Satyagraha: Australian Filmmaker Depicts Destruction Of India’s Holy Ganges River By Illegal Miners, Government Corruption

Satyagraha: Australian Filmmaker Depicts Destruction Of

India’s Holy Ganges River By Illegal Miners, Government

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 Forc

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


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

Satyagraha: What Illegal Mining Has Wrought In India

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-


IB TIMES: How did you come to find this story about the

swamis’ hunger strike and illegal mining around the


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


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


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


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