Ganga loses its steadfast champion in GD Agarwal

GD Agarwal, a doyen of India’s environmentalists, breathed his last at a Rishikesh hospital after a 111-day fast demanding action to revive uninterrupted flow in the critically polluted Ganga
<p>Put into protective custody in a hospital in Rishikesh, Agarwal refused to break his fast until action on the Ganga was taken [image by: Tarun Bharat Sangh]</p>

Put into protective custody in a hospital in Rishikesh, Agarwal refused to break his fast until action on the Ganga was taken [image by: Tarun Bharat Sangh]

Eminent environmentalist GD Agarwal has given up his life for the Ganga. Frustrated with government inaction over reviving the lifeline of India and Bangladesh, the 86-year-old Ganga activist started a Satyagraha on June 22 this year and said he would fast until death unless the authorities implement in earnest programmes to revive uninterrupted flow in the river.

“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,” Agarwal had said in an interview to Down To Earth magazine last month.

On October 10, he refused to drink even water and asked the intravenous drips be removed. Fearing public unrest, the district magistrate of Haridwar in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand had him shifted to a government hospital in neighbouring town of Rishikesh from his ashram in Kankhal, a suburb of Haridwar. Agarwal breathed his last at All India Institute of Medical Sciences Rishikesh in the afternoon today, 111 days after he had started his Satyagraha.

Ganga Satyagrahi

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Agarwal had in the past undertaken several fasts to force action on the Ganga. His last successful fast was in 2009, when he compelled the government to scrap the damming of the Bhagirathi River, one of the main source streams at the headwaters of the Ganga.

Born in Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh in 1932, Agarwal graduated in civil engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee and worked as a design engineer in state’s irrigation department. He went on to become a noted academic, heading the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at IIT Kanpur, one of the top technical institutes in India.

When India established its Central Pollution Control Board in 1974, Agarwal became its first Member-Secretary. He later served on the board of the National Ganga River Basin Authority but resigned in 2012, calling the authority a sham.

After a successful career as an academic and senior government functionary, Agarwal took his vows as a Hindu ascetic some years ago and was known as Swami Gyan Swaroop Sanand. 

GD Agarwal, a tireless campaigner

Agarwal was a tireless campaigner for the Ganga. Most of activism was based by evidence-based scientific research. To cite just one example, he held that the abiral dhara (uninterrupted flow) of the Ganga was critical for the health of the entire river basin. Recent research has indicated that increased sedimentation in the Ganga, brought on by climate change and building of dams on the river, is leading to increased risk of flooding.

See: Climate change increases flood risk in Ganga and tributaries

His fast to death was largely ignored by the government. “His life is in danger but nobody cares. We are really worried now,” Rajendra Singh, a water activist and winner of both the Ramon Magsaysay award and the Stockholm Water Prize, had told thethirdpole.net in July.

See: Environmentalist GD Agarwal fasts to save Ganga

This correspondent first interviewed Agarwal more than 20 years ago in Uttarakhand, where he was protesting the felling of trees that could lead to eroded hill slopes and landslides. He had then said, “Our ancient civilisation is a blessing of the Ganga River. She is mother to millions of Indians. It is our tradition and culture not to disrespect or ill-treat our mothers. Why should we not then take action to keep her flowing cleanly?”

Unfortunately, his lifelong quest to keep the Ganga flowing cleaning has not yielded satisfactory results till now. The Ganga remains critically polluted, and hundred of dams and barrages on it and her tributaries are interrupting its natural flow and slowing choking it to death.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected to Parliament in 2014 from Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganga that Hindus consider holy. He had made restoring the Ganga to health one of his main campigning planks and later announced the Namani Gange project to clean the river when he became Prime Minister. Critics say the programme has failed to produce any results.