know why the probe was cancelled. "The government has not stated any reason for instructing us to end our investigations," said U. V. Singh, the commission's lead investigator. "A full inquiry was not possible.”

The termination of the investigation also poses dangers to India’s tribal communities, which are particularly vulnerable to the incursions of their ancestral lands by unauthorized mining firms. "The commission's termination will have a direct impact on the rights of all those illegally displaced already and under threat of displacement in the future due to non-recognition of their forest rights and being denied the right to decide whether mining in their ecologically fragile homelands should be permitted or not," said Madhu Sarin, honorary fellow of Rights and Resources Initiative, an NGO dedicated to environmentalism.

A report issued last year by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based activist group, warned that India’s scandal-plagued mining industry causes tremendous damage to the environment and that corruption results from a lack of government regulation and oversight. Entitled “Out of Control: Mining, Regulatory Failure and Human Rights in India,” HRW also condemned the nation’s mining sector for ignoring the rights of famers and indigenous peoples where mines are developed, often illegally. Among other findings, unsupervised mines in India have polluted the environment and water in the vicinity, while damaging the health and livelihoods of local peoples. 

For example, farmers in the states of Goa and Karnataka -- states hit with mining scandals -- complained that mining operations in their proximity have ruined springs and groundwater supplies. “Overladen ore trucks throw off clouds of iron-rich dust as they pass through rural communities, destroying crops and potentially damaging the health of nearby families,” HRW stated. In some cases, people who speak out about these issues have been threatened, harassed or even physically attacked, while government officials look the other way, HRW added.

Indian media has feasted on scandals in the mining industry in recent years. In August 2011, Karnataka’s chief minister was forced to resign after he was linked to an illegal mining scandal, which reportedly cost the state $400 million. In October 2011, Indian media reported that about one-half of the iron ore produced in the state of Goa were mined illegally and that politicians of the ruling Congress Party were benefiting from these deals.

“Mining operations often cause immense destruction when government doesn’t exercise proper oversight,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director, in a statement. “India has laws on the books to protect mining-affected communities from harm, but their enforcement has essentially collapsed.” Moreover, risky and/or unauthorized mining activities have robbed state governments of desperately needed tax revenues and led to costly shutdowns. “Mining is an important part of India’s economy, but that does not mean the industry should be allowed to write its own rules,” Ganguly added. “The government can and should empower regulators to do their jobs more effectively than they can today.”