By Medha Patkar and Sandeep Pandey
The legendary Professor Guru Das Agrawal, who got promoted from a lecturer directly to professor at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur after having finished his PhD from University of California at Berkeley in two years and laid the foundation of India’s anti-pollution regimen as the first Member-Secretary of Central Pollution Control Board, ultimately failed to convince a government about his viewpoint on rejuvenation of river Ganga.
He had to pay for this with his life. He died on October 11 after 112 days of fasting on lemon water and honey, last three days of which were without any water at all.
It may be intriguing why the government, which rode to power on a Hindutva agenda, did not listen to a Hindu saint, which he had become in 2011, at the age of 79 years, on an issue of ecological and religious significance of Ganga, which was at the core of Prime Minister’s election campaign.
Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand, as Professor G.D. Agrawal was now known, had put forward a draft for National River Ganga ji (Conservation and Management) Act in 2012. The government came up with The National River Ganga (Rejuvenation, Protection and Management) Bill in 2017 and updated it in 2018. The two draft Bills however, differed in their basic perspectives.
During his sixth and last fast he wrote to PM Narendra Modi on August 5 that whereas the National Environmental Appellate authority of previous Manmohan Singh government had suspended the Lohari Nagpala hydroelectric project, even after some construction was over, on his clearly articulated demands and declared a length of over hundred kilometers of Bhagirathi from Gangotri to Uttarkashi as an Eco-Sensitive Zone, which means no destructive activity could take place here, the present government had not done a thing for conservation of Ganga even after four and a half years of being in power.
He repeated his four demands which he had intimated to PM before going on fast: (1) The draft prepared by him along with Advocate M.C. Mehta and Paritosh Tyagi, among others, be placed before and passed by the Parliament, (2) All under construction and proposed hydroelectric projects on streams directly flowing into Ganga in the upper reaches, downstream and its tributaries be scrapped with immediate effect, (3) All mining and deforestation activities be banned in Ganga basin, and (4) Form Ganga Bhakt Parishad to work to protect the interest of Ganga.
He never heard from the PM till his death, even though during his fifth fast in 2013 Rajnath Singh as the then Bhartiya Janata Party president had promised to him that all his demands related to Ganga would be met when Narendra Modi government will come to power.
Professor Agrawal wanted Ganga to be declared a national symbol. His main emphasis was on conservation of Ganga in its natural pristine glory, unobstructed natural flow, which he called as Aviral, and unpolluted water quality, which he described as Nirmal.
He also wanted a ban on discharge of any untreated or treated sewage or industrial effluents in Ganga, incineration of any kind of solid waste, setting up of any units discharging pollutants, deforestation, illegal stone quarrying and sand mining, river-front development structures and chemicals or hazardous substances to be used in its vicinity.
These have become necessary if any river is to be protected against destruction and degradation. It is important to know that Professor G.D. Agrawal’s important learnings emerged from his engineering experience with Rihand dam while working for the Uttar Pradesh State Irrigation Department.
As a true scientist Professor Agrawal precisely defined Aviral to mean minimum environmental/ecological flow at every place, including the downstream of each dam, and at all times with universal bed, lateral, open-to-air, longitudinal and temporal connectivity.
He believed that to preserve the unique qualities of water of Ganga, that is, non-putrefying, disease destroying, health enhancing and pollution destroying it was necessary to ensure its Aviral flow.
Similarly, Nirmal doesn’t merely mean meeting the standards on water quality related to pH (measure of acidity or alkalinity), Dissolved Oxygen, Biological Oxygen Demand, Chemical Oxygen Demand, Total Dissolved Solids, Free Chlorine and Total Chlorine or water treated by Reverse Osmosis process and Ultraviolet rays.
The special ‘self-cleaning’ property of Ganga, he concluded scientifically, is because of presence of bacteriophages, coliform destroying capabilities, large amounts of exo-cellular polymers coming from trees present in Himalayan uplands, unique mix of heavy and radioactive metals, ultra fine silt or micro nucleii in the water.
Essentially it is the rocks, sediment, vegetation including medicinal plants or ecology of the upper region that contributes to special property of Ganga described as Nirmal.
Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Water Resources, Riven Basin Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, is known to have publicly said that he understands the concept of Nirmal but not that of Aviral.
It is quite obvious that accepting Professor Agrawal’s concept of Aviral would disallow construction of any more dams. Another view emanating from the ruling BJP government is that they don’t care about the country, religion or its people but are only interested in ‘Development.’
Development which is clearly corporate driven and, as is now established, yields sufficient kickbacks to fund the next electoral cycle of the political party in power.
Hence even though a senior functionary of Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, who tried to mediate, said he agreed theoretically with Professor G.D. Agrawal’s vision on Ganga, the compulsions of realpolitik sealed the fate of Professor G.D. Agrawal and by extension that of Ganga. This threat will loom large on life and livelihood of people living in other river valleys too.
Professor Agrawal also fasted five times during the United Progressive Alliance regime. However, he never faced a threat to his life. The only time he fasted during the National Democratic Alliance government’s tenure it proved fatal for him.
This also demonstrates that the development paradigm is not sensitive to socio-cultural issues, including religion, or environmental issues, in spite of the PM having won a United Nations award, and is more brazenly pro-corporate and less humane under the present government.
The vacuum created by Professor G.D. Agrawal’s demise almost seems to be unfillable. Where is another strong voice for Ganga? To many religious minded Professor G.D. Agrawal appeared to be in the mold of mythological figure Bhagirath, almost singlehandedly taking up the cause of Ganga.
A true condolence to him would be to brace ourselves for fight against governments which believe in concept of development with attendant destruction of nature, corporations which implement such misplaced and misgoverned ideas of governments, contractors plundering natural resources including sand from river bed and the catchment, all three insensitive to human beings in the name of ‘development.’
The fight for conservation of Ganga is far from over. The chief priest of Matre Sadan, the ashram in Haridwar Professor Agrawal chose as his fast site, Swami Shivanand has warned Narendra Modi that after Swami Sanand he and his disciples will ensure that the chain of fasting doesn’t break.
One Swami Gopal Das had also begun fasting soon after Swami Sanand started his fast on June 22.
Earlier Swami Nigmanand, also associated with Matre Sadan, laid down his life in 2011 on the 115th day of his fast, which is alleged to be a murder at the behest of a mining mafia associated with the then ruling BJP government in Uttarakhand.
How many more lives will be sacrificed at the altar of development?