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GD Agarwal: Remembering the Man Who Won Many Battles For River Ganga

The Gandhian environmentalist lived by an abiding passion and he died for it too — fighting to save river Ganga. RIP, sir. You will be missed.

India seemingly does not care for its environmentalists. This brutal truth has come to the forefront once again following the death of Dr GD Agarwal, who led a 111-day fast for the protection of the Ganga.

“His life is in danger, but nobody cares. We are really worried now,” said Rajendra Singh, a water activist and winner of the Ramon Magsaysay award, in a conversation with The Third Pole in July.

The environmentalist, Gandhian, religious leader and former professor from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, passed away yesterday afternoon after a 111-day fast protesting against the inaction in saving the Ganga from pollution and environmental degradation.

Agarwal began his Satyagraha on June 22, saying he would fast unto death unless significant steps were taken towards reviving the Ganga’s uninterrupted flow and Parliament passed the Ganga Protection Management Act.

In an interview with the Down to Earth magazine, he said, “I will give up fluids from October 10, and I will die before Dussehra. I will have no regrets even if I die in the course of saving the Ganga. The end of my life would not mean the end of efforts being undertaken to save the river.”

A day before he died, he refused to accept water and requested those by his side to dislodge his intravenous drips. Fearing public safety-related issues, the district magistrate of Haridwar had the Gandhian shifted from his ashram in Kankha to the All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh. Agarwal passed way the following afternoon.

GD Agarwal (Source: Facebook/Sustainable Green Initiative)
GD Agarwal (Source: Facebook/Sustainable Green Initiative)

His death has left behind a massive void with many battles to save the river still ongoing.

So, who was Dr GD Agarwal?

Born into a family of farmers in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh in 1932, Dr Agarwal was a civil engineering graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, and for a brief while worked as an engineer with UP’s irrigation department.

He did his PhD from the prestigious University of Berkely, California. His academic prowess was such that he would go onto lead the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in IIT-Kanpur, one of the country’s foremost technical institutes.

When the Government of Indian instituted the Central Pollution Control Board in 1974, Dr Agarwal was selected as its first member-secretary. He would also go onto serve in the previous UPA government’s National Ganga River Basin Authority. He resigned in 2012 citing the body’s inability to get anything done.

Over the past four decades, his focus has been to protect the ‘Abiral Dhara’ (uninterrupted flow) of the Ganga, which he believed was not only critical for the river’s survival but the entire basin it served.

Following years of activism and academic pursuit, Agarwal turned to a life of Hindu asceticism in 2011, calling himself Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand.

But Agarwal’s activism was not merely driven by a spiritual duty to save the holy river, which is the lifeline of those living on the Gangetic plains and further down in Bangladesh.

GD Agarwal (Facebook/Rashd Qureshi)
GD Agarwal (Facebook/Rashd Qureshi)

He also based his work on hard, evidence-based scientific research. Thanks to extensive research, it is relatively well understood today that climate change and the construction of dams has increased sedimentation in the river, resulting in a greater spate of flooding.

During his years of activism, Dr Agarwal sat through multiple protests, challenging the construction of many dam projects along the river.

“When Professor Agrawal was teaching at IIT Kanpur in the 1970s, one question always fascinated him. What are the qualities of Ganga which kept its water fresh for a long period? So he got research done by a student (on this subject), and he himself was the guide of this research,” says Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and member of the Supreme Court-appointed expert committee on dams, in a conversation with News 18.

Attempts at stemming the uninterrupted flow of the Ganga, he believed, were deteriorating this unique quality of the river. “Professor Agrawal always said that the Ganga derives its special non-putrefying qualities from its sediments. It is not just the water, but the sediments and the ecosystem of the river that gives it the unique quality. For him the unrestricted flow of the river was paramount,” writes reporter Hridayesh Joshi.

An admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr Agarwal took to fasting as a means of protest quite often. His last protest, which unfortunately culminated in his death, was his fifth such attempt in the previous ten years.

Starting in 2008, he first sat in protest against the proposed construction of hydro-power projects on the Bhagirathi river, one the Ganga’s main tributaries, besides shutting down all existing under-construction projects. The following year he undertook a similar fast.

Polluted Ganga river. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Polluted Ganga river. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

However, real success came following a 38-day fast, seeking the revocation of the 600 MW Lohari Nagpala project on the Bhagirathi river, since it came in the way of the river’s uninterrupted flow.

It eventually paid off when the UPA government acquiesced to his demands and declared the 100km stretch between Gomukh to Uttarkashi as an eco-sensitive zone.

This was a significant success, and subsequently, he was drafted into the National River Ganga Basin Authority, but as stated earlier, he soon resigned in frustration.

Things have not changed since 2011. Ganga Rejuvenation was supposed to be a significant point of action for the current NDA government (even adding that phrase to the Ministry of Water Resource). But there has been scant progress.

The current version of the Ganga Protection Management Bill, Dr Agarwal believed, left too much authority in the hands of ministers and bureaucrats, and instead sought greater community-driven participation with the formation of the Ganga Bhakt Parishad, which would include experts from a plethora of fields with an affinity to the river.

Another significant demand was the complete ban on mining of the Ganga river’s bed.

Bhagirathi River (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Bhagirathi River (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

“The present regime did not have the wisdom to understand the scientific principles on which his faith was based. Their minds were too simple to grasp the concept of Ganga being India’s civilizational identity,” adds Ravi Chopra, in his conversation with News 18.

Also Read: Green Crematoriums Are Set to Come up Along the Ganga – What Are They and Why Are They Needed?

Despite India’s desperate need to protect its environment, the general perception surrounding activists working towards this end is that they are coming in the way of this nation’s march towards development and prosperity. One look at Dr Agarwal’s life and many would quickly realise how off the mark they remain on the subject.

Here is a man who gave his life away for the Ganga. The least we can do is honour the man’s memory and take some real steps towards protecting the river.

(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)

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